Hi, my name is Emily Graves. I studied with ALBA Spring Term of 2023, and I loved it so much that I stayed to join the team as their Marketing & Social Media intern during the Summer. I help run the Instagram and am a touch point person for the students. One of my favorite parts about ALBA is the cooking classes because they equip students with real-life skills to take home and share with their friends and loved ones. I wanted everyone to get to know Chef Mariela a little bit more because she makes such a large impact on our lives.

Mariela is ALBA’s chef. She’s the person in charge of teaching us about Spanish traditional gastronomy while introducing us to all the secrets of how to prepare and create some of the classic staples that are the foundation of Catalan cuisine, and we are lucky enough that the recipes are passed from her to us in each Spanish Cooking Class.

Tapas prepared in cooking classes

Tapas prepared in cooking classes

Not only are you likely to see Mariela in the kitchen, but also around Barcelona, as she combines her profession as a chef with guiding tasting tours, and leading excursions to local cultural sites for Spanish Trails.

When I invited Chef Mariela to do this interview, I asked her to take me to a few of her favorite restaurants around the Gothic Quarter area so that I could get her perspective on some classic Catalonian dishes. … As someone who is fairly new to the city, it was helpful to have a local to tell me which dishes and drinks to try out, and where to go in order to find the best Barcelona has to offer.

Centric Canalla Bar

Centric Canalla Bar

We started out at Centric Canalla, which is a tapas bar in El Raval; it has been around since 1941 and is a typical place Mariela might take a small group on a tasting tour. Here we ordered a glass of local Catalunya white wine and some Patatas Bravas, which were incredible and a good example of a dish you can find at any tapas bar throughout the city. As we were talking, Mariela started telling me her story:

Emily: “So Mariela, tell me a bit about you, where you are from?”

Mariela: “I was born in Argentina in the city of Quilmes which is right outside Buenos Aires, but moved to a small medieval village in Italy at the age of twelve with my mom and my sister; there, I started working at the age of thirteen in restaurants to help support my family”

Emily: “How was that transition, that’s a big move for a kid?”

Mariela: “It was a tough beginning going to school, then to work, then home to cook for my sister. But while cleaning tables, I would listen to what the chefs in the kitchen were talking about, absorbing cooking tips to take home and try with my mother. Although my love for food started much earlier, at eight or nine I would sit in the kitchen and watch people cook. As soon as I was old enough to retain what was happening, I was always experimenting with one recipe or another.”

Emily: “What were some of the most pivotal moments in cooking for you?”

Mariela: “I always say I “met” my mother in Italy, when we cooked together, it was like time slowed as we laughed, cooked, and ate together. I realized that you do not need a whole lot to be happy, and the greatest moments are the ones you spend with the people you love. My grandfather used to cook a lot and he was quite influential in my love of food, I look to him as inspiration in the kitchen.”

This is shown in the ALBA kitchen each week, Mariela has not only taught us to cook but to sit, eat, and enjoy the process instead of looking at food as something that we just need to consume. She calls this “learning to slow down.” According to her, this is one of the most important lessons she has to give us in class, one that we can take home and apply in our everyday lives. I can’t agree more.

Emily: “Once you graduated primary school what was next for you?”

Mariela: “I moved to Australia for a year to go to university and see other parts of the world. Then I moved to Rome and got my degree in Culture and Linguistic Mediation, which is the study of why we eat what we eat and how it impacts our culture and vice versa. Food, its history, and cultural impact were always things I was passionate about and the ability to study its origins in university was incredible. What fascinated me about Culture and Linguistic Mediation was how we go through life never questioning what we are eating, why we are eating it, its historical impact, or how it impacts us physically and mentally. Getting to learn about those things and now apply them to my job is so special. I want to bring awareness to the food around us and how it deeply impacts our lives”

Emily: “You bring so much into the kitchen at ALBA, especially the curiosity around food, it’s been incredible to learn under someone who loves their job and shows up for class with such high energy, it has been truly amazing to learn to cook and enjoy the process around food.”

Next, Mariela and I went on a small walk to a bar in the Gothic Quarter called Bodega la Palma which has Mariela’s favorite Vermut in all of Barcelona. It was a small bar with a quaint, local feel. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking to get a traditional Barcelona drink.

Mariela walking pogo down the streets of Barcelona

Mariela and Pongo

Emily: “What brought you to Barcelona?”

Mariela: “Well once I finished my thesis at University I started working in the hospitality industry, and came here on holiday with my mom and sister. Once I got here I just thought, yes, this is it… I need to live here! Within a month of visiting, I moved from Italy to Barcelona and have been here ever since. It truly feels like home, I love that in a big city, it does not matter who you are or your background you can just be. Freedom is something I highly value and I feel free here.”

“I continued to work in the hospitality industry until my friend recommended I apply for a job as a food tour guide, I never had considered a job like that to even be an option but once I applied I just knew it was right, I got the job with Spanish Trails and then in 2021, ALBA offered me the chance to do the cooking classes included in their study abroad program in Barcelona. I love the versatility and all the people I get to meet through my job. I also love getting to bring my dog Pongo to work, he loves all the students and I love that it wears him out”

Mariela and I continued to the next and final destination: a restaurant called PORK… boig per tu. It is located in El Born and specializes in, you guessed it, pork. This was one of the best meals I have had in Barcelona so far. We got padrón peppers and olives to start, then some roasted vegetables called Escalivada and three different pork sausages, butifarra del perol, butifarra cruda and butifarra negra. We also ate a traditional cod salad called esqueixada de bacalao, and ended with truffles as dessert. As we continued chatting I marveled at the amount of wisdom and life experience Mariela had to share:

Pork... Boig per tu

Pork… Boig per tu

Emily: “ What advice would you give to students?”

Mariela: “Hmm I would say general life advice would be that it does not take a lot to be happy. That is one of the most important things I have learned throughout my life. When you slow down and enjoy the time, people, and places you realize it is so easy to be content with what you have.”

“My advice for the kitchen would be, there are no rules when it comes to cooking just follow your gut and don’t be afraid to get hurt, that’s part of the process, it’s part of being a chef and it’s part of cooking. Learn from the process and don’t take it too seriously.”

“That is why in class we listen to music, share and laugh, talk about our days, all working as a team to create a beautiful meal that we all get to enjoy at the end of class. It is all about how you feel when you cook, not just about what you are making.”

Emily: “Ok, last question. What is your favorite meal to cook?”

Mariela: “Kind of going back to what I said about not needing a lot to be happy, I love the simple things in life and when I lived in Italy my 90-year-old neighbor taught me how to cook a classic red sauce with basil, homemade pasta, and a little bit of parmesan, it has been my favorite meal ever since.”

Emily: “Well thank you so much for your time and for this incredible opportunity to get to know you a bit more and especially thank you for all that you have taught us over the last quarter in the kitchen, it goes much further than you know.”

Students and Mariela having fun in Cooking Class

Students in Cooking Class

After my interview with Mariela, I understood on a new level that cooking is so much more than just food. It’s a universal thing that we all do even if it looks different throughout the cultures of the world. Food creates memories that transport us to childhood dreams, trips with family, and small happy moments shared over meals; it is something that bonds us as a society. I will always remember living in Barcelona and learning to make tapas, paella, and Spanish omelets. This food is now tied to a life-changing experience and will always be something that I am able to reminisce on when I am back home. Mariela has been kind enough to share her cooking experience and Spanish dishes with us so that when we go home, we can share a taste of what it was like to live in Barcelona with the people we love.

Even when we go home we will send out love to ALBA and to Pongo, we love you Pongo! Thank you for filling the pet-sized hole in our hearts while we were away, you are the best!

Mariela kissing her dog Pongo

Mariela and Pongo, eternal love ❤️