I met Tarajia last year, shortly after she had given birth to a baby girl - on her own. Born and raised in New York City, she is a force and has an ease about her, all at once. She’s a writer and hospitality consultant now, but her path to getting there was, shall we say, adventurous. She was an actor in NY and LA, attended the French Culinary Institute, worked in restaurants, and started a food blog, The Lovage. She moved to Barcelona for love, moved back to NY, worked in restaurant PR, and then moved to Uruguay for a reset, working at a friend’s beachfront restaurant. This is where she had a chance meeting with Francis Mallmann and landed an exclusive story in WSJ. Magazine, a story that changed the trajectory of her career.
In December 2018, many food and travel stories later, Tarajia spent a week in a Los Angeles hospital room, earnestly listening to the stories of Fatima Ali, a Pakistani chef who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 27. Fatima had hired Tarajia to help her write a book about what she thought would be the last year of her life, about the bucket list of food experiences she would relish. Tragically, Fatima had only four months, and they embarked on a more complicated project – the book that is now SAVOR, a book about living life in the face of your fears, and in Fatima’s case death. We spent a morning with Tarajia at Troutbeck where she oversees culinary special projects and marketing. We talked about people who change the way you move in the world, dream dinner parties and why you shouldn’t wait or make excuses for what you want to do.
You were born into the hospitality world (Tarajia’s family founded fine wine mecca Morrell & Co), and you’ve worked in hospitality most of your adult life. But did co-authoring SAVOR with Fatima influence or change the way you approach curating food experiences today?
All of my hospitality work is more an extension of my childhood, watching my parents entertain, plus the knowledge of what being hosted should feel like: an embrace, a ray of light, a peal of laughter, an alluring scent, a satiating dish.
The experience of working with Fatima on this book changed me personally, because it reminded me how blessed I am to have lived so much, even the hard times. It made me embrace difficult and painful situations and see the bright side of almost anything, where before trials and tribulations might have crippled me or set me back or sunk me into doldrums.
There was a lot of bravery on everyone’s part in writing this book. Yours for staying true to the story Fatima wanted to tell, hers for trusting you to do it after she was gone, and Fatima's and her family's for sharing hard truths. Did telling their story change the way you approach your relationship with your own mother and daughter?
My mother and I have been extremely close for most of our lives, barring several teenage years in which I resented her terribly and was a constant pill. The experience of working on SAVOR certainly was present with me as I became a mother, as I was working on the book all through my pregnancy and had to return to it after taking my one month off to have my daughter. I understand Farezeh’s loss in a different way now, though of course I can’t completely…but being a mother, the visceral pain and emotional torture of seeing one’s child suffer is much closer to me. My baby had a health crisis right after birth and Farezeh’s strength and pain were very much apparent to me in those hard first days. You tell whatever force you believe in that you will do anything to keep your child alive.
The way Fatima described her food memories was so vivid to me. I felt like I was visiting the market with her and her grandmother, or eating a meal with her in San Sebastian. What are your most vivid childhood memories of flavors or food?
I was my mother’s shadow as she cooked and entertained as a child (I was waitressing for her as soon as I could be trusted with a tray), but our kitchen was too small for me to be by her side there, so I perched on top of the refrigerator to watch her work. The first thing I learned was the family recipe for vinaigrette. Though I was already an avid eater of them, the day I learned a special way to eat an artichoke was seminal for me. Funnily enough, I have strong memories of trying sushi for the first time that helped me write about Fatima’s first experience doing so...mine were also with my father. The contrast between what you guess something like raw fish might taste like and the actual experience of it is an excellent beginning to a love affair with food.
If you could curate your own dream dinner party, what would it look like?
I can see the table. It’s outside with no cars or trains or sirens audible. We are in the countryside – maybe Spain or Portugal – but in a way, it doesn’t matter, as it’s the people that are important. It’s warm, but the temperature is dropping, so we light a fire near the table. My favorite friends from all over the world are there, with their children playing a game that takes them in and out of sight, their voices carrying through the darkening sky, the older ones, Lily’s kids, helping and herding the little ones, like my Viva. Jackson and Jasper are playing guitar. Gioconda and Sara are singing. On the table plates are assembled; simple dishes of things from the hills and fields around us, and ever abundant wine. Gioconda directed the meal, but we all cooked it, side by side in the kitchen while dancing and listening to music, a merry brigade. I suppose if I am allowed to invite anyone, alive or dead, Otis Redding would be there crooning for us, too. And Leonard Cohen, who’d feel right at home.
Favorite article of clothing...
Gosh, a few things. A vintage Geoffrey Beene tuxedo dress, which is made of something like astroturf with a satin collar and cuffs. My Barbour coat, which belonged to a beloved friend who I lost young. But I find myself drawn to different things, less fragile, now that I am a mother…easier to wash and roll around on the floor in.
Things that bring you joy...
My daughter Viva, inhaling her, kissing her, making her laugh. Sharing her with my parents and friends who help me parent alone. Gathering at a table with the people I love.
48 hours to yourself: where you go, what you do...
I am terrible at self care. I’d probably lie on an empty beach reading, snoozing, swimming, uninterrupted. It’s frankly unimaginable since becoming a mother.
Something you've learned to say no to...
Being taken advantage of.
If you could create anything and knew it would be perfect, what would it be?
The perfect anything seems impossible, but I’d love to create an excellent book (engrossing, elegant, meaningful). Author’s note: we think she’s already done that with SAVOR.
What will your next book be about?
It will touch on all the themes mentioned here: love, loss, appetite, motherhood, home, friendship. To me these are the crux of everything.
SAVOR feels so timely, and the lessons in the book are truly for everyone. What was the biggest lesson you learned writing this book?
Tear a page out of Fatima’s playbook and get busy living and loving. It’s so easy for us to be paralyzed by fear given the state of the world, but fear gets us nowhere and nothing. LIVE BIG, LOVE BIG.