WORDS: Yahdon Israel PHOTOGRAPHY: Julien Roubinet
One of the worst things a child can ever say to an adult is that they're bored. Food traveler Gabrielle Eitienne first learned this lesson at six when she told her maternal grandmother, Artris P. Woodard, that she was bored. Gabrielle's grandmother grabbed her globe, placed it in front of Gabrielle, and told her granddaughter to spin it. Wherever Gabrielle's finger landed—Mexico, France, South Africa—she would then have to retrieve her grandmother's atlas and read about the people living there. It had been her grandmother's way of letting Gabrielle know, "the world is so much bigger than your boredom."
Enough of these interactions transformed Gabrielle's childlike boredom into a precocious curiosity for a world beyond her rural Apex, North Carolina, upbringing. Now no matter where Gabrielle goes—whether it's Lisboa, Portugal, for the best Gelato or Girona, Catalunya, for "skrimps"—she always finds a way to incorporate her latest travel inspirations into her dishes; she always finds a way to bring everything she learned elsewhere back home.
Apex, North Carolina will always be home for Gabrielle but her home away from home is New York, where we met at Berimbau do Brazil, a Brazilian restaurant in the West Village, to eat Moqueca—(a Brazilian fish stew consisting of shrimp, mahi mahi, and calamari); talk about her first find; and why, even the in the most foreign experiences, there's always something familiar.
What was the first dish you found that made you want to be a foodie?
My favorite restaurant when I was twelve was the Olive Garden. This is where my family would go to celebrate special occasions. My mom has always loved introducing us to new things. So one day she ordered a plate of fried calamari.
I remember eating it, not knowing what it was, but liking it a lot. I looked at my mom and asked her, "What am I eating?" She told me it was squid and your natural child mind wants to be like, "Why are we eating squid?" but for whatever reason, I was unaffected. It was just so good. I think that was the first time I opened up myself up to eating something that was unconventional.
Why do you commit yourself to finding new foods?
Food is a journey for me. It's where I'm most comfortable. My happy place. Trying new things with people I know gives me the chance to learn new things about them. I get to see different sides of people, and myself, when there's a brand new dish in front of us. In a lot of ways it becomes a trust exercise. I don't know what's going to happen when I try something new but I trust that it will give me an experience I'll never forget. And that's what I want.
Is there a difference for you between finding and making? If so, what is it?
I wouldn't say there's a difference. I would say that what I find inspires what I make. Sometimes I'll just be on the subway, and I'll write recipes randomly. But a lot of times my inspiration comes after I have a good meal. I'm like, "I could do that. I could do that with pork belly." That's just how food inspires me.
What is your process of finding new food?
I accredit most of my finds to my "gift of gab". I love talking to people, and when I travel I know the right people to talk to. Usually the butchers, neighborhood elders and cab drivers know the best low key local spots. That's really the best way to discover food that really represents that area, the people who have been there forever.
Then I find things just walking around. That's how I found this place. I was looking for something I didn't know what I was looking for. When I found that behind this yellow door was Brazilian food I was like, "I haven't experimented with Brazilian food. Let me see what this is all about." That's also how I discovered this dish, Moqueca. Brazilian cuisine uses a lot of foods I grew up eating—collard greens and black-eyed peas. Two of my favorite things in the world. I sat down and discovered Brazilian food by walking past the doorway. Other times people will refer me to somewhere they've tried. But I tend to pursue the places I've never been.
That's a courageous approach to eating. No matter where I go, I usually order the same things. I can travel to Kyoto, Japan and still order chicken wings and french fries. So what inspires you to go out and actively look for new things?
My grandparents are a huge inspiration to me. My grandmother actually helped my grandfather with his business. She did all the paperwork for my grandfather's shop auto-mechanic repair shop. He works on 18 wheelers and trucks. They're just the coolest.
My grandfather has a garden. I was home last summer, and he grows these really beautiful tomatoes. Farm to table thing has been my whole life. Just going out to his garden and picking cabbage, okra, peppers, whatever we needed. As I'm talking about this, I'm seeing how the things from your childhood always find ways to resurface later.
What do you wish you would have known sooner as a finder?
That quality food doesn't have to be expensive. You don't have to pay a bunch of money for good food. That's been the heart of my exploration: finding good food that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.
I don't want to spend a lot of money on food. I want to enjoy the experience. I want to enjoy the atmosphere, have good food and be full. If you can find something good where you spend twenty-five bucks, it's worth it.
What have you learned about yourself and other people through finding food?
That we all want the same things. Like we all can connect something we ate to something a family member made. Whenever I'm talking to somebody of a different cultural background, food is usually the first thing we discuss. There are just so many connections I've been able to make with people because of food. The ingredients we use, the techniques.
Like when I visited Italy, there were so many things that reminded me of home. I'd be walking around and see the pig hanging, and immediately be taken back to my grandfather's house where he'd hangs his pigs out back. It just made me appreciate where I'm from even more.
What is the last thing you found?
It's called Fabrica del Gelato in Lisboa, Portugal. I was walking past this gelato shop where they were giving out the samples. I'm the type of person who wants to try every sample before I make a decision, so I just kept asking for more.Usually the person gets an attitude but this woman just kept scooping them out. Going down the line. It was like she knew me.
She gets to this mango flavor. I'm not that big on mango necessarily but when when I tell you I felt like I was eating the soul of the mango. And then there this African banana flavor. It was like I was eating the actual fruit. After I've had that, nothing can compete. I've never had gelato that good.
What do you feel like you need to continue finding?
More time to find new places. If it was up to me, if I didn't have my day job, I would be out—looking for something new.