Elana is the Marketing Director at Colavita USA and host of the Facebook and Instagram show, “Colavita Cooking Live” where she prepares simple and healthy meals, while sharing useful cooking tips. She is the creative mind behind all of Colavita’s food photography, recipe and brand voice development. For this Q&A we sat down with Elana to learn more about how she got her start in the kitchen, food photography, her favorite cooking essentials, and more.
Q: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into cooking and food photography?
A lot of people say they got into cooking from their families. That’s certainly true in my case, and I owe my mom a lot of credit for teaching me how to cook. I learned by watching her—what creamed butter looks like, how onions smell when they’re sautéing in olive oil, how to get a meal on the table for a family. Every. Single. Day. I still call or text her asking for advice. In 2010, my brother and I started a food blog together. We were looking for something to do! We had a lot of fun running around reviewing restaurants and cooking up strange concoctions. We even made (really bad) videos! But I quickly realized that my 2010 iPhone photography wasn’t going to cut it and I needed a DSLR. Everything else, is history.
Q: You’ve been with Colavita for quite some time now. What do you love most about the brand and what about working in the food space excites you the most?
I love Colavita’s product, I truly do. I stand by the quality and the flavor! I use it in everything and I’m always thinking of ways to incorporate our wide array of products into new recipes. If I run out, I go into a panic. I’m not sure what DOESN’T excite me about working in the food space. Some highlights for me are cooking seasonally and seeing the produce come in and out based on the season; trying new recipes; and teaching. I’ve really enjoyed our Colavita Cooking Live episodes. It’s been so fun to help people along in their cooking journeys and it challenges me to give them my best.
Q: Okay so you’re a kitchen pro, but you weren’t always. What advice do you have for people just starting out? What are some kitchen essentials to keep in the pantry?
My advice for people starting out in the kitchen is to become familiar with a few basic recipes. Then, once you have a base, you can expand on that. For example, if you master a simple sauté with chicken, you can then begin to experiment by pairing different flavors and ingredients. It also helps to have someone of whom you can bounce ideas or ask questions. A random text that reads, “How many minutes per pound at 450°F for that filet?” without any other context or introduction is well received by both my mom and my food stylist! Also, it helps to have some things constantly on hand so you don’t need to always restock your pantry for a simple recipe.
I’ve always got extra virgin olive oil, of course! But I also have a bottle of Colavita’s balsamic vinegar. I add it to sauces for a punch, roasted veggies for a glaze, and marinades too. For seasonings, I always have some good kosher salt, peppercorns, and smoked paprika on hand. I like to make my own chicken stock, but I keep some store-bought on hand just in case. And I’ll always have dried pasta and canned tomatoes hanging around. For perishables, I make sure to have some good Parmigiano-Reggiano, lemons, as well as a head of garlic. And since it’s summer, I’ve got fresh herbs growing in my backyard.
Q: How do you stay inspired in the kitchen?
Early in the pandemic everyone seemed to be cooking up a storm, but now it seems that people are suffering from food fatigue. Any tips on how to stay creative in the kitchen without sacrificing a healthy and balanced diet?
You have to keep yourself interested somehow. Reading the latest cookbooks really helps me because it takes me out of a rut. It can be a grueling slog cooking to just keep dinner on the table. How can you make it fun? Maybe getting the family involved or creating a new twist on an old recipe (Mexican flavored meat loaf?), or maybe it’s time by yourself in the kitchen to make something just because you want to—a Dutch baby for breakfast or sourdough waffles. Also, if you can get someone else to do the cleanup, that helps!
Q: What’s your favorite food to make and why?
Pizza. Hands down. I love making dough. I love the infinite combinations of toppings, the multiple ways to cook it (grill, oven, skillet) and the myriad different styles (Neapolitan, Detroit, Chicago…). And the first bite. That’s always the best.
Q: As a cook, you’ve cooked with all different types of oil. Niche oils like avocado and grapeseed are all the rage right now, so why is olive oil your preferred cooking oil?
I like the classics. I would say that Italian cooking is my specialty and I like to stay in my lane for the most part. I know what flavors I’m going to get from olive oil and I like the added health benefits that it offers. It’s a staple of the Mediterranean for a reason, and I trust that.
Q: Tell us about a kitchen fail – if you have one – where you second-guessed your cooking abilities.
I have them all the time. I recently incinerated some salmon filets—so sad! I get really upset when things don’t turn out the way I hoped—I take it personally. I will say that for our Colavita Cooking Live featuring pasta Carbonara, I studied every article on making it that I could find. I lost sleep worrying about scrambling the eggs instead of getting that silky, golden sauce. I DREAMED about pasta carbonara, and when I woke up I read all the articles all over again. I think I may have been sweating on camera and secretly praying it would all come together. And it did! It was beautiful. I think there’s a lesson there. At the end of the day, the worst that happens is you mess up. But really, it’s not so hard. Just try.
Q: Lastly, what’s the next big thing you want to make?
An 18” Chicago deep dish pizza and an iced layer cake, although not on the same day.