In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Katie Parla.
Rome has such an abundance of stellar drinking and dining options that navigating the city can be a bit daunting. That’s why food obsessives turn to Rome-based journalist Katie Parla to get an insider’s perspective on where to hit during their visits. Parla has been Eater’s go-to expert for years, most recently serving as consulting editor on Eater’s Guide to Rome. She’s written for the likes of the New York Times and National Geographic Traveler, and published two cookbooks, Tasting Rome and Food of the Italian South. She also consulted on the Italy-based episodes of the Netflix series Master of None, calling it one of the coolest projects she’s ever done. “Spending two weeks immersed in the food of Modena was a dream, and, because it’s such a small city, even a short time was long enough to become a regular at wine bars, restaurants, butcher stalls, and coffee shops,” she says. “It was a fun break from Roma.” Through it all, Parla somehow finds the time to lead culinary walking tours and host a podcast about food, too.
But food journalism wasn’t always part of Parla’s life plan. Growing up in New Jersey, she didn’t even realize you could make a career out of writing about Italian cuisine. In the following interview, Parla discusses how she became an authority on dining in the Eternal City through a combination of education, curiosity, and relentless hustle.
Eater: What does your job involve?
Katie Parla: I live in Rome, Italy, where I am a freelance food and beverage journalist, culinary guide, cookbook author, and co-host of the podcast Gola. Everything I do is related to food and drinks, so I spend a lot of time researching those topics, eating and drinking, and telling people about what I discover.
What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
I just wanted to survive on writing about food and drinks and the people who make them, and was totally open to every possible medium, from online publications to newspapers to mobile apps.
Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?
I did my master’s degree in Italian Gastronomic Culture at Università degli Studi di Roma “Tor Vergata” and the Italy-centric sommelier certification course offered by FISAR (Federazione Italiana di Sommelier, Albergatori e Ristoratori), both in Italian. For me, education is so important, and I learn best in a classroom setting with structured lessons and assigned readings. Education gave me a solid base to build on, but I think really hard work, relentless travel, and intense curiosity have been better teachers for me.
What would you have done differently or paid more attention to at school?
No complaints or regrets with my graduate studies, but I wish I knew food writing was a thing back in college. I was really into food from a young age and would have focused on food and topics related to it, if I had even considered writing as a profession.
Student loans are such a part of the conversation around higher education right now. Has your career trajectory been impacted by debt in any way?
Because I live in Italy, education is incredibly affordable. My master’s degree cost less than $3,000 for a year-long program. I worked full-time during my studies, so [I] was able to pay for the course in full as the bills came due. My American college loans took longer to pay off — about 12 years. During that same time, my alma mater, Yale’s endowment nearly tripled to $25 billion. That’s gross and fucked up.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
My first legal job was working at the Bagel Place in Plainsboro, New Jersey, in high school. I sold bagels by the dozen and made bagel sandwiches and pizza bagels. My first job in Rome was teaching Roman topography to freshmen at an international private school, a gig for which I was profoundly unqualified and criminally underpaid.
How did you get started covering the food and beverage industry?
I started writing about Rome in general in 2003, mainly for guide books at first, then websites and magazines. I began focusing on food and beverage over other topics in 2006.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out?
I was based in Italy and didn’t really have any connections in journalism or to editors. Building relationships and getting on people’s radar took years.
When was the first time you felt successful?
When I published my first piece in the New York Times Travel section (shout-out to Dan Saltzstein, the best editor, for taking a chance on me). It was about Ponza, one of my favorite destinations near Rome. My mom framed the article. Success.
Did you have any setbacks? What were they?
I hired London-based designers and developers to create mobile apps “Katie Parla’s Rome” and “Katie Parla’s Istanbul.” They were massive projects that I self-funded at huge expense. They were pretty successful, and we were in the process of creating two more city apps when the developers disappeared, leaving me with code I couldn’t update myself. When Apple updated its operating system for mobile devices, the apps died. Other developers I interviewed to update my apps quoted such outrageous prices that I had to abandon my mobile babies.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
In 2006, after three years in Italy writing about everything I could — archeology, history, travel, wine, transport, restaurants — I decided to focus solely on food. I gave myself a year to determine if I could support myself making such a switch. I hustled hard, and it worked out.
What were the most important skills that got you here?
Surviving on three hours of sleep, which is actually not a skill but just one way some people live, and it’s the only reason I have any money in my bank account.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field? How has that made a difference?
Sadly, no. Italians aren’t big on the whole supporting and advising younger colleagues thing.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
The best part is learning recipes from the best teachers: farmers, bakers, wine makers, chefs, and home cooks.
What is something you didn’t know going into your job? Why?
Sometimes you have to chase invoices for a year or more! Finance offices hate freelancers!
How are you making change in your industry?
I think through my writing and the Gola podcast, which I co-host with my friend Dr. Danielle Callegari, I get people thinking about Italy in a way that transcends the romantic stereotypes and forces them to confront the realities of the food industry, from Nutella’s nefarious labor practices to fraudulent olive oil to the very real presence of agricultural mafias. This doesn’t change the travel or buying habits of enough consumers, though, unfortunately.
What would you have done differently in your career?
I should have been more confident in my abilities earlier, and I should have started writing cookbooks years before Tasting Rome came out in 2016.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
Learn to take a vacation.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Study. Academic credentials masked my complete and continuing inability to craft a compelling pitch, and this tactic can work for you, too!
Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.
Photo of Katie Parla by Cobey Arner.
Illustrations from the Noun Project: camera by Dhika Hernandita; covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; hand writing by Pongsakorn.