A Dream Leap from Law to Italian Food & Travel
“The minute something stops being fun, change things up!” says Michelle DiBenedetto Capobianco, a former lawyer turned private chef and travel company owner. After 10 years of practicing corporate and securities law, Michelle had had it – full stop. “You only have one life to live so you better try and do it right.”
When Michelle was hit with a “now or never moment” in 2012, she didn’t shake it off like so many mortgage-paying, risk-averse adults. Instead, she took a bold leap, launching Majella Home Cooking, a culinary business celebrating the authentic Italian food found in the kitchens of her family and friends. And she didn’t stop there – her mix of offerings now includes culinary instruction, food pop-ups and creative, small-group tours of Italy.
“My parents raised me with a strong sense of my Italian heritage and its traditions, and not surprisingly, food played an integral role in my upbringing.”
The daughter of Italian immigrants, Michelle draws on a rich culinary DNA. Her mother’s Sicilian roots inform Michelle’s preparation of ‘polpettee di asparagi’ – asparagus fritters, slowly simmered in tomato sauce. But it is Abruzzo, the rugged region of her father’s birth, that captures her culinary imagination – and heart.
“Abruzzo’s earthy cuisine influenced my cooking style and palate,” says Michelle. “The rustic dishes show loyalty to the tradition of ‘la cucina povera’ -- the poor kitchen – which celebrates the frugal genius of southern and central Italian cooks who make culinary alchemy with simple ingredients.”
A two-hour drive from Rome, Abruzzo is the last slice of wild, untrammeled Italy. Known for unspoiled national parks, visitors can travel from the Adriatic coast to the Apennines mountains in under an hour. Travelers are more likely to stumble across rambling medieval villages and arresting views than tourists.
Determined to share Abruzzo’s wild beauty with a larger audience, in 2016 Michelle expanded her work to offer creative, small group tours of her beloved region.
In this #WatchHerWork profile, Michelle shares her pivot from law to entrepreneurship, and how being a first-generation immigrant influences her work:
The path from securities lawyer to culinary & travel entrepreneur is unusual. How did you make the leap?
“I began a career as a corporate and securities lawyer at a large NYC-firm and unfortunately, knew from the get-go that I wasn’t in the right profession. But I'm the daughter of immigrants -- we finish what we start, because we know what our parents sacrificed to get us here. I hung on for nearly 10 years.
At the same time, I began to seek inspiration and a creative outlet in the kitchen. I immersed myself in Italian cookbooks and culinary history, and during our summer trips to Italy to our family home. My husband studied Renaissance history, and we’ve spent the past 12 summers in Italy with our three boys.
Now, as a private-chef, I cater dinner parties and culinary events, and have a steady group of clients for whom I prepare weekly home-cooked meals. I also teach at least one cooking class every week.
I also spend a lot of time at my computer planning itineraries and working with clients for my trips to Abruzzo and exchanging ideas with my collaborators in Italy on Skype and WhatsApp. I take these trips so seriously. People don’t have unlimited vacation time – and they are entrusting me with their precious time and money. It’s a privilege.”
When people think of Italy – they generally think of Rome, Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast. Tell us about Abruzzo. Condé Nast Traveler recently dubbed it Italy’s “last unsung culinary destination.” Why is it special to you?
“I think of Memenga – an 80-year old woman in the village of Pescocostanzo who makes mozzarella every day from the milk produced by her family's four cows. You need to call ahead to reserve, because she always sells out. There's no sign on her door - you simply find someone on the street and ask, ‘Dov'è Memenga?’
I often think about the Power of Place – the impact a place can have on your decisions and lifestyle, on your identity and how you perceive yourself, on your very essence and soul.
Abruzzo has changed me in more ways than I even know. It has a rugged natural beauty that cajoled me out of my city slicker ways. Think mountain hikes and forest pilgrimages. But it’s the people – “forte e gentile” – strong and kind – that have shaped my core beliefs and values. Abruzzo has taught me to slow down and be unafraid.
Abruzzo is my heart and second home.”
You are getting the word out about Abruzzo with your tours. How do you get the word out about your business?
“I primarily rely on Facebook - I have the greatest number of followers on Facebook -- it's where the target market for my tours spends most of its screen-time. I like the ability to share a mix of photos, anecdotes/stories and web links in a direct way and promote posts to different segments.
I also use Instagram, but I don't find it as effective as a promotional tool. It's just fun to look at beautiful photos of food and places.
I'm proud of the fact that I do this with my own blood, sweat and tears, without outside marketing, PR or social media consultants. Although I'd love to be in a position one day to outsource and use the expertise of others, it's pricey. It feels good to do it on your own. Ha! There's that daughter-of-immigrants-pride-thing again.”
Your work sounds so dreamy -- preparing fabulous food and traveling to stunning locales. Is there any downside?
“It’s exhausting at times to put yourself out there for everything you want to do and achieve.
I can go up and down like a yo-yo from week-to-week because I'm so emotional about my work. Both the food and travel part of it are so very personal to me.
But that's also what motivates me. I had a career that didn't feed my soul -- the very fact that I created the ability to earn a living doing something I care about is my driving motivation, even during the down weeks. Accountability helps too. I work well with deadlines because I don't ever want to disappoint people.”
Behind every great woman is a tribe of great women. Who lifts you up and mentors you?
Danielle Oteri of Feast on History and Arthur Avenue Food Tours never ceases to amaze me with her creativity and ability to think outside the box. She’s a born entrepreneur and has built not one, but two businesses, with brains and grit. She’s a few years ahead of me in the Italy travel world and very often serves as my sounding board.
A trio of women in Abruzzo -- Francesca DiNisio of CantinArte, Marisa Rosato of Agriturismo Pietrrantica and Giulia Scappaticcio of Casale Centurione -- also continually inspire. They all share boundless energy, infectious love for their work, and a commitment to making their careers work despite the challenges of balancing work and family.”
Balance is hard. You’re a mom of three. How do you get it all done? Any must have tech, productivity, or can't-function-without tools?
I use workflow tool ASANA to plan my tours - I love the flexibility it allows me to plan out each day of my tours. And a daily espresso at 3 pm!
What’s next for you and your work?
“I have two sold-out tours to Abruzzo for 2018 and one of my May 2019 tours, which hasn't even been officially announced yet, is already half full!
Thank you, Michelle, for sharing a look at your work and how you built Majella Home Cooking & Abruzzo Tours!
Learn more about Michelle, her work and tours at www.majellahomeooking.com.
And for drool-worthy recipes and photos, follow her on Facebook and Instagram.