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'Be prepared to make some serious sacrifices'

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Katie Parla offers food and wine tours in Rome. Photo: Rick Poon
08:05 CEST+02:00
Katie Parla, from the US, moved to Rome in 2003 with a passion for Italy, art history and archaelogy. She talks to The Local about how, after a string of jobs, she carved out a successful career as a food and wine guide and writer.

How did you end up in Rome?

When I was 16 I came to Italy for eight days with my Latin class; I was obsessed with Italy and knew I wanted to move to Rome, but I didn’t know what that meant.

I focused on that single goal and did things that I thought would be helpful, starting with Italian classes at my community college in New Jersey.

I was always very interested in the history of art and ancient archaeology - the potential for learning felt infinite.

After university I moved to Rome in January 2003.

What kind of work did you do when you arrived?

I wanted to continue studying art history, but I never did follow that path.

I released that if I was going to make it here I was going to have to do a bunch of jobs.

The first job I had was teaching Roman typography at Saint Stephen’s International School, in addition to teaching English. I realized I’m really bad at teaching English!

I started sending CVs to guide book companies; it wasn’t until a couple of years that people started offering me guide book updating. It would pay for my travel, but there wasn’t much left over.

At the same time I started doing tours for Context Travel, a network of scholars based in Rome. 

How did you end up working in the food and wine world?

In 2005 I did a sommelier course and, as I grew up in the restaurant business, hospitality was very interesting to me. I wanted to learn more about the history of it and in 2007 I did a masters in Italian gastronomic culture at Tor Vergata University. 

I started writing my blog while I was doing my masters, then a lot of the writing jobs followed as editors were looking for Rome content.

How important are Italian qualifications?

For me it’s the fundamental basis of what I do. Curiosity is the most important thing, but do study - get a real degree.

Rome’s not a very expensive place to go to state university as a foreigner and Tor Vergata is, by Italian standards, an incredibly modern and relatively efficient place.

If people want to work abroad, under the Slow Food umbrella or for Eataly, then the Slow Food University (the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra, north-west Italy) is a good way to get your foot in the door. But in my opinion it’s not very well respected in Italy. 

What’s your favourite part of your work?

I really love doing food tours. As much as I enjoy writing food criticism and documenting trends, it doesn’t give me direct contact with the people that are reading what I’m writing or the vendors who are benefiting.

I love curating people’s experiences. I like being able to show people a different side of Rome; it’s so rewarding.

How do you stay organized?

One year ago I decided that I needed help; I was struggling to balance everything and was spread really thin.

Now I have a personal assistant who does all my tour scheduling and handles communication with clients; that frees up 20 hours a week which I can then use to develop pitches.

I work with a publicist too, who in addition to promoting my app, tours and other things, also alerts me when I need to pitch and keeps me constantly doing things.

I also have an app developer, based in London.

What would you advise people getting started in the industry?

Come here with enough money to live for three months without earning anything; if you’re really committed to being in Rome then be prepared to make some serious sacrifices when it comes to house, going out etc. 

If you are looking to develop a freelance food and travel writing career, I think the best way is to create a blog. Blogging has been the way that I’ve been able to reach the most people - readers, editors, clients.

Network with other people at bloggers’ meet-ups and write authentic things that inspire you, that you’re passionate about. 

For more information about Katie Parla's work, visit her website.

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