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The Way We Eat

The Way We Eat: Ayda Robana, Food Stylist in Santa Barbara

updated Sep 20, 2019
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NameAyda Robana
Location: Santa Barbara, CA
How many people regularly eat together in your home? Typically it’s the three of us: My husband, myself, and our 10-year-old daughter Lulu.
Avoidances: No restrictions.

Ayda is a personal chef, caterer, and food stylist. When she’s not shopping at the Santa Barbara farmers market, Ayda is cooking for her family in her cozy blue kitchen, which reminds her of summers spent with her family in Tunisia. We got to talk to her about the Tunisian ingredients she loves to buy at Trader Joe’s, and the family recipe she hopes her daughter, Lulu, will master one day.

As a food stylist your day must revolve around food. How do manage that?

Food is pretty central to almost everything I do. I go to sleep thinking about food, wake up thinking about food, and if I’m not thinking about food, I’m talking about it, or writing about it. It’s a constant in our lives. I’m either feeding family, friends, or clients.

Luckily, I really love grocery shopping. I find it very relaxing. When I have to do double duty for clients and myself, I just divide my grocery cart or farmers market baskets. I just do it all together in one go.

Credit: Leela Cyd/Kitchn

What’s a typical trip to the farmers market like for you?

I have different farmer friends! The first stop is Roots Farm where I get my lettuce. Jacob knows my order and will set aside a case of the lettuces that I like, and tuck them out of sight. They have this very light pastel radicchio that’s pearly pink. Even if I get there late, he has it waiting for me.

I like to get there before the market bell rings though, because the farmers market is quite the social thing in Santa Barbara. You’ll bump into everyone, which is so nice — if you have the time. But I’m usually trying to get in and out as soon as possible.

Then I’ll go see Tom who has the most beautiful baby carrots and really nice, spicy, wild arugula. Then I go to my fruit stand for gorgeous plums, peaches, and apricots. BD is my favorite of all the stands. He has the most gorgeous flowers and herbs and is the sweetest human being who always asks about my family and Lulu.

Credit: Leela Cyd/Kitchn

I want to shop there with you! Aside from the farmers market, where do you get grocery staples?

Oh my gosh, I go to TJ’s once a day sometimes. It’s ridiculous. I know everyone’s name in there since they are so nice. I always buy any Tunisian products. They have harissa and Tunisian olive oil so those are always in my cart. They also have this green spicy pesto called zhoug which I am obsessed with on fish or eggs. I can eat it by the spoonful. They also have great organic tahini which is a constant.

So after working with food all day, how do you gear up to cook at night?
It’s hard actually. If I can get ahead of the game plan, and quickly marinate something like a piece of chicken or fish the night before, then it’s easy to come home because it’s already halfway done — you just have to grill it, or sauté it, or throw it in the oven. Ideally I will have done a tiny bit of prep, like chopping or roasting veggies, making a pot of farro, couscous, or quinoa, or even pre-washing the salad which can feel so tedious. I know a lot of people who like those packaged salads, but for me, the flavor of lettuce from the farmers market is way better.

Credit: Leela Cyd/Kitchn

Do you always eat together?

It’s actually quite sad. My parents spent the last 12 months living in Santa Barbara. They were our neighbors, right up the road from us. But my dad recently passed away, which is why we are spending a bit of time in Tunisia now.

It is very bittersweet to think about it, but every night, we would bring dinner to my parents’ house. I was already cooking anyway, so it just made sense to bring dinner to them and collaborate. It was like a picnic. To be able to feed them, and to have my daughter, Lulu, spending time preparing food with me and my mom in the kitchen is so special. It was like how it was for me growing up, spending summers in Tunisia.

I’m so sorry for your family. Those are some special memories.

They are. When Lulu was a baby, I went a little crazy making her foods like sheeps’ milk ghee with cardamom and pears. She didn’t like anything that I made her basically. I tried to keep her vegetarian for her first few years, but when we started bringing her to Tunisia, she took one look at a lamb bone and started gnawing on it. I said, I think she’s carnivorous!

Credit: Leela Cyd/Kitchn

Ha! What’s the one family recipe you’d love to teach Lulu?

Her favorite Tunisian dish that we make a lot is shakshuka. It’s great for brunch, or even an easy dinner. She likes it with this lamb sausage called merguez. She has quite an amazing palate for a ten-year-old. She likes sushi, grilled fish, kale.

Kale! Go Lulu!

Kale Caesar salad is seriously one of her favorite things. We will have that once a week. I’ll get a rotisserie chicken from Whole Foods, mix it up in a big salad, and she’ll have it after swim practice.

Credit: Leela Cyd/Kitchn

On nights when you need an easy out, what do you do?

It’s honestly embarrassing but we eat out at least 2-3 times per week when we’re really busy. I’m not afraid to order in. We’ll get takeout noodles, pad Thai, Vietnamese food. Everyone has their favorites in our family.

  • Biggest challenge in eating? Managing produce. I get so excited at the farmers market that I often get more than I need, so I try to make quick pickles and sauces to extend the longevity of produce. Then I can just throw them onto a salad. I always have about three pickles going in the fridge at all times.
  • Number of meals you cook at home every week? 7-8
  • 5 things on your grocery list every week? Lemons, good olive oil, tahini, seasonal fruits and vegetables.
  • Where do you shop, primarily? Farmers market, local fish market, TJ’s and Whole Foods.
  • What’s the last food thing you splurged on? Olive oil, seafood, nuts, cheese.
  • Top 3 default dinners? Bun with Vietnamese pork meatballs, Korean short ribs with gochujang, salmon teriyaki with a bit of gochujang.
  • Favorite thing to eat while watching TV? Hippie popcorn with coconut oil, Maldon salt, and nutritional yeast.
  • Default kid snack? Rice cake with hummus and furikake.
  • Best tip anyone ever taught you in cooking? Keep it fresh and simple.
  • Favorite kitchen tool? My knife is my bestie.
  • Best cookie of all time? Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace Cookie.
  • Who does the dishes in your home? My lovely hubby.

What’s the story behind your beautiful blue kitchen.

It didn’t come that way! It’s a super tiny, thin, small, 1950s kitchen. We bought our home 10 years ago and it has consumed every penny that we have to our names. All renovations and little fixes that we did, we did ourselves. I had my husband strip the cabinets and we white-washed them, then painted the kitchen blue. I am so drawn to blue because of Tunisia. Everywhere you look is bright blue and white, so I wanted to bring a bit of that color into the kitchen.

Credit: Leela Cyd/Kitchn

And because you’re a food stylist, I have to ask: What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever eaten?

It’s something simple, like what I had for lunch today: A whole grilled fish, with our feet in the sand, in a little shack on the sea. That’s the most beautiful thing.

Editor: Ariel Knutson

Editorial Advisor: Leela Cyd

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. How do you overcome challenges to feed yourself? If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.