Meet the multi-talented artist whose life illustrates (literally) the bond between cultures, food, and love.
Get to know artist, cookbook author, business owner, and global traveler Marcella Kriebel, a woman who elevates a love of food and cultures into art that’s guaranteed to brighten your day — and kitchen.
I first saw the work of artist, entrepreneur, cookbook author, and all-around inspiring human being Marcella Kriebel while browsing one of my favorite cookbook shops in Washington, D.C, Clementine Thomas‘s Bold Fork Books. (You should go.)
On a shelf, near the sunny window, stood a series of uniquely charming and beautiful food illustrations. I took note of the artist’s name in the signature, beelined to Google, and contacted Marcella Kriebel as soon as I could. I was so curious to know the artist took such care and love in creating these vibrant and charming illustrations of food, ingredients, and recipes.
I’m so glad I reached out. Marcella Kriebel is both artist and savvy business owner, a world traveler committed to exploring different cultures through food, who parlayed her talent and passion into a vibrant career that straddles both studio art and food.
I hope you love getting to know Marcella as much as I did. We talked travel memories, art, the nuances of a good Thanksgiving stuffing, important advice for entrepreneurs, and lots more.
The Interview: Artist + Food Illustrator Marcella Kriebel
Editor’s note: This interview took place on June 1, 2021. This article has been edited and condensed for space. You can shop Marcella’s work on her website.
Lisa Ruland: In researching, I discovered that art is very much a part of your D.N.A., with your family background. Can you talk about your journey to becoming an artist? Is that something you always knew from childhood you wanted to pursue?
Marcella Kriebel: Both my parents are artists. I remember when I was little, I would take scraps, like ends of wood or different color skeins of fabric (my mom had a loom) and I would make imaginary worlds like little castles from the wood, or little multicolored cushions for my dolls’ chairs. And I remember going to the office supply store and just being so excited about the erasers and pens and highlighters and notebooks. I was completely in heaven.
I could tell that art went way back for you. But what about your interest in travel and cultural anthropology. How did that develop?
I majored in cultural anthropology because those were the classes I just wanted to keep on taking. Anthropology is such a broad discipline, so I focused in on Latin American culture and applied this lens of art, to look at this culture through, for example, its colors.
I took Spanish throughout high school and elementary school, and the momentum continued in my interest in the culture around that language. Language unlocks so much knowledge and ability to understand people. So that’s why when I chose to study abroad, I wanted to go to Latin America to continue the understanding of that language. And applying art to that was just a natural trajectory.
I studied abroad in Ecuador. And after college, I bought a one-way ticket there and stayed with my boyfriend at the time, who had dual citizenship, and his family for just under a year. Being in the kitchen there, and generally, is a great environment to get to know people and forge cultural bridges. The idea of recording what I was learning was my way of remembering what I was learning.
You mean through food illustrations and the written recipes?
Yes. It was this idea of recording in both image and text — in both languages — what I was learning. And I tried to write everything in Spanish, but if I didn’t know the word for something, I would often draw a quick picture of it.
So you would be in the kitchen with a notebook as you were learning how to cook a recipe, drawing and writing while cooking.
Yes. I cooked most every day with the family’s housekeeper. And that was just one experience. Most of the people I have cooked with have been female, and have been older. So they will explain how they make something, but also talk about their grandmother or sister. And that brings the ritual and cultural understanding parts.
I wanted the recipes in my cookbook to be a fluid thing, which is like a lot of home cooking recipes around the world. I like to think of the recipes as inspiration and framework, where one can create something new and exciting in their own kitchen, but not have to follow a recipe to an absolute T.
Something I’ve thought about a lot is the importance of home cooking. Like why is home cooking a uniquely meaningful way of understanding one another and bridging cultures?
Because cooking is a universal experience. And it’s an equalizer. Even if you’re a bad cook, you have some entry point. And you can acknowledge that a person is doing something in an artful way. Cooking is art. It’s a series of methods and techniques and perspectives that really is a chemistry. From these ingredients comes this beautiful dish that’s a combination of flavors and textures.
It really feeds your curiosity, too, when you see someone do something with an ingredient that is so new to you. Like, perhaps, seeing someone eat a mango in a way that’s so fantastic and you’ve never thought of. In my first book, I included how to eat a champagne mango — one of those small, light yellow ones. You massage it, gently, until the seed is suspended within the flesh. And then you poke out the stem, and you can slurp up the flesh from the mango.
Well, that’s a new one for me!
It’s so cool. It’s like a smoothie. And then you’re left with a naked shell. “Mangoes para chupar.”
So you’re in Ecuador, you’re learning how to cook these recipes, you’re recording how to make them. At the time, did you have an intention that that would be a cookbook?
No, not at all. I came back to the United States in 2008 and was a snowboard coach, and then I went to New Zealand for four months. Totally different, but at the same time, I kept recording my life and more cooking in my sketchbook journal.
It was not until I was laid off from my job in Washington, D.C. that I went back to these journals from my travels and thought, “I am going to take some time and refine all these dishes and create a bound version of these recipes based on my experiences in travels.”
So this cookbook is entirely hand-drawn and hand lettered. So that year of unemployment led to publishing a cookbook. It was a labor of love, and it did kickstart my independent art career.
There is something so entrepreneurial in that. And there are a lot of artists who might be wondering: “Ok, I have this love, I have this passion. But I don’t know how to figure out how to support myself doing this.” What advice do you have for artists and creators for whom the business side might not come naturally.
Just begin, any way you can. You must start creating. Figure out what it is you really love to do. Because inherently, you won’t want to do it as a business if it’s not fun. If you want to afford the freedom that comes from working for yourself, you had better love doing it.
As far as other advice: It’s ok to make mistakes. You have to become comfortable failing a little bit. At the beginning, you’re refining your voice, and your abilities. And so you give yourself permission to fail. But then you move on.
So how did you actually sell the cookbook?
Mostly in-person. Farmers markets, a lot of different food demos. And to complement the book, I started doing art prints, which is our bread and butter now with the company. There are over 100 different mix-and-match prints. And now there are the greeting cards as well.
You have also been to Cuba, and created a cookbook about Cuba, Comida Cubana. I have never been to Cuba, but I often find generally with travel that the political relationships between countries do not reflect the personal relationships between us.
We are so alike. Cuban people are some of the most genuinely kind and loving people I have ever met.
You have also been doing art lessons! How has that been?
It’s been great! When Covid hit, I started doing virtual classes. I have utilized Zoom to its fullest, by having an overhead camera and another camera on my face so people can have a front-row seat to the art process. And it’s actually a good way for people to see up-close aspects of the medium.
Previous to Covid, I have done one or two in-person classes a month. And I love teaching! I love witnessing these aha moments with people who may be picking up paintbrushes for the first time. So we review some essential techniques that I use so they have this visual language, but also these art terms they can use to describe their work.
Ok, so I have a few lightening round questions that I ask everyone at the end. Here we go. First, fill in the blank: Other than turkey, it is not Thanksgiving dinner without what food?
Stuffing. I love carbs. I consider Thanksgiving a beige food day. You have to have celery in the recipe. I like a bread stuffing recipe. The texture is very important. It can’t be too soggy, and it has to be a little crispy on the top. That is something that holds a lot of nostalgia for me.
What do you usually have for breakfast?
No two days are alike. Some days I skip breakfast, admittedly. But when I’m in more of a routine, I like having steel-cut oats with a little maple syrup and raisins. In Latin America, “avena” means oats, but it’s served a lot more liquidy than we make it here. It’s sweet with a little brown sugar, and you can sip it from a cup.
What is a dish that feels like love to you?
There are so many. The first thing that comes to mind is a chicken marsala, because that is distinctly one of my mother’s recipes and I love mushrooms. The more mushrooms the better.
But from my cookbooks, this may sound strange, but ceviche. Ceviche holds so many memories for me: cooking with loved ones, making ceviche together on a weekend, which might be followed by getting some crabs and sitting around a table and just kibitzing with people.
And ceviche is a little harder to make here in D.C. because it’s a little harder to find that really fresh, “just pulled out of the ocean” seafood. So I guess I am particularly nostalgic, and absence makes the heart grow fonder.