At this moment, there’s no country that’s captured our cultural imagination more than Italy. If it seems like everyone you know is traveling to Sicily or Portofino, it’s because they are. Whether it’s because they’re obsessed with the country’s gorgeous architecture or desperate to eat the perfect plate of pasta, there’s no denying Italy’s romantic allure. For author and actress Tembi Locke, though, her obsession with Italy — and Italian food — started years ago when she moved to the country and literally bumped into Saro, a chef whom she’d ultimately marry, while eating gelato on the street.
After falling in love in Florence, Tembi and Saro’s relationship was tragically cut short when Saro was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and her journey through the grieving process inspired From Scratch, Locke’s critically acclaimed 2019 memoir that was adapted into a Netflix limited series by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine, set to premiere on October 21. On the screen, Saro and Tembi are fictionalized into different characters, aspiring artist Amy (played by Zoe Saldana) and Sicilian chef Lino (Eugenio Mastrandrea), but their story plays out similarly. After a passionate courtship that, of course, frequently revolves around getting hot and heavy in the kitchen, the couple is happily married and looking to adopt when tragedy strikes.
Across eight episodes, From Scratch is the kind of romance that will make you cry, laugh, and want to eat a giant plate of pasta at the same time. Ahead of the premiere of From Scratch, Eater sat down to talk with Locke about her experiences in Italy, what makes chefs sexy, and the common ground found in polenta and grits.
Traveling to Italy is really huge right now. Why do you think we’re all so obsessed with going to — and eating in — Italy?
Having been back and forth to Italy for 20 years as a dual citizen, I’ve seen it go in and out of favor. But we always cycle back to Italian cuisine, and there are a lot of reasons why. First, it is incredibly, obviously delicious. It’s very comforting. But I also think the way Italians approach the table is something that is both immutable and aspirational. We see the potential of what our relationship with food could be, and the lifestyle that we’d all love to embrace.
There’s a scene in which Lino agrees to bring a special type of cake back to the States from Italy for a complete stranger. Is that scene intended to illustrate the communal nature of how Italians feel about food?
Truly, especially in the Sicilian culture. There’s such a deep and profound attachment and closeness to home that the feeling is very much like, “Why wouldn’t I help someone get a piece of Sicily when they’re thousands of miles away?” And Sicilians aren’t the only ones like that. My stepfather is from Senegal, and he does the exact same thing with strangers. I have friends who are Indian who are always looking for ways to bring little bits of home to people who have moved far away, even if they don’t even know them.
One of the first steamy scenes between Amy and Lino in From Scratch takes place in a kitchen. Why is that such an obvious place to explore intimacy?
That scene is based on something that actually happened in real life. I invited Saro to my Florence apartment, and had the not-so-brilliant idea to cook a meal for a chef. As a college student, I was certainly not prepared to do that level of cooking, and I botched it. It was funny, but also an attempt to be intimate and vulnerable with someone instead of creating that “perfect” date environment. I’m a firm believer that so much of what happens in our relationships, whether familial or romantic or friendships, plays out around the table. We’re either igniting something or attempting to heal our relationships or being vulnerable with those that we care about.
You wrote the teleplay for From Scratch, which is inspired by your memoir of the same name. How did you make food, which was such an important part of this love story, come to life on the screen?
We wanted to make the food feel very intimate, beautiful, inviting, aspirational, and sexy. We wanted to really make the viewer lean in and want to eat. At the same time, we wanted to show how food changes over the course of a life in terms of this couple, and the way that food can be used to both soothe and control. It can be a power play, it can be very charged with so many different types of emotions in our relationships. It can be charged with love and sexiness, or it can be more about a familial power dynamic. To render that on the screen was really a tough task for us as storytellers.
Thanks in part to kitchen dramas The Bear, we’re in a cultural moment in which being a chef is sexy. As someone who married a chef, why do you think that is?
I think it touches on our collective desire to be fed and nourished; it’s just so primal for all of us. There’s a deep connection between being fed and being nurtured. There’s also the attraction to the chef’s presence in the kitchen. The culture in a restaurant kitchen is so dynamic, and chefs have this commanding way that feels full of strength and power and dynamism. It’s very sexy, there’s a kinetic energy to what’s happening. Literally and metaphorically, they’re handling a lot of plates in the air, and that’s very interesting and compelling to watch.
When Lino first comes to live in Los Angeles with Amy, he works in this obviously very shitty Italian restaurant, Mangia Mia. Do you think that’s how most Italian chefs would feel about working in Italian American restaurants?
Absolutely, no doubt. If you’re Italian-born and you find yourself in an Italian American restaurant, which is sort of a copy of a copy of the worst copy of what Italian food actually is, you’re going to be really dismayed at what gets passed off as Italian food. There’s something about these giant portions and super-fast service that feels really counterintuitive to what Italian food is, and what is actually nurturing and fulfilling.
There’s a really great scene where Lino has his first Thanksgiving with Amy and her family from Texas. How did you want to illustrate this culture clash?
The Thanksgiving dinner scene is one of my favorites in the show, there’s so much that happens. On one level you have all the family dynamics, the relationships between mother and daughter and sister and father, and on another you have the dynamic of this brand-new couple that’s trying to find their way. Lino tries to cook something and puts a piece of himself on the table, but that gets dismissed pretty quickly, because Amy’s family likes what they like for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is so rooted in tradition, and we look forward to that one day a year where we get to have all our old familiars.
The idea of introducing a new dish to the table becomes kind of a metaphor for the whole series. The relationship between Amy and Lino is a disruption, and we wanted to play with and poke a little fun at the idea that if Thanksgiving is about gratitude, and really being open, why are we hanging our hat so much on these same old dishes year after year?
Lino and Amy find a moment of culinary common ground over a bowl of grits, or polenta if you prefer. Was this scene based on something that actually happened in your relationship with Saro?
Totally happened. I, of course, had no idea what polenta was when I first moved to Italy, and even for a long time I didn’t connect it with grits. Then, when Saro came to live in the States, I would make grits and he was like, “You know this is just polenta, right?” Grits actually became a thing that he really loved; he embraced them for the classic Southern dish that they are. It was a really beautiful way to embrace the idea that something like corn, which is grown worldwide, is expressed differently in different cultures, even though it’s ultimately the exact same thing. That’s a lot of what our series is saying with regard to culture, food, and racism: Let’s look at how we are the same, while honoring the ways in which we are different.
When Lino first gets sick, he tries to fight back against his illness by cooking. Do you think he, and Saro, found comfort in doing what they knew best?
There’s something about not being physically able to do the thing that you love most in the world, the thing that excites you, that lifts you and touches your inner light. That was so difficult for my late husband as a chef, being severed from this thing he loved because he didn’t get to make that choice. Fate made it for him. But even in his illness, he still found a way to find meaning and value, and really wanted to express himself creatively. Even if it couldn’t be in the professional realm, he was still able to honor that part of who he was while accepting where he was in life. In real life, Saro started offering cooking classes out of our home in periods of good health, and that was so regenerative for him. He could be in the company of others, he could sit with them and have a meal. It was an incredibly life-affirming experience.
At the end of the series, Amy really sets out on a new life after losing Lino. Will we learn more about her life after Lino in a potential Season 2?
There aren’t any plans for a Season 2. I think that the premise of the series is that this man, Lino, is now imprinted on Amy and her life in all ways, including her time in the kitchen. And that is so true for me. Saro is with me in the kitchen every day, all the time, and that is the greatest gift that he left me. I get to share that gift with my daughter, and my friends and family. Although I don’t have aspirations to be a professional chef, I’m a very good home cook because of him. In that way, he is still very much alive and part of my life.
Last question: On a scale from 1 to 10, how crazy is it to learn that Zoe Saldana is going to play you in the adaptation of your memoir?
Oh my God, it’s absolutely off the scale, completely bizarre. You cannot quantify it. I’m so humbled and grateful.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.