Robert Pirello had a crazy idea to make a healthy-cooking show starring his wife, and Christina Cooks was born in 1997. Robert is the flax seed that binds together the Christina Cooks empire, including an award-winning PBS television series, eight books, healthy-travel tours, cooking classes, and followers all around the world. He encourages her to dream big, which has paid off. For this dynamic duo the mission is helping people learn to improve their health as well as their carbon footprint by eating more consciously.
Christina Pirello’s culinary zeal goes back to her Irish-Italian family in New Jersey where cooking was the center of home life. Her mother was ahead of her time: into the freshest ingredients, recycling, and alternative health.
Christina’s first food job was at a coffee shop at the hotel restaurant where her dad worked as a butcher. She was reprimanded for spilling coffee on a customer, but couldn’t be fired because of her dad, so they demoted her to scrubbing vegetables for three months. Christina wanted to learn to be a chef, but this was a time when women were not given the same opportunities in the culinary industry as men.
When she didn’t quit, the chef tried to deter her with three months of taking the innards out of chickens. Christina had already rebelled by going vegetarian at age fourteen. “My father unconsciously set my feet on the path towards veganism. He had the chance to work in a slaughterhouse and couldn’t do it; he could not kill innocent animals—his words that I will never forget. His vulnerability sealed the deal for me, and I was done with meat. I will always be grateful to him for that.”
The chicken job disgusted her; she persevered. Eventually her determination impressed the boss so much that he taught her everything from making sauces to baking. But by then Christina didn’t want a food career; she was into eating processed junk food and decided University of Miami was the place for her to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts.
Her artistic interest is evident in everything from her Italian espresso cup collection to the eccentric paintings that adorn the walls of the Pirellos’ quaint Philly rowhouse. Christina pays attention to detail and finds the treasure in nearly everything. But in Miami she was not yet committed to food as her creative medium.
Everything changed at age twenty-six when Christina was diagnosed with leukemia. Her prognosis was not promising at all: She was given nine months to live. Being from a family where most people don’t live past sixty-six, she didn’t turn to them for encouragement.
A dear friend asked her to meet his buddy who claimed to know how food cures cancer. The buddy, Robert Pirello, introduced Christina to macrobiotics and plant-based eating and then proposed marriage. She said “Yes!” to him for an amazing partnership, personal and professional.
Despite their benefits, Christina learned quickly that plant foods are often served as boring and unappealing. She returned to her culinary talents to make things delicious and coupled that with a second master’s degree—in food science and nutrition.
Her nine months to live became nine months to “spontaneous regression.” Her cancer has stayed in remission since eighteen months after her diagnosis. Instead of simply accepting it as a miracle, in 1988 Christina became a vegan macrobiotic chef to help save others. A lifelong athlete, Christina took it upon herself to win this challenge and make healthy food that would impress everyone, even Italian nonnas!
In its first year, the PBS television show Christina Cooks was broadcast throughout sixty-nine viewing areas (twelve is considered good). The chef’s delicious recipes, wacky sense of humor, and whimsical personality earned her a Mid-Atlantic regional Emmy award in 1998. She didn’t even know that she was being nominated—her show producers applied for her.
She never reapplied, she said, because one Emmy was enough. Her most prized award is the emails she gets from people every day about the positive impact she has had on their health.
Christina Cooks relaunches in January 2020. The major difference with the first season is that now Christina is an even stronger vegan. The show has always been vegan, but in the past she wasn’t allowed to “inflict her views” on show staff. Now she’ll only buy vegan food for the crew.
Christina understands that veganism is more than just wholesome food. Even if you don’t care about your health, you do care about the future world for children and grandchildren.
For Christina, veganism is where compassion starts, not where it ends. She extends harmlessness to all parts of life, and tries to live as low-waste as possible with minimal paper products, organic laundry detergent, etc. Robert is wholeheartedly sharing the lifestyle.
The Pirellos work well together because Robert also comes from a big Italian family and cares about health, animals, and the environment. He has the business sense and marketing savvy, while she has the culinary enthusiasm and experience. They both love healthy travel.
At age eighteen, Christina chaperoned her younger brother and his friends on a trip to Europe and at the end of the trip she spontaneously decided to live in Italy for nine months. She’s loved it ever since. Robert had his first experience of Italy at age fifty.
Now she and Robert arrange group travel tours to countries such as Italy, Croatia, and Spain. Guests stay at historic villas, dine on healthy meals, explore cultural sites, and meet locals. Robert cooks breakfast (his morning specialty is a feast), and Christina cooks either lunch or dinner; they also go out to restaurants for some meals. Everything served at the villas is vegan, but people can order what they want at restaurants.
There is something about eating healthy in a new place that changes people, she notes. Three days in, even the hardcore “carnivorous” spouses order vegan, even though there is no pressure put on them. Christina attributes the program’s success to the fact that traveling broadens your perspectives about the world and other cultures. The owner of a popular Philadelphia meat-centric restaurant went on a Pirellos-led trip and ate vegan for the entire two weeks. If he can do it, anyone can!
The Pirellos’ various endeavors are proof of the power that tasty vegan food has; it can build bridges and transform lives.
Christina is a member of the AVS Speakers Bureau. Visit ChristinaCooks.com. The new season of Christina Cooks begins on WHYY in Philadelphia, Christina’s home market, on Saturday, Jan. 11 at 11:30 a.m.