spotlight feature: Carolina gelen

spotlight feature: Carolina gelen

when I sat down to think about who to feature in our spring spotlight series, carolina immediately came to mind. why? because her wonderful, buoyant spirit and kind, humble demeanor are the epitome of what spring is all about. she radiates positivity and light throughout her content creation, newsletters, and recipes, but with an effortless ease that endears her to just about everyone. 

born in transylvania, romania but now residing in salt lake city, utah, carolina has amassed a phenomenal devoted following on instagram thanks to her affordable, low-lift, but big impact recipes. her cookbook, Pass the Plate, is coming out this year and the cover features the perfect color to complement her sunny disposition. 

read on for our interview about food, creativity, writing cookbooks and learning from our moms. i know you'll love carolina as much as i do. 


Eden: You’re originally from Romania and now live in Salt Lake City -- talk about a transition! What was it like to uproot your life and move to a different country? Did you have any culture shock? What surprised you about Salt Lake City and what do you miss about Romania? How would you compare the food cultures between the two?

Carolina: Moving to the US was an incredibly lengthy and challenging process. I immigrated during the Covid lockdown, which meant that every aspect of my immigration journey, from visa processing to booking flights and renting an apartment, was a very unique and time-consuming experience. 

A huge culture shock was how common eating out is here. Growing up, my family could rarely afford to go out and eat. If we were to eat out once or twice a year, it would only be for a special occasion. Besides that, we ate every meal from scratch at home. So, seeing how common going through a drive-thru (we also don’t have many of those) or even going to a local restaurant every week was definitely a cultural shock.

That said, I now understand how convenient eating out is, especially when you have a million other things to do in a day. If it started as a culture shock, now I can’t help but get some crispy tacos from my favorite local Mexican spot at least once a week hahaha!!!

I know it’s cliché, but I still can’t get over how everything in America is bigger, especially portion sizes. I’m still shocked every time I order a small ice cream cone and get a pint of ice cream on a cone, hahaha!

One of the most awe-inspiring aspects of living in Utah is the constant presence of the beautiful mountains. The view is always breathtaking whether you’re strolling about, hiking, or shopping around town. I never get tired of the views and love nature!


E: Okay, so big question, why food? Where did your love for cooking and sharing flavors stem from? Do you have an earliest memory with flavors and food? And what spurred you to not only cook but (thankfully) share your recipes with the world through content creation?

C: Food felt right, like my natural path, albeit not a direct route. It was the only thing I was constantly passionate about and interested in. My mom always cooked, making food a huge part of my life. She has always been very welcoming to me in the kitchen and nurtured my passion early on as a child.

One of my favorite early memories was when my mom would make donuts for me once a week and let me be a part of the process, from kneading the dough to cutting out the donuts to, of course, eating them. She’d put a giant stainless-steel bowl of donuts in my lap while I watched one of Jamie Oliver’s cooking shows. To give you an idea of how much food shaped my life, I learned how to speak English by watching cooking shows.

Another memory I’m very fond of is cooking for loved ones and watching my mother pour her heart into food whenever we hosted people. One of my father’s best friends would come to Romania once or twice a year to visit from Austria. His favorite foods were my mother’s lecso (Hungarian pepper stew) and my cremes (custard slice), both recipes now available in my debut cookbook. I kid you not; he loved that dessert so much that he would eat half of a 9 x 13-inch tray by himself. He passed away a few years ago, but his memory will forever be in our hearts, enjoying his favorite foods.

Knowing this, you’d probably be surprised to learn I suppressed my passion for cooking for most of my life. I went to college to study computer science, got a degree, and briefly worked for a German car company programming car parts. Growing up in a poor country, you’re not encouraged to become a chef, so I never felt like this was even an option for me. It feels very freeing and surreal to be able to do this every day.

Sharing recipes online was never something I planned to turn into a career or job. Even after working in restaurants and bakeries, I never thought I could make a successful career out of it. I started doing it out of pure joy, and then people started asking for ingredients and instructions for dishes I would post online. It still feels surreal and such an honor to be a part of people’s lives.


E: You posted the sweetest post here about how you got started (in a tiny college kitchen with a thrifted stool!) and while that proves that anyone can create engaging content with what they have, what is your current go-to equipment both in the kitchen and for filming content? What can’t you live without?

C: I used to say that natural lighting, a tripod, and a phone camera are what you need, but I think the more important things you need to succeed are internal self-confidence and deep passion. It’s a journey of self-discovery, a constant internal battle to understand yourself and your environment better and better.

It can be challenging, especially on social media, when you constantly compare yourself with others. Of course, you try not to do this, but if you aren’t comparing yourself, the algorithm and other people are.

It’s important to remember the recipe you film isn’t a measure of your self-worth. In the food media world, success can be as unpredictable as the recipes we create. You might spend hours filming the best-tasting dish you’ve ever made, only for the video to flop. Alternatively, a 10-minute video of a random leftover meal could go viral right away. It’s so often not about the recipe or the time you put into it, which is very hard to learn and accept because it is the opposite of so many other things in this world.

It’s crucial to stay humble when the world and the algorithm love you, but even more important to believe in yourself when the opposite happens.


E: Despite having worked across 5-star restaurants and bakeries, you say growing up in your mother’s kitchen taught you the most. How would you describe your mom as a cook? And what are the most important lessons you learned from her kitchen?

C: My mother’s cooking style is best defined by her confidence and creativity in the kitchen. She has a super practical approach that doesn’t rely on recipes but instead adapts and creates dishes from whatever ingredients are available. Whether it was a soup or a dessert, she would simply eyeball the dish, adjusting the flavors and textures as she went along.

One of the most important lessons my mother taught me was to be resourceful in the kitchen and make recipes my own. She could take just 4 ingredients from the fridge and turn them into a culinary masterpiece. But the most valuable lesson she taught me was the acceptance of mistakes.

She normalized the idea that messing up a dish is okay and that the best action is to start over, not freak out, to learn and try again. This resilience and positive mindset have been so invaluable in my culinary journey. Learning this helped me a lot, especially when I experienced the opposite in restaurant kitchens.


E: Where does your creativity stem from? Constant creative creation can so quickly lead to burn out yet whenever I see you pop up in my feed your face looks just as fresh and light as the first time I saw you. What do you do to keep your creativity and spirit so light and abundant?

C: Having passion and love for what you do is so important. For me, it’s hard not to have a smile on my face when I wake up and do what I most enjoy: cooking and sharing food with people. That said, it’s still easy to burn out doing this, so it’s essential to have a place you can go to refresh and clear your mind whenever you are feeling in a rut.

For me, it’s the awe-inspiring nature around me. The sight of snowy, majestic mountains, grilling at a local lake, or listening to birds chirping every morning always makes me feel refreshed and inspires me. That and a quick visit to any thrift store also help me get my mind off things.

Nature and seasonal produce will forever inspire my recipes. I enjoy visiting local farms, stores, and farmers markets to see what’s in season. I shop from them as much as possible, always eager to bring home a new culinary project.

At the end of the day, inspiration is everywhere; we just have to open up to it. Most of my creativity comes from nature, my fridge, my pantry, and often just from my stomach haha!


E: Let’s talk about your book! Pass the Plate can be pre-ordered here and showcases your love for bright, big flavors with an easy, low-lift attitude. From one cookbook author to another, what was both the hardest and easiest thing in the process of writing, creating and shooting for the book?

C: The most satisfying part of the cookbook process was recipe development. Creating a set collection of 100 recipes was something that really focused me. Each recipe took rounds and rounds of refining. I wanted to ensure that most recipe ingredients are pantry-friendly and that the recipe comes with clear, thorough, yet very approachable instructions. With multiple versions of the same dish, I found myself with a ton of food to share with my neighbors and friends. Their feedback and constructive criticism were invaluable, enhancing the recipes and making them even more delightful.

Writing and editing were the most challenging parts of the cookbook process for me, especially since English isn’t my first language. Despite this, I felt so honored to share my stories and memories tied to the food. I would’ve loved to share more, but sadly, the room on the cookbook pages is limited. I wrote 5 to 6 paragraphs for a headnote but then had to cut that down to 1 or 2 paragraphs. Deciding what to leave in and what to cut out was challenging initially, but I eventually got the hang of it the more I did it.

During the editing phase, I carefully anticipated readers queries and addressed them in the headnotes or recipe instructions. I found myself overanalyzing all possible scenarios. Would they know how to adjust the baking time if they want larger cookies? What if someone prefers something other than cottage cheese? Would they know to substitute it with yogurt or labneh? I realized I was overdoing it with my highly descriptive scenarios and had to remind myself that the readers can adapt the recipes to their preferences without my excessive guidance.


E: It’s finally spring and I cannot contain my excitement for spring produce. What flavors, produce or recipes are you most excited to cook with in the coming months?

C: I am SO excited to get my hands on some fresh produce, especially sweet strawberries! I will eat most of them as they come, but I also plan on turning some into a dressing or jam, pickling some, and adding them to a cake. I cannot wait!!! 

Also salads!!! And dips!!! Give me all the peas, wild garlic, Romano beans, Swiss chard, spring onions, and buttery lettuce.


E: And finally, we’d love for you to share a spring forward recipe like a dip, spring salad, appetizer or cocktail that feels like your dream spring moment, encapsulating all the joy and hope warm weather and fresh spring produce brings.

C: This is the first spring-forward recipe that came to mind: charred romano beans with a lemony miso dressing and crunchy sesame seeds. This is usually when you start seeing Romano beans at farmer’s markets; they’re broader, flatter green beans ready to soak up any dressing or vinaigrette. I love charring them in a hot skillet and serving them warm with this lemony miso dressing and crunchy sesame seeds on top. Pair them with a glass of crisp Pinot Grigio and enjoy the sunny spring. If you can’t find Romano beans, use what you can find, snap peas or green beans will do.


charred romano beans with a lemony miso dressing and crunchy sesame seeds

Servings: 4
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes

· 1 lb or 450g fresh, green Romano beans
· 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
· Kosher salt
· 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
· 1 small shallot, finely grated
· 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
· 1 teaspoon lemon zest, about 1/2 lemon, plus more for topping
· 1 tablespoon honey
· 2 teaspoons white miso
· Freshly cracked black pepper
· Kosher salt, to taste

1.    Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat until smoking. 
2.    Add the beans to the skillet, drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil and toss using
a pair of tongs. 
3.    Using a grill press or another skillet weigh down the beans to increase
surface contact. 
4.    Char the beans for 3 to 4 minutes, until there are visible dark brown spots
developing on the exterior. 
5.    Using a pair of tongs, toss the beans in the skillet. Place the weight back on
and char for another 3 to 4.
6.    Season with a hefty pinch of salt and remove the skillet off the heat. 
7.    To a small pan over medium heat, add the sesame seeds. Toast until
golden brown, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes. Add the seeds to a small
bowl to cool. 

8.    Make the dressing: combine the shallot, lemon zest, lemon juice, miso
paste, honey, and black pepper in a bowl. Slowly stream 2 tablespoons of olive
oil while whisking to emulsified.
9.    Place the charred beans on a serving platter. Spoon the dressing on top,
sprinkle the toasted sesame seeds, and lemon zest on top.