Chef Tara Thomas shares her journey of finding her passion in the food industry through community, and connection through eating.
– KEYS SOULCARE
Tara Thomas is bringing mindfulness to her day one meal at a time. The New York-based chef and restaurant consultant sees eating as a chance to create a powerful daily ritual and immerse ourselves in the experience of food. She is motivated by a desire to bring equity and education to communities through knowledge and access to healthy meals. Here, she shares her own journey to finding empowerment through what’s on her plate.
Did you grow up enjoying food and cooking?
I was raised in Portland, Oregon, and liked pretending that I was cooking with all the botanicals outside. My favorite channel was The Cooking Channel, so I would try to [prepare things] on my own at home. I was always welcome in the kitchen, and even when I was young, my parents let me make dinner.
Then I went to [college] for engineering and didn’t feel like that was what I wanted to do every day. [Eventually] I dropped out without knowing what [was next]. And then I landed on trying to cook. I became vegan five years ago and that’s when cooking as a career became more apparent — it was special to me and people noticed. I saw cooking as a skill but also a love language.
What are some of your culinary influences?
Growing up at home, we ate all types of food, but I remember a lot of Thai and Indian. My mom is Dutch and my dad is from Louisiana, so the food they grew up with is basically the opposite. When they met, my dad was in the military and had lived in a lot of places. He also loves food. My mom’s the same way. They also both loved learning how to cook different things.
How has your upbringing shaped the way you approach cooking?
I like to blend things and don’t see ingredients as being for a specific cuisine. Instead, I cook intuitively — I smell it, taste it, and try to fix it. My dad got me to try foods that were outside of my comfort zone as a child, and I still like to experiment with my recipes and ingredients to this day.
Recently I’ve been trying to connect more to my Blackness through the foods my dad grew up with in Louisiana, while trying to make it more vegan or healthy. My grandma, who also really likes to cook, has been another influence for me. The few times I’ve cooked with her have been really inspiring — I can see how her cooking methods have [made an impression] on my father and me.
What part does community play in your work?
Networking is so important to me. I have an entire group of friends now that just started cooking, or pivoted careers into food. I think cooking is very connected to your ancestry and how your family has cooked, then sharing that with your community.
Do you have any rituals for preparing meals?
I find cooking to be very therapeutic. It’s important to pause and eat, like pause and really take the time and be with every step of the process.
I come into the kitchen and clean before I cook. At home, I use essential oils or burn a candle. It turns it into a whole experience, including looking in the fridge and pulling out all the ingredients, looking at my spices, and thinking about flavor profiles.
Is it ever challenging to find mindfulness in your relationship with food?
Definitely. In times of stress, it can be really hard to get grounded, but I think it’s like, “Oh wait, my only job in life is to eat and sleep and stay alive — I should really put time into that.” So I try to focus on something else.
Eating is a time to let yourself meditate and relax. Once you’re full and nourished, you can actually see things for what they are, because stress makes everything chaotic.
What connection do you feel between food and community?
I think they’re the same thing. When you look at how maps were made, a lot of communities and spaces are named after crops and the food that was really abundant there. Food was how people identified with themselves. In this modern world, that’s something you don’t really grow up learning or feeling sometimes. And you have to realize that that’s all people really had before. That was everything.
I think food is a great way to build community with your friends.
When you really look at it there’s probably something you love to eat with certain friends or family — whether it’s a specific menu you built together or just a snack. I don’t think that we have many meaningful relationships without food.