Love Is The Main Ingredient
Q: Can you talk about the importance of food in your own family?
Our kitchen was small, but like most homes it was the heart of the house. Growing up we didn't have a lot of money. I remember when my parents would give me a plate of food I always felt so grateful and taken care of. It would be the most simple thing, but it always brought me joy. I learned a lot from both my parents. My mom was always piling fresh food on her plate: sprouts, parsley, tomatoes, lettuce, or onion, something to brighten up the meal. That has become a big part of my signature as a chef; I always like to bring an element of freshness and a bright note to a meal. I learned that from her.
Later in life she took up more of the baking part of the kitchen equation and my dad did more of the cooking part. It was his way to decompress and ground. I see that it brings him a lot of joy. His meatballs and marinara sauce are pretty well known. His Italian friend asked him for the recipe and said that his mother would turn in her grave if she knew that her son was getting a marinara recipe from his Jewish friend. My older brother worked in kitchens, so he taught me some helpful kitchen skills. And my sister was great at opening the fridge and pulling out all kinds of stuff and making these delicious meals or snacks out of nothing in no time at all. I payed close attention to that ability and admired it. But at the end of the day our food was simple. I've had to venture out quite a bit to learn about all the different kinds of cuisine out there. Cooking, for me, came later in my life. It was a conscious effort. Being a shy, reserved person, I tended to stay small — and that carried over to the kitchen. I had to be like, "I've got to do this. I have to assert myself." I have been with my husband, Adam, for 17 years, since I was 17. In a way we grew up together. We were learning side by side throughout our youth. Adam being more fearless and a very creative person inspired me, but at the same time I had to carve out space for me. I thought, "I'm going to claim this space," referring to the kitchen, where I could learn, make mistakes, and hone my craft. The process of cooking and eating lit me up like a light bulb. I also knew what good food was. I have a discerning palate, so I knew that I had to learn how to cook good food to achieve the quality of life that was valuable to me. It was a little bit like "if you want it done right, you gotta do it yourself."
Q: What path in food are you on now?
I now cook lunches for Descartes Labs, a company headquartered in Santa Fe that works with artificial intelligence and satellite imagery. A few years ago, Mark Johnson, the CEO, came to one of our holiday parties and loved my posole. He said, "You should come and cook for me and my employees up in Los Alamos." So I started cooking lunch for this group of scientists, geographers, and engineers that was, at the time, in Los Alamos. It was totally fabulous, and I loved it. Now they have moved their headquarters to Santa Fe, and I cook for about 25 people at their current office. Soon we'll be moving into a much larger space with a big, dreamy, commercial kitchen. They'll have about 80 employees at the end of next year, and I'll move to cooking breakfast, lunch, and snack starting next summer. I feel really blessed; they're a great group of wonderful people.
Q: How do you base your meals?
I went into it, because of my nutrition background, thinking they probably aren't going to like gluten and other things, but they were like, "No, we love it all." That made it a lot of fun. It was like, all rules were out the window and I could just have fun. I like to consider the vibe of the day, the weather and such, and try to anticipate what people might want or need: on a hot summer day, something light and refreshing, on a cold day, something warming and comforting. The day after Trump won the election I made a big pot of pasta with bolognese sauce and garlic bread. Recently, though, I've been making a lot of Asian meals since we don't have a lot of Asian restaurants here in Santa Fe.
Q: What lead you into studying nutrition?
I went to school for art and psychology, and I worked my way through college doing floral design and ended up working in that field for 10 years. It's similar to cooking. It's hands on. It's artistic. It's creating something. For me, though, the flower world didn't have the depth I wanted. I wanted a sense of service, a sense of helping or nourishing. Then my health ended up being compromised from being exposed to all of the pesticides from the flowers. The thing about flowers is they are monitored differently because it's not food grade, so they are heavily sprayed. So in my mid-twenties I was dealing with some heavy fatigue and really bad acne. I’m one who always wants to address any issue at its root.My mom is an herbalist, so I grew up with an awareness of herbs and diet and supporting the body to be healthy. So I threw myself into learning about nutrition to help regain my vitality and health. I wanted to heal myself, and my curiosity, love of learning, and wanting to solve a problem drove me to nutrition school. I loved learning about the intelligence of our bodies, the magic of plants, and the wisdom derived from traditional cultures.
I studied nutrition at Bauman College in Berkeley, California, for about three and a half years and became a certified nutrition consultant. They also had a chef program, and I thought, "This is where the fun part is." So I went to their culinary school and became a certified natural chef as well. I realized that I don't like to tell people how to eat. I'm kind of a rule breaker myself, so I didn't want to put rules on anyone else. It was just not my calling. I liked to learn about nutrition and to learn about health, but I didn't want that relationship with clients or people. I wanted it to be celebratory and not, well, don't eat this or don't eat that. It really just wasn't my vibe. My approach is simply to make good food with fresh ingredients. To wake up the palate and introduce people to delicious and nourishing food that they crave because it truly feeds their bodies.Plus, the cooking and eating part sparkles with joy for me, and that's where my passion is.
Q: How does your art reflect in your food?
Food and the process of cooking is highly artistic and creative. I'm very grateful I can be in a medium that brings me a lot of joy. Art and the creative process is really where my heart lies. With that, cooking is very inspiring to me; food is very inspiring to me; the whole experience just wakes me up. I find a lot of excitement and pleasure in just witnessing the beauty of food and the process of making food: the aroma of herbs, tempering spices, and the colors and the design of the plants. Then to layer the flavors by adding this ingredient and that, it's totally thrilling to me to be in the process of cooking. It totally satisfying to use it as a medium of artistic expression, because it's dynamic on all different kinds of levels. The thing I absolutely love about food, as a comparison for 2D art, is when I get to feed someone and they get to feel all that love within them. It's what really brings me the most joy, cooking a fresh, healthy, delicious meal for my loved ones. It's a gift of being able to nourish someone I love on that level.
Q: Who has been your biggest inspirations along the way?
I find that my inspiration meets me in different ways depending on where I am in my life. When I was in my early twenties, my friends who were my roommates inspired me greatly. They were about five to 10 years older than me and were bona fide badasses. They were women that could weld things together, lay a wood floor in an afternoon, and cook up a beautiful meal — total competency with grace. They were great role models for me that helped me become aware of what was important to me. Along the way, my family, friends, fellow chefs — some famous, some not — have all inspired me. I'm inspired by anyone who honors their gift and voice with fearlessness. I'm also inspired by humble chefs who do it more like a service with less ego. Big egos spoil the food. That's not why I'm a chef. I feel like I'm more of a cook, just here to feed people.
Q: Have you faced any challenges along the way?
There are always challenges, and always will be challenges. They are difficult in the moment, but always an opportunity to learn and grow. There are different layers of challenges: There are the logistical challenges, and then there are growing pains and the stepping-into-a-bigger-container-type challenges. At the end of the day, cooking for people and having them eat my food is so intimate. It's like having someone experience what you make with their mouth, tongue, and digestive system. I can feel exposed and vulnerable. Sometimes it feels like it's my heart that's on the plate. I often like to hide in the kitchen, eat the food standing up, and go right into cleaning/erasing the whole thing. It can be exhausting.
My dad was just recently talking to me about an interview he saw with a very famous opera singer. The singer said something to the effect that with singing and going on stage, every time we come in we start from scratch. It's the same with art, same with cooking. It's always starting with a blank canvas of sorts. With any creative expression, there's always that beginning point, the total void. And in that place you're always nervous. You're having to start over every single time. It makes it kind of a wild ride.
Q: How would you change how information gets out about healthy eating?
To first come from a place of love. The root of food and healthy eating, because it is so personal and political, it has to come from a place of love, self-love. With nutritionists and lobbyists, and especially in my experience in working with people with food, there is so much self-criticism and doubt and wanting to be better — and it comes from a place of, "I'm not good enough," and, "I wish I could be more like this." It comes from a place of simply not feeling good about oneself. I don't believe in shaming people, and I am very passionate about that. I feel like sometimes these nutritionists and these food movements come from a place of "better-than" or shaming the other, and that's just not going to get us anywhere. From the soil to the food, the plants to the animals, the farmers to the migrant workers and to the consumer, it's a huge network — and I think when we add the ingredient of kindness and love it just takes care of all of it. That's the first thing that needs to be served when working with people and food.
Q: What advice would you give to others?
What I used to do when I was first learning how to cook is every Monday I would try a new recipe. It helped relieve "the case of the Mondays," and it helped add some inspiration and just plain feeling good about myself to the beginning of the week. This is how I improved over years of cooking — I would challenge myself to not repeat a recipe, to always trying something different. The more you try new things, the more you're going to learn. Challenge yourself, and you'll be surprised.
If one is able to trace back to the place of where you want to learn or be inspired by something new, if you just add the ingredient of self-love, that is the most powerful tool. I think on the collective scale we are healing the feminine to bring it into balance. Part of that healing the feminine is to love the feminine and to love yourself, and that ties into eating well. That's the most radical thing we can do: Just love ourselves. At the root of where one starts as a platform, just add the ingredient of self-love. It's simple, but it's the most powerful.
Leah Pokrasso is a certified Natural Chef and Nutrition Consultant from Bauman College in Berkeley, CA. Leah loves her job cooking lunch for Decartes Labs, a start-up company in Santa Fe. She also teaches classes focused on the importance of nutrient-dense food, and has worked with MoGro and Envision, both of which address food deserts in the area. She finds beauty in the community that is created by cooking and eating. She believes that there's nothing more important than the act of giving and sharing, and food is the perfect medium. Leah lives in her home town of Santa Fe, NM, with her husband, Adam; cat, Grandpaw; and pup, Billie Jean.
Recipe: Parsley Carrot Salad
Words: Leah Pokrasso