Tara Thomas

Conversation held on July 19, 2020 

Where are you right now?

I’m at Maison Yaki in Prospect Heights, helping out my friend Lani [Halliday], who has a pop-up here. We got carried away making these origami bags, so it’s actually perfect timing that you called.

What’s on the menu?

It’s a picnic box, filled with things like collard mushroom wraps with crackers and vegan tzatziki. There’s also a box of baked goods, the best pastries ever. Everything is so good, and it’s all vegan and gluten-free, which makes it even better.

Aside from helping out friends, how have you been spending your time these past few months?

It’s actually been pretty busy. I signed with an agency in March, so I’ve been doing a lot more modeling and talent work, which has been really fun. I’m also doing more consulting work, and then I’ve been working at the Phoenix Community Garden. I hadn’t done much volunteering or community service the past few years, pretty much since I moved to New York, but I’ve been putting more of my time towards that recently.

You’d spent the past year working with Kai Avent-deLeon on Che, a plant-based café that was set to open as part of her Eat & Stay restaurant/hostel in Bed-Stuy. Has COVID impacted those plans?

Unfortunately, it had to be put on pause. Even before COVID, we’d been in a slight holding pattern, just dealing with building inspection issues. My other restaurant project has had the same issues; the city’s terrible about these things, and the whole process is really frustrating. But in a way, I’ve appreciated having this moment to pause, because we’ve been able to use the time to think about how our model can be adapted and changed into something more sustainable.

What kind of ideas have you been exploring?

We’re really trying to be mindful of the space we take up as a business—physically, but also economically. We’re thinking about our position within the community and how we can use the space with intention. Personally, I’d like to find ways to mitigate food insecurity, because the area is still pretty far away from a lot of grocery stores. Sourcing is another important part of that: how can we use more local products, foods from Black-owned gardens and farms that are actually in the city? Maybe we can allocate portions of the space to gardening, or somehow use it to help address homelessness in the area. There are a lot of possibilities.  

At the same time, considering how disruptive COVID’s been for the industry at large, it’s interesting to think how these questions of sustainability and public service might inform the way restaurants function as entities post-pandemic. I think people are realizing the importance of building an adaptable, variable business model: in a volatile environment, it makes sense to do—to be—more than one thing.

Right, exactly. Sustainability is about adaptability. The idea is to set things up so that when some crisis happens again, you won’t have to close down or fire your staff. You can’t feed your community if your team isn’t taken care of first, so the question is, how can you create a system that employees can thrive off of, but which also benefits the people around you?

You mentioned that you had another restaurant project in the works in addition to Che?

Yes, I’d been working on another restaurant, which is also on hold for now. I’m also working on a new project with Hannah [Richtman] from The Break. We’re planning to open a bar, maybe something overseas. Nothing’s finalized yet, but a lot of things are percolating.

That’s really exciting—can you give us any details?

The Break is a sort of conceptual vintage store in Greenpoint; they’ve always served free wine to their shoppers, but now Hannah wants to open a bar and a store that’s going to have small bites and snacks and whatnot. Obviously, opening anything in New York is always a challenge, and COVID only makes it more complicated, but it should hopefully open at the end of this year or early 2021.

Between modeling, consulting, and all of these other pursuits, how do you find balance for yourself—not just in terms of your time, but also in terms of energy expended?

I’ve always worked for myself and had a very absurd schedule. I don’t have anyone telling me when I have to come in and when to leave, so as far as daily work, I have to be consistent about certain things, like keeping my morning rituals, eating healthy, making sure I don’t go to bed too late. It’s the same thing with my overall calendar: I know when each project’s going to end, so I just have to plan ahead and make sure I’m scheduling more fun things for myself. Before COVID, that usually meant traveling. I used to go somewhere every four to six weeks.

Where have you enjoyed visiting?

It depends. If I want to go somewhere nearby, it’s usually where my family lives: Portland, North Carolina, Louisiana. But in terms of more distant travels, it’s mainly been Europe, since my partner is living there. He’s Norwegian, but he’s in Copenhagen at the moment, studying carpentry.

What is it about traveling that you find centering?

I like being part of something unknown and unfamiliar and kind of surrendering to that, making myself go with the flow while always knowing what my expectations are. Both of my parents were big travelers—my mom, especially—and that was a huge inspiration for me.

Your mom first encountered the name Tara while she was traveling in Bali, right?

Yes! She was in Bali for four years in the ‘80s. Tara is a very holy name there—she’s a Hindu goddess, later translated to Buddhism—and my mom liked it enough to use it when I was born.

You’ve talked elsewhere about having a gold Buddha statue that she acquired during her time there.

Right. She originally brought the statue back to my grandparents’ house. Then, about six years ago, we were moving my grandma’s stuff out of her house, and that was the last thing we came across, and my mom was like, “You should have it.” The statue and the name are both very special to me. I used to not like my name at all, but now I love it.

What didn’t you like about it?

It was just very different. Growing up in Portland, everyone was white and named Lauren or Katie—and here I was, Black and with this name that nobody knew how to pronounce. They thought it was weird, and I guess I internalized that to some degree. But over time, it changed. I realized, “This is cool. This has purpose. I have purpose.”

While we’re on the subject, I have a few questions about your time in Portland. First, I was interested to learn that you originally went to Portland State for civil engineering. How did you foresee yourself using that degree?

My program was focused on environmental engineering; I was interested in building better structures, designing spaces that benefited the people living there as much as the environment. But looking back, I only pursued that degree because I thought it would make me successful. There was a lot of pressure, especially as a Black woman, to meet certain standards. I was pretty good at it, and it felt like, “This is a big deal, an opportunity you can’t waste.” I still really enjoy science and systematic thinking, but my passion wasn’t there. So, eventually, I decided I had to trust my instincts and find something that would make me happy, and I ended up leaving early.

Did you go straight to culinary school?

I did, but I didn’t finish there, either. I was speaking to a lot of chefs at that point, and they were all like, “It’s a waste of your time and your money.” I felt that. I’d felt pressured to go to culinary school—because again, that’s what you were supposed to do—but then I found that a lot of the chefs I was meeting had never been, and those that had gone regretted it. I’d already started a business doing what I was doing—chef work, private events—and it seemed like that was enough. There was still a lot that I wanted to learn, but I realized I didn’t need school for that. I could learn through actual experience in the field, and by talking to the people around me. That’s a really important part of it: as I’ve gone through my career, I’ve had a great network of chefs and people in the food industry that I can talk to and learn from. I have friends who’ve been to culinary school and some who haven’t, and every one of them found their own ways of approaching their business, so we’re all just learning things from each other all the time, sharing our knowledge and experiences.

That’s beautiful—and it also speaks to the various responsibilities one takes on in your line of work. Beyond the menus, you were finding your way through correspondence, scheduling, purchasing, client relations, digital presence—all of those things that go into sustaining a small business.

Yeah, exactly. My mom has her own business, and I think I’ve always looked to her as an example of how to be a good business owner. That was the environment I was raised in, so it’s really just a part of who I am; even in high school, I was president of the business club and did accounting and science. I was really into it. So that was always part of my vision professionally—but at the same time, as far as building up a business on my own, I realized pretty quickly that Portland wasn’t going to be that helpful for me.

Why was that?

Honestly, people just don’t respect self-made businesses as much there. I think they take it for granted, in a way, because everyone’s in a position to do it. So many people are coming from privileged backgrounds, and you see them starting businesses left and right, but you’re never sure about their intentions. There’s a lot of false narratives: “Oh, I make matcha oat milk and this is my whole life.” It’s like, “No, it’s not.” (laughs) A lot of that sort of thing was happening.

It’s interesting, because Portland’s known for having a large plant-based community, fostered by all of these vegetarian- and vegan-friendly restaurants. In that environment, one would think it’d be relatively easy to find an audience for your work—but it sounds like that wasn’t necessarily your experience.

I became a vegan for a few different reasons: the animals, the environment, my own health. On every level, it made me feel good—and being in Portland, it seemed like there were so many options for eating and living that way. I thought, “Nothing really has to change! All my favorite cuisines are still accessible to me.” But going out, I realized how boring and narrow people’s take on vegan cuisine actually was. It tasted fake, either very processed or very bland. That’s actually a big part of why I ended up doing things on my own. I’d always liked cooking, but it never was something that I thought was going to be my career. But when I encountered that situation in Portland, I knew there were other ways of doing things, where you could be ethical and nutritional without sacrificing flavor, so I wanted to try something different, and I just didn’t feel supported in that. There was definitely a sense of a “right” way and a “wrong” way of being vegan and making vegan cuisine, and I didn’t want to be limited by that.

You alluded earlier to the lack of racial and cultural diversity that you’d encountered growing up—were you dealing with similar circumstances as you entered the food scene?

Yes. Growing up, the schools in Portland were progressive, pretty new age, but it was almost entirely white—I was one of maybe two or three Black kids in my entire school. It was hard to have a sense of my own identity in that kind of environment, because no one around was like me. It was the same thing as I got into chef work: there was a diversity of Asian cuisine there, which was great, but otherwise it was almost entirely white chefs cooking for a white clientele. All my clientele was white, too. That lack of diversity was difficult, because I just didn’t feel understood. I was trying to work in a certain way, but then I’d see people taking ownership of ingredients, using them without question or hesitation. I’d be thinking, “You can’t farm that here, it’s not local. You’re talking about environmentalism and sustainability, but you don’t even know where this comes from.” I was pushing the ethics behind it, but people weren’t paying attention to that.

What kind of ingredients were people appropriating?

The two examples that immediately come to mind are quinoa and matcha. It felt like people really thought they owned those ingredients. It just switched overnight, too, where quinoa was suddenly everywhere, but people didn’t know where it was coming from. Cacao’s another example: people love having cacao in everything, but nobody really understands how it makes its way to the West.  I was saying, “Read about it! This is what’s happening in these areas where this ingredient is being imported from”—and people were basically like, “Yeah, but that’s how it is.” They were very okay with the sacrifice. After that, I became hyper-aware of how it is important to consume things sparingly, and to know where your ingredients come from.

There’s so much to unpack there—not only in terms of responsible sourcing, but also the extent to which the heedless, aesthetically driven approach to plant-based cuisine you’re describing would seem to confirm some of the more problematic asp ects of “mainstream” vegetarianism and veganism.

Yeah. I think a lot of people like the idea of ethical consumption, but it doesn’t go beyond appearances. When I was starting my business, I knew that if I branded myself in a certain way—if I listed off things like “vegan,” “gluten-free,” “soy-free,” “locally grown”—it would make people want to hire me more, but I also knew they would never question any of it, because they didn’t actually care if it was true. So, for a while, it seemed like the way to establish yourself in this community was to fetishize things. I felt like I had to make everything apparent so the customers could feel good about themselves—but I’m not trying to do that anymore. At this point, I don’t even mention those things unless it comes up in conversation. I think it’s really wrong to fetishize things that way. It’s actually harmful.

Did these concerns play a role in your decision to move to New York? Have you found a more sympathetic audience here?

For sure. Here, if you say something, people are going to ask you about it. They want you to tell them about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and why you’re doing it. They’re actually interested to know, and they’re willing to make a change because it has value, not just because it’s a “good thing to do.” It’s less superficial in that way. My clientele is also much different now: it’s more people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community. I’m really happy about that. It’s been a lot easier for me to grow into who I want to be, someone it feels good to be.

As we’re drawing distinctions between Portland and New York, I wonder how you’d compare the way each city addresses environmental concerns. Portland seems to center environmentalism in a lot of its civic design: huge recycling bins everywhere, trash cans on each corner, major fines for littering. There’s a lot of attention paid to consumption and waste patterns, and those values even translate to things like school curriculums. Having come from a situation like that, I’d imagine coming to Brooklyn was a bit of a shock.

Yes, for sure. When I left Portland, my life was maybe 90% plastic-free, but moving here, it was nearly impossible to do that. This city is huge, and for a long time, I didn’t know where the right places to go were—I just got what I needed. I feel like I’m in a much better place now, but it’s still definitely a challenge, because it’s not integrated. You see these options being offered in specific sections of the city, all the privileged areas—but in most places, there just aren’t opportunities for people to learn and actually exercise healthy environmentalist patterns. Like right now, I’m out here in Prospect Heights, and there are so many trash cans—but where I live in Bushwick, there’s maybe one every three blocks. It’s no wonder there’s trash everywhere. And then on top of that, we have so much wasteful packaging at stores and restaurants, whereas Portland doesn’t even allow plastic bags. We banned plastic bags here, too, but I haven’t seen any change. They’re still everywhere.

Yeah. It was supposed to be implemented this year, but I think that’s fallen by the wayside.

Right. So yeah, it was a huge shock coming here, because culturally, environmentalism is not something that’s being exercised. It’s just not accessible here. Like you said, it’s a part of how children in Portland are educated, but it’s not part of the programs here, so people grow up without having that set of values. I think it’s really important for kids to be involved in that way, because they’re the ones making the decisions.

Absolutely. It would be great to see these ideas incorporated into formal education—but in the meantime, there are still other avenues available to help people learn about and enact these practices. That’s why I’m so interested in the work you’re doing with the community garden. One of the central ideas in your practice is that of conscious consumption: mindful sourcing, selective patronage, community accountability. With the garden, it seems like you’re able to address each of these ideas while also introducing notions of communal self-reliance, self-production, self-healing. How did you first come across Phoenix Community Garden?

I discovered it pretty soon after moving to New York. I would take these walks in the summer, just as a way to get to know Brooklyn, and I found this garden. They were really nice and welcoming, and actually invited me to volunteer there on the weekends. At that time, I was too busy with my business, but I did go back to pick up ingredients.

So then what eventually led you to start working there?

Just as New York was going into lockdown, I got an email from them, inviting people to come and help prepare for the food insecurity that would come as a result. We were just coming out of winter at that time, so it was all about preparing for spring. Since then, we’ve harvested our spring crops and started a farm stand, which has been great.

Has the garden been receiving more patronage in light of the quarantine?

Yes, it’s pretty much doubled in orders. Each week, we’re getting more and more, because everyone’s home and realizing, “Oh, here’s an opportunity to get produce and other items that would be extremely expensive otherwise, and I don’t even have to go to the grocery store.” It’s $14 a week for a CSA, which is pretty affordable, so we’re seeing all different types of people coming through—families, young couples, senior citizens. The garden also has a nonprofit end, so we launched a program where we’re providing bags for the elderly so they don’t have to leave their homes while under quarantine. It’s definitely been busy.

What kind of roles have you been taking on?

I started out just helping with preparation, but eventually I started harvesting, and now I lead the harvesting for the farm stand. That’s been really fun. I just feel like I’m taking ownership in different places and learning a lot. I’ve always wanted to have a farm, and I feel like I’m working towards that goal whenever I go to the garden. It’s also great because it’s in my community, so I can live my life but then still go there and learn how the garden is serving the surrounding area.

Obviously, one would hesitate to speak of the pandemic in terms of “blessings in disguise,” but it does seem like this is a moment not just of disruption, but also potentially of reformation: people are having to pause, shift their priorities, and reassess their patterns of behavior and consumption. So in this case, for people who are discovering the garden under these circumstances, it could be a bridge to long-term changes.

For sure. I definitely see that—and not just for other people, but for myself, too. Even though I work hard and believe in what I do, I feel like whenever I had any free time before this, I was spending it very selfishly, but now, it’s routine for me to go out into the garden in my free time and actually work towards something. It doesn’t even take that much effort, but I know I’m gaining something really valuable. I think that’s true for a lot of community members. We’re all realizing, “Oh, I actually have time for this, and always have.” We’re all coming together throughout the week and building something, trying to spread the word and help people understand. It’s really nice, because now I’ve discovered this new community that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. There are so many different types of people coming together, and it’s really beautiful to have found something we all love and want to share.

Even with all of these ongoing pursuits—cooking, consulting, modeling, the garden—there are a few other projects we haven’t touched on that I’d love to discuss, the first of them being your involvement with Caldera Magazine. What’s your role there?

I’ve been focused mainly on community brand partnerships and contributing some writing, but we’re launching a food section at the end of the year, which I’m really excited about.

Are you taking the lead on that?

Yes. That’s what I initially wanted to do when Zoë [Rayn] first asked me to join the team, but I didn’t quite know what I wanted with that. I feel like I have a better sense of it now. It’s going to be focused on decolonizing food systems—including food media—while also providing opportunities for chefs that are people of color and or in the queer community. I just want to create something authentic and fun, a space where people can feel safe and find things that are really interesting that they might not have seen before. I want to show people all of these incredible things these chefs are creating, and tell their stories through different mediums, whether it’s physically in the magazine or on video. I’m very excited about that.

That sounds amazing. The other project I wanted to ask you about was The Acculturation of Food. First, can you explain what that work is about, some of your objectives for it?

Basically, it’s a research project looking at how the foods and cultures of people of color have been Westernized, highlighting practices that have been used for centuries and continue to this day. The main goal is to raise awareness and educate people—not just about modern food systems, but also about their own role as consumers. Making different choices in our consumption habits is the first step in resisting colonization, so by making this information available to people, hopefully they’ll feel empowered to build new habits.

One of the central ideas you’re exploring here is that of assimilation, and how it leads to indoctrination and the erasure of histories. It’s a complex idea: in theory, exposure to outside influences is part of how culinary traditions evolve—but obviously, as you point out, it takes on much more grave implications in light of colonization, of appropriation, and so on. 

Right. I do think exchange is part of what keeps traditions alive, but there’s a loss of value when you can’t trace things back to their origins—and most of the time, that’s what ends up happening: things get stolen and traditions get erased. It’s true everywhere, but one place I’ve definitely seen it happen is in French cuisine. In much of the world, French is seen as the central culinary cuisine; it seems like every culinary school is French-centered, even the plant-based programs. But when you really look at French cuisine, none of the ingredients are actually French. They’re all stolen. There’s so much acculturation involved, where you have these people saying, “This is our thing.” And even in school, I was like, “No, it’s not! That’s not your ingredient. This comes from somewhere else and belongs to someone else.” It became impossible to ignore, and I just don’t see the value in it. So that’s a big part of the project: researching origins, tracing these paths to Westernization, and bringing awareness to that process, so people can start to understand the true cultural origins of these ingredients.

What are your plans for presenting that project? Do you have a particular format or timeframe in mind?

I’ve had different ideas about events and exhibitions, but now I think it’s all going to be diverted to Caldera, almost like an overall theme for the food section. At this point, I feel like I want to streamline anything I create on my own through Caldera, just so it has a place to live. I’ve been working on the Acculturation project for over three years; I’m always adding to it, but I’ve never been sure how to present it. Now that I have this opportunity with the magazine, I think it makes sense to put out the information this way. I already know a lot of the people I’d like to feature in this new section, and we’ve had conversations about this. They all feel very passionate about it, so I think it could work out really well. I’m excited to see how things go.

Photographs by Hannah Metz