Rooted in the nature of the Pacific Northwest, but in rhythm with the cities of Los Angeles and New York, Chef Tara Thomas is balance-goals in action. She is a friend of the local farmer, creating swoon-worth vegan dishes that will inspire every kind of ‘vore and ‘tarian.
Take us to your roots in Portland. Did it’s landscape and culture help cultivate your passion for food?
I was raised in Portland, Oregon it always felt normal to be surrounded and engaged in the element of nature -- it was accessible. Now living in New York City there is a totally elevated amount of appreciation for that experience as a child. Growing up I was elated by the summer season which was always catalyzed by the mountain strawberry patch growing in the backyard. Those succulent berried kept me outdoors. In the garden I would spend the days pretending I had a restaurant -- I didn’t have many friends but I pretended I had some to feed. With the incredible level of racism that I experienced being Black, I felt safety in my garden where I could interact and be creative with my environment. When there was so much I was not allowed to access, unwelcomed, and intentionally excluded I am thankful for the bountiful I could retreat to. I bounced between the sandbox, wooden picnic table, and the infinite beds of plants my parents cultivated -- I’m very thankful to have had that freedom and protection to explore my spirit in that space.
My initial interest in cooking was specifically influenced from Ina Garten on Barefoot Contessa; she always had her garden and kitchen to be free and share love. Way later when I decided to seriously pursue food on an intentional gap year in engineering school I was drawn to create relationships with local farms and makers in food. Moving to New York that connection with food and it’s growers is dissociated in the urban landscape -- recently I’ve found it again in my community garden. I feel so safe when I can be present and alchemize my environment.
You have expressed an incredible dedication to the environment - something that grows deep into the bones of many Pacific North-Westerners. Do you feel that you have brought that with you to New York? How do you express your devotion to the earth in the meals you create?
I truly do, I think that biocentric perspective is a definite contrast to the egocentric mindspace that populates New York City. Even though New York City lies beneath the immaculate Hudson Valley and extensive Long Island, the respect and understanding for nature isn’t accessible. The city is predominantly populated by Black, Brown, Immigrant, and Indigenous communities - the education and experience of nature isn’t found. As a Black woman I feel my experience can be shared and influenced to my community -- but also as a leader. In Portland it is so normal to have that perspective but it’s just so noisy. The work needs to be done where it’s quiet and the machine is much louder. The change needs to happen in New York and done by the people -- that’s the only way it’s going to happen. Next it’s the South.
Even through photographs, your energy pulls the viewer in. The colors you wear and the visual moods you create all just radiate joy. Do you consider yourself to be someone with a zest for life? How, outside of your work, do you like to express that energy?
Perhaps, outside of my work I continue to create -- I do work a lot so it’s challenging to point it. But now on the topic I like to spend time with other creative individuals whether it is gardening, listening/creating music, dancing, homekeeping (that is a fun activity for me), doing something new.
To be quite frank something has felt missing in my life. It’s that access to nature, to escape and be in a realistic place with my world. I get lost in the egocentric New York energy like anyone else but I need to figure out a healthy rhythm to access nature here. I’d like to share it with the BIPOC community here as well because I know the lack of such affects us all.
A lot of us at ARQ are plant-based or flexitarian or otherwise just very interested in food culture and true nourishment as it relates to our environment – most of us live here in a farm/vinyard community south of Portland and we feel really connected to your words regarding ecosystems, accessibility, and really sensory food experiences. Where did your interest in veganism begin, and how does it inform your devotion to health in general?
I’ve been Vegan for 5 years now, I became a Vegan because my friend had just moved from Los Angeles, and she was just that. A Vegan, Kombucha feen, a ray of sunshine! I loved eating and enjoying life, I think our friendship was based on food and I realized how very quickly the “challenge” and just the absurdity of being Vegan disappeared. There are so many options that are plant-based in your community first looking at cuisines that are not White and they’re full of options. My lifetime favorites like Thai and Indian became familiar in a different vision. Especially in Portland everything is literally Vegan so I just flowed into it and the decision to commit was grounding. It changed my life, I became a lot more connected to myself and I see the world with immense compassion. I think that level of compassion was rare to experience for me and recognizing cruelty inspired me. This world is divided by the act of cruelty and lack of compassion. I can change that by consuming something alive, so I may act more alive. That gate welcomed me to the path of researching the colonization of food and it’s structure of systemic oppression to animals, BIPOC communities, etc. Just the shear trauma of humanity lies in food. There is so much work to be done but changing the way we eat the the most influential.
There is a clear big picture to all that you do - from your devotion to the natural world, your concern for the social welfare of others, all the way to the sacred soul of the way you nourish yourself and others. Is this something that has been with you since childhood, or has this wholeness evolved from something quite different?
Like a singular seed, planted and evolved into a plant it has always been with me. I’ve had to take care of myself differently. I was naive to my existence as a Black child in a White environment. I was an alien to my community. I’ve come into my blackness quite holistically. I’ve tried everything in terms of food, skincare, expression, communication, etc. and soon realized that stuff is just engineered to marginalize and challenge the life of those like me. It didn’t feel good because everyone else around me was existing easily, the privilege of being accepted and celebrated. I had to make that room for myself to feel comfortable, to develop my equity from the ground up.
Find Tara’s website HERE : cheftarathomas.com
Find Tara on Instagram HERE : instagram.com/cheftarathomas/