I’ve lived in New York for about two years. I came here to be in an environment that was diverse, but that also offered a challenge for my career—one where I could act as I was, and do what I imagined doing. I think that’s a lot of people’s story about coming to New York.
I’ve been cooking my whole life. It’s been my escape for so many years. I thought I would take something like a gap year to pursue it, but it turned out to be more than a “year.” That said, I’ll be going back to school soon, probably in the next few years.
I started out cooking for events. People had been telling me how much they liked my food and how they thought I’d made vegan dishes taste really good. I didn’t really see it as a business until I was like, “Oh, this is kind of a job.” So I made it one.
It was important for me to move to New York to be in a place where I could be understood and treated with love and kindness.
I worked on a lot of private dining events, either those that I was hired to do or ones I produced myself. I did cooking classes, any kind of dining experiences, collaborations, recipe development, and consulting. I came to New York with the intention to expand, because I felt like there were a lot of barriers and boundaries for me in Portland.
I’m mixed race. My mom is Caucasian and my dad is African-American. They met in Nepal, in Kathmandu. My father was in the military and was stationed there for six months or a year or so, and my mom had been living there for a year or two. She was a bit adventurous. After high school, she decided to travel the world.
The U.S. military base there was the only place that had good alcohol, because American liquor is expensive to get. And because it was an American base, they had all the other American things, too. So, according to my mom, all the ladies were always trying to get an invite to the Marine base to get the good stuff! And that’s how my parents met.
When my dad got moved, they kept in touch, and then eventually they got married and moved to the U.S. and had my sister, and then 10 years later had me. They’re no longer together, though.
Even though the school was quite ahead of its time on bullying and stuff, I still got targeted by adults—not just children—because people are people.
I grew up in a primarily white area in the suburbs of Portland, near Beaverton. The school system there is very new age, very well established, and I felt like it was really cool. However, I think I was the only Black kid in school until I got to middle school, and even then there were only two other Black kids at my school. I went through a lot of racially driven and traumatic experiences there.
Even though the school was quite ahead of its time on bullying and stuff, I still got targeted by adults—not just children—because people are people. Being in that kind of environment, I guess it was just hard to be who I was. I also didn’t know who I was—like my only direct contact to other Black people was my dad and my sister. Other than that, my dad’s family all the way in Louisiana, and maybe other kids every once in a while.
Growing up there, I didn’t have a piece of my identity. It wasn’t until maybe the year before I decided to move to New York that I realized how necessary it was for me to be surrounded by more people who are like me. It was important for me to move to New York to be in a place where I could be understood and treated with love and kindness. People are more likely to listen and understand you here. In Portland, and as I was building my career, I felt like a lot of people wanted to exploit me for how I looked. They wanted to tokenize me.
I don’t know if I’ll ever go back there. But it’s beautiful. The produce is beautiful. I miss it in different ways, but at this point in my life, New York feels like a beautiful and challenging place.
It was a friend that inspired me to become vegan. She had recently moved to Portland from L.A. Initially, I was like, she’s so weird, she’s so hippy. Even though I was the one from Portland, she was very New Age—vegan, drank a lot of kombucha, gluten-free, and all that. Our friendship evolved over us going out for breakfast, lunch, dinner. Having picnics, or like, “Let’s go somewhere and bring our own spread.”
After spending so much time with her, I noticed that I hadn’t eaten meat in like two months. Then I was like, actually, maybe my body doesn’t need it. So I cut it out.
It was hard socially, particularly in other people’s homes. I felt like I had to be prepared or I was left out. But in time, I realized I should just bring something to share or communicate better in advance. People are very open to that. People want to be hospitable if they’re going to host you!
I’ve always loved cooking. When I was little, I would watch Ina Garten instead of cartoons on the weekend. I’ve always been obsessed with her. As a kid, I would play “restaurant” in the garden. That’s where most of my imagination was—making things in my little pretend kitchen. That evolved into me feeling comfortable in the kitchen at a young age. It’s always been a positive escape mechanism my whole life. And then it was the realization that if I enjoy something, then that should be my career. Becoming vegan made that more apparent because it opened up a whole new world to explore.
[Being vegan] was hard socially, particularly in other people’s homes ... But in time, I realized I should just bring something to share or communicate better in advance.
I’m the executive chef at Che, the restaurant of Sincerely, Tommy Eat & Stay, which will be opening soon. I first met the owner, Kai [Avent de Leon], in April of 2019. She hosted an event that I was cooking for, and she absolutely loved my food. I’m also working on another project, a restaurant in Clinton Hill called Premium Blend. I’m really excited because they’re both Black-owned.
In the past, I’ve always been kind of lukewarm about working in restaurants, but not against it. Coming on to these projects, I got really excited about the process of making the experience of a brand more accessible.
Kai really likes to celebrate where she came from, and that means her mother and her grandmother. So we spent a lot of time together talking about Grenada in the West Indies, where they’re from. I did a lot of research on who they were, what Sincerely, Tommy was as a brand, and I developed what the food would look like in this space throughout the seasons, and in the years to come. It was like creating a Sincerely, Tommy food universe.
The menu will change seasonally, and be sustainable, ethical, and mitigate any food waste. It will be rooted in West Indian and African cuisine, but with a true fusion that’s tastefully inspired by travel. I think that’s really important to both Kai and myself. For me, we never really adhered to a specific ethnic cuisine in my household. I never really saw ingredients as specific to a culture. I’ve always seen them just as they are, so I’ve always been open to just using something because it tastes good or because I think it would taste good with another ingredient.
I used to be a cannabis user. That began in Portland. I was young, right around middle school age. That’s very normal there, and it was very casual use. Then in high school it became more about, you know, being a teenager, wanting to skip school or put off your homework to go smoke with your friends in the forest. It was always very romantic and nice because there was so much nature around us. It made it almost an incentive for everyone to get out and smoke and do things, like, “Let’s go to the beach and smoke weed,” or “Let’s go to the forest and hike and smoke weed.”
But last summer I stopped smoking completely. It just wasn’t really serving me mentally. I try to tie anything I use to joy and happiness—even foods. I’m on a chocolate strike right now because I realized I was eating it in an unhealthy manner.
I love CBD, however. I’ve been taking it for about three years now. I really love it in both oil and flower forms. I love Dusk—it is the best actually.
I really love [CBD] in both oil and flower forms.
I really support the production of hemp because it is so sustainable and has so many uses. It has a recreational use. It’s medicinal. It can be used to make clothing or so many other things. It should be looked at as a multifaceted tool that everyone has different experiences with. Let’s share those experiences. That’s what I love about Gossamer. So, even though I don’t currently smoke weed, I’m a big fan of cannabis.
I have not used hemp as an ingredient in my cooking, but I would love to try cooking with fresh hemp. Perhaps I’ll ask if we can grow some at our community garden. However, I have cooked with THC oil—I make it for my boyfriend before he takes a long flight. It’s become a tradition. Before he leaves I make him a really good sandwich. It’s THC and oregano oil with vegan cheese, sun dried tomatoes, and all the other veggies he likes. He really loves it. It’s the perfect plane snack because it leaves you super relaxed. If anyone asks me for it, I’m happy to make it for them.
If you’re making your own, I like to always do half THC and half something else—like oregano or thyme or rosemary. And then put it on some pasta or a sandwich. If you made it using coconut oil, put it in a curry—I think that could be cute.
I like to always do half THC and half something else—like oregano or thyme or rosemary. And then put it on some pasta or a sandwich.
More people smoke more weed here in New York than they do in Portland, I swear. In Portland, some people did, and some people didn’t. But 99% of people I know here smoke weed. Everyone I meet smokes it! I was surprised to see that you could just order delivery if you do want it. In Portland, before legalization, you went to a dealer. Now it’s through the dispensaries, which is another whole other world that’s probably coming to New York soon.
I also think there’s more of a creative aspect to it here. I see some people having weed cooking parties and dining events. I didn’t hear or see much of that in Portland. It was always more casual, maybe because it was more integrated into the culture. I think in New York it’s seen as something that brings more purpose to a community.
I spent some time in culinary school, but I didn’t really like it because I felt I was either relearning things I already knew or doing things that I felt like I could learn on my own or get training in practice. I spoke to a lot of chefs and food professionals about it and nine out of ten told me to just go get the experience in an actual kitchen—to learn on the field.
It’s also such a privilege to be able to go in the first place. There aren’t really loans or grants. And that’s a problem. There’s a lack of diversity because people don’t have access to funding for it.
For people who are trying to incorporate more cooking into their life, I would suggest trying to enjoy the process because if you enjoy making it, you’re more likely to enjoy eating it therefore, you’re going to mitigate your food waste. You’re going to give yourself some much needed time to spend on nurturing and nourishing yourself. That’s going to inspire you to source good ingredients and get closer to your community, and cooking such a basic thing that’s become a luxury to outsource. It’s within us, and there are so many incredible resources and even cookbooks you can order online. Do what you need to enjoy the process, whether that’s putting on good music, wearing something nice, setting some mood lighting, getting tools that excite you or equipment that makes it more relaxing and easier to get the job done.
I’ve been running my business from home for a year. For a while I felt like not much changed with the pandemic except I’m like, Oh, I have to be careful when I go outside. And I’m not seeing friends—I’m not socializing. But it has affected my work a lot. I’m feeling grateful because I’m still working right now. I built my business on social media platforms,so I’m still able to work in different ways with my partners. And I work for Caldera magazine, so I’m still able to tell stories.
We really need to rethink how we are taking up space as humans and especially as businesses because we are the economic drivers of society.
There are a lot of unknowns with the restaurants right now, but I’m trying to stay positive. I was recently chatting with a friend who owned a bakery. It’s still operating, so we talked about how he has transitioned and the different phases of that. He was like, “As a business, you have to adapt. You have to adapt to your community and know what they need and provide that for them.”
I want to be able to create and concept a sustainable vision for the restaurant. I’m trying to think of what happens when there’s another pandemic. How can you set yourself up for success? How can you stay open? How can you utilize your space the most?
I don’t think we can afford to just have spaces for one purpose. We really need to rethink how we are taking up space as humans and especially as businesses because we are the economic drivers of society. But how can we influence that in a positive way, that is sustainable and ethical in regards to what we’re producing, but also to the climate, the economy, and the people. All those things have been on my mind lately: How can you have a more positive model that’s reacting with intention?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Tara Thomas photographed by Meredith Jenks at her home in Brooklyn. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies.