Food + Feelings with Sophia Roe

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By Jessica Schiffer

Trying to sum up Sophia Roe is a near impossibility, but her Instagram bio, which reads “food & feelings,” comes close. A true multi-hyphenate, the chef, writer, and Emmy-Award nominated TV host of Vice’s “Counter Space” has been looking at food through a broader, more-inclusive lens since before it was cool to do so (see: the early-pandemic reckoning on the whitewashing embedded into every facet of the food world). “Food is in everything,” says Roe. “You can't talk about culture, nationality, ethnicity without talking about food.”

Her childhood experience growing up food insecure and navigating the foster care system underpins all of her work, making her a tireless advocate for food justice who has a unique lens into the ways our inequitable food systems can impact our wellbeing. On Instagram, she’s open about the trauma of those early experiences and the work she’s had to do (including 8 years of therapy) to get to a place of acceptance with her past. 

We spoke to Roe, who is infectious even over Zoom, about how growing up food insecure has impacted her career, the connection between food and mental health, what’s helped her work through her childhood traumas, and what wellness looks like to her. Read the full convo, below.

Let’s get right into it. When did your interest in the food world begin – is it something you've always been passionate about? 

I actually didn't make any [conscious] decisions. I’m a college dropout and I needed a job. There was a Vietnamese restaurant that was close to my home and they were hiring. So I said, "yeah, I know how to use a knife, just hire me," and then they did, and I found out that I didn't know how to use a knife, but here we are. So the plan was never food – I never saw a person that looks like me in food, so it was never seen as an option. I grew up very food insecure, so now I'm obsessed with cooking for folks. It's all I can think about – how is someone going to feel when I make this meal? A happy belly is like a happy self, so hunger inspires my work and it always has. The first time I had access to [a lot of] food was working in a restaurant and being able to say "I can eat whatever I want? Like, no sharing?  This is my food?” I’ve thought about food from a very young age, like, why the fuck don't I have any food, like some kids do? Why is my friend’s refrigerator just filled with shit and mine isn't? That’s where my obsession with where food comes from and why some people have it when others don’t stems from.

Your show “Counter Space” takes a very broad look at food’s place in different cultures as well as the food systems we depend on – it’s not your average cooking show. What do you hope people will take away when they watch it? 

I'm really just trying to encourage imagination. The show is not about me, we're talking about things that are currently happening that most people don't know about. We're talking about this idea of the colonized plate, where you must have X amount of protein and vegetables – that's a colonized idea of dinner. We're talking about where your food comes from – 61% of the things we eat here in the U.S. come from somewhere else. Why is that? Why is globalization celebrated when we're talking about avocados, but not when we talk about people? We want food to cross borders, but we don't want people to cross borders. These are things we all need to consider. I'm not trying to stress people out, I'm just helping people understand that it's not as simple as you go to the grocery store and there's food. There’s a massive supply and value chain behind it, and I just want people to understand the human cost of the food that they eat. 

I also want people to understand the cultures who created the food they’re eating – there's nothing wrong with adopting a protocol that comes from somewhere else but when you start profiting off that without giving that culture credit, then we have some problems. It's really an awareness show that has cooking, too. Everybody's like, "let's make the world vegan,” but it’s like, going into Yemen and saying everybody needs to be vegan is called colonialism and we’ve seen that that didn't really work out too hot.  So a lot of what I’m doing is just saying things back to people to help them expand their viewpoint. We have to understand that the food world ties deeply into government, bureaucracy, and politics. All of those things are connected. You can't have a conversation about any of those things without also talking about food. 

Speaking of all the things that are connected to food, do you think there's a connection between food and mental health?

Definitely. I mean, there's a connection between food and memory. I say this all the time: do you like your grandma's meatballs because they're the best meatballs in the world, or do you like them because your grandma made them and you love her? When we sit down and we have a meal with someone and you really love the person you're sitting across from, do you even give a shit if the food is good? I think that so much about our mental health is wrapped up in food. How can it not be? We need to eat to survive. I don’t believe in the orthorexic mindset of like, "I feel really great when I have almonds and I eat really clean.” I'm sorry but if your brain and your body are being called to a bowl of pasta, let me tell you – a bowl of pasta will really do it for your mental. I think a lot of it is mindset, if you convince yourself that a burger is really bad for you, well, then I guess it is. You [dictate] how you feel about certain things. I think how we feel about food is really how we feel about ourselves, and you can't talk about how you feel about yourself without talking about mental health.

You’re talking about people who have an unhealthy relationship with food, but it seems like you have a great relationship with food. Why do you think it's so hard for so many people, especially people who have the option to eat as much food as they would like?

I don't struggle with disordered eating, that is a disease and, like cancer, it doesn't make sense. So I'm always really mindful and aware that not everybody gets joy out of food. Even on my show, we did a whole episode on disordered eating because that's very real. Some people struggle with eating, no matter what they have access to. It could be a control issue, about organization or perfection, but that’s not for me to say. 

I struggled growing up with anger about wanting expensive cereal that I couldn’t have, which is why I'm not going to lose my shit if I have some gluten. On my show, how could I possibly talk about accessibility and then be like, "I only eat this" when I go to Mexico. This isn't my house. I’m not going to go to Mexico and demand vegan Frijoles, like, what? I just think that we need to be more understanding as a culture. 

You’re very open on your Instagram about wellness and what that looks like for you. I think it's similar to what we've talked about with food in that there's this idea of wellness that's very commodified and all about buying things. How do you avoid those constructs and what makes you truly feel “well”?

I think self-optimization is fire – listen, we love a sauna, we love a tincture, that's a vibe. But to say that those things are necessary? Food, air, water, movement, sunlight, purpose, community – those are necessary, when you have all of those things, you're well. Wellness isn't necessarily a yoga practice – what if I hate yoga? I think it's great when people like it, but my movement practice looks different and how I move and what's good for me looks totally different. I just don’t think we should make wellness mean capitalism and stuff we don’t need. We were plenty well before we had all of those things. If you go back far enough, there were no powders, there were no tinctures, there were no saunas.  There was just food, air, movement, sunlight, purpose, and community, so those are the things that we should be seeking. You can make those things mean whatever you want, which is the sexy part. 

You’re currently writing a book, and revisiting moments from your childhood and life in and out of the foster care system. What has it been like to revisit that period? 

Not fun, not ideal, but necessary. I’m writing a cookbook that you read like a book. [When it comes to my] trauma, I had a very hard life, but I'm here. I must have been strong enough to get through it. I don't know that I'd be who I am without it. So I don't want to say I'm grateful for it, but I do believe now that I'm worthy of ease in a way that I didn't when I was younger. I don't want to say, "I've reached this apex of healing," but I've reached this place where I accept the horrifying things that happened to me as a kid, and I feel lucky that I have healthy protocols for getting through those moments when things get hard. Writing is a healthy thing, it's a healthy protocol – it doesn't hurt me or anyone else. Making television, that's a healthy protocol, as is talking to a friend within the proper boundaries. Now, I feel like I can do those things, I finally feel strong. I think before I would act out my trauma, or there was imposter syndrome or assimilation trauma. And writing, while it's been hard, it allows me to really write things that happen to me and let them be that. I don't replay it or go through it again, I just let it be. It’s a memory that just lives right there on the page, it doesn't live all over my body anymore. 

How did you get from that place of acting out your trauma to learning to accept it and even revisit it without having it re-traumatize you?

A lot of fucking therapy. Shout out, Denise! I've had the best therapist ever for eight years, she focuses on [clients who have experienced] childhood trauma and childhood abuse and specifically deals with people whose abusers are still alive. So I always urge people to find someone who is [well-versed in] your niche. My mom, who was the perpetrator of most of my trauma, is still alive, and the trauma that she put me through is something she also experienced because that's how trauma cyclically works. As crazy as it is, my mom is my greatest inspiration – I think about her every day. While she was like the most horrifying parent ever, she mothers me every day because she’s taught me what it is to feel bad, and I don't know that I'd know how to feel as good as I do now if I didn't know how to feel as bad as I do.

I used to try to pretend these things didn't happen, or lie and say that my mom and I talk all the time. But that doesn’t work, so now I really face the things that I went through and if they come out, they come out.  I realized that I had to care less about what it is to be a kid who was abused and care more about what it is to be a person who overcame abuse. I'm an abuse survivor, not an abused person. I'm not washed up, I'm not fucked up, I just experienced a lot of childhood abuse, and because of that, my compass was broken. I didn't know what good people looked like, I had major codependency, and I didn't understand that I could be great. None of this is my fault – this is textbook trauma. I’m not trying to oversimplify trauma but you can be empowered by it, and you can get through it. I had to forgive my mom, which I never thought I could do. When you can forgive the person that has abused you, you can really do anything. And I'm not saying that that needs to be everybody's marker, that might not happen for you, but that doesn't mean you can't live a great life. 

You put so much thought into everything you do and the way you look at food is very layered so I’m curious, how do you decide what to cook for someone you love?

It depends on the person. I cook for people, I don't cook my [favorite] food. Just because I like it doesn't mean they will. A lot of cooks get annoyed by dietary restrictions or restraints but I love them. That's how you become good, that's how you become creative and innovative and come up with new shit. My flavors are really good because I question the typical. [The chef] Amanda Cohen once asked, “why make pasta with water when you can use carrot juice?” and I'm like, yeah, why make rice with water when you can make it with green tea or beer? So, my type of food is really playful and when someone says to me, "Soph, make me your signature for dinner," I just want to be like, "well, what are you in the mood for?" I just want everybody to get what they want. If you want a burger I'm like, "I'm going to make you the best burger of your life.”

You mentioned the lack of representation in the food world earlier which has been an issue for a long time but has really come to a head in the last year or so. Do you think the industry has made any strides?

There have been major strides, but what inspired the strides is really problematic. When exposure [of racism] inspires a stride, well that's a whole book. But you had 10 crazy diverse chefs on the Met Gala red carpet two weeks ago, so I call that progress. People are like “the Met Gala event was so problematic,” but food was finally inserted in a forward-facing way in the fashion space. Fashion loves to call itself the arbiter of culture but if you want to have a cultural conversation, you’ve got to also include food. I was the first Black person to be nominated for an Emmy in the culinary category, which has been in existence since 2007. That’s embarrassing on behalf of the Academy, and I never want to be the only Black person nominated for anything ever again. So there are a lot more strides to be made and there is so much room for so many of us to win. 

It’s not just about having more Black chefs, either. There's a lot of room for Fusion cooks, which means we need to start talking more about the intersection of cultures. I’m a Black American Brazilian French Japanese girl – they all intersect and they all mean something different. We need to start making room for this mixed race reality in food. There’s also racial capitalism because companies started realizing, like, "oh there's my Monetary value in being black!" Don't hire me because I'm Black, man. Do I want to see Black people in every space? Yes, ma'am. I want to see them everywhere, but for the right reasons – because we're talented and brilliant and beautiful and creative and innovative. 

So, besides the book, what is coming up next for you?

I’m smack in the middle of shooting the second season of my show and in the next year, I want to actually birth some book babies. I’m also really into fungus, so have been diving deep into mycology as anyone who follows me on Instagram will know. I do it purely for pleasure. When it comes to mental health, I do think it's really important to do things not for monetary gain but because they just feel good. When I can go out into nature, find a mushroom, and know what it is, that feels so good to me. 

There's a desire by young people to be seen today in a way that I've never seen before and I think that people are more interested in a career that will get them famous. And listen, get your coin, but I also think we need to make sure that whatever that thing is, it's equally connected to our purpose. Purpose is really tied into what gives you joy. I'm really good at TV because I genuinely love doing it. I'm really good at writing because I don't give a fuck how anybody feels about my writing – I do it because I love doing it, and I'll go crazy if I don't. Your twenties are when you're supposed to try shit and fail, and you shouldn't be so stressed out about what you look like or your body. Be body positive but also figure out who you are outside of that, because your body is just a vessel. Try things out and don't be scared. If I'm some freak show in the forest, looking at mushrooms under a microscope I don’t care – I do it because it's fun and I love it, and I think we need more of that. 

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