By SPECIWOMEN Illustration GINA GLENN
Who are you?
My name is Vilda. I am a student and a cook. I’m often loud, often laughing, very ambitious, and always curious.
I never really chose to work in food, it just eventually become clear that I always would. As a child my appetite was insatiable, I can’t think of a food I didn’t love. Its funny to reflect on, as I’ve always been obsessed with food in one regard or another. It is the most tangible expression of care, presence, and patience. It has brought me my closest friends, forced me to face my worst habits, and saved me in a time of desperate need.
How did you get into cooking?
I learned the basics of cooking when I was young. Growing up, dinner time was one solid ritual in our house, and my mom or dad almost always cooked our meals at home. This taught me the fundamentals: how to use a knife, how to taste for what’s missing, how to improvise. I started cooking for myself from a young age, and have always continued. Severe illness is what brought me to the style of cooking I practice today. A few years back I had a very sudden onset of a debilitating autoimmune disorder. I read, researched & experimented obsessively to figure out how to bring my body back to balance. The solution was eerily simple, and it had almost everything to do with food. I am grateful that I had the intuitive sense to treat myself, and have been devoted ever since to helping educate & empower people to do the same for themselves.
Your top three culinary influences?
Dan Barber. He taught me the correlation between the soil’s health and my own health. I read his book The Third Plate when I was very sick, and suddenly everything clicked.
Naommi Devlin. Reading her cookbooks always reminds me to stay on track when I doubt the path that I’m on.
Matt & Lentil, the authors of my favorite cookbooks Grown & Gathered and The Village. They remind me daily of the joy of simple living, with good food and good people. I have an endless collection of cookbooks, and theirs are the only ones whose recipes I actually follow.
What are your favorite go-to dishes to prepare for any occasion?
I’m always experimenting with new dishes so it definitely varies, but one true and tried dish goes as follows: quickly saute kale and/or collard greens in ghee, add a knob of grated ginger and salt, then braise till tender in pure coconut milk and finish with chili. This is delicious with rice, with fish, or drizzled in black sesame tahini. A salad of beautiful, crunchy greens (my favorite is a blend of red mustard, arugula, mizuna & sunflower shoots) is another given; raw milk cheddar and toasted hazelnuts has been my go to move recently, dressed simply in citronette, with a shmeer of sumac yogurt on the bottom of the plate. I also love making slow roasted salmon loaded with herbs, shallots, citrus and olive oil.
Do you consider food as art?
I don’t. Food is vital. It’s a means of both sustenance and pleasure. Even in its most esoteric, abstract or absurd form its still utilitarian. It is also universally complicated, unequally distributed, immorally produced, and highly monetized. I think portraying it as art strips it from its function, it feels too indulgent. That’s not to say food can’t be used to make art, many of my favorite artists use food as their medium. It is an excellent tool for communication: as an exploration of human experience & interaction, as a storyteller, as a form of resistance. The two inevitably go hand in hand, but I consider food to simply be food (in all its glory).
Being a woman in a patriarchal society is always rough. What has being a female chef and activist taught you about yourself?
I’ve actually never considered myself a chef or an activist, even though my work falls very closely in line with both titles. I’ve worked front of house in restaurants since I was 15, though never under a female chef. There’s a certain prestige heavily associated with being a chef - the type you only earn by working your way from the bottom up, through grueling hours and often abusive conditions. It is a very machismo culture, often lacking any concern for care, tenderness, or respect. From an early age this pushed me to seek out better systems, and ultimately led me into the arms of a community of women whose ethic is rooted, striking, and affectionate. It has taught me to be discerning, perceptive, and bold. As a cook, whether I’m cooking for myself or for many, my goal is to create a sense of calm and connection. I create experiences that encourage and empower people to be more thoughtful about what and how they cook by essentially feeding them the product of love on a plate.
Three Instagram/Food Blogs/Magazines that you follow.
For us on a college student budget, can you give me a Mon-Fri menu that won’t break one’s wallet?
The key here is to be creative and resourceful with the few ingredients you have on hand.
You can make many different meals with the same basic handful of ingredients. Dedicate a small chunk of time for planning what your week of eating is going to look like. It is useful to have cooked grains, legumes, and sauces in the fridge to reach for. An example menu might look something like: roasting a buttermilk brined chicken for dinner on Sunday, cooking a pot of chickpeas, making a big batch of tahini sauce & a simple vinaigrette, cooking your grain of choice, roasting your favorite vegetables, soft boiling half a dozen eggs, and making a quick batch of dukkah. This will probably take you a solid 3 hours, but will save you loads of time throughout your busy week. Breakfast on Monday might be scrambled eggs with a handful of greens dressed in said vinaigrette. Lunch can be a super quick to assemble bowl consisting of your pre cooked grains, vegetables, chickpeas and greens all tossed in that tahini sauce with two soft boiled eggs and a sprinkle of dukkah. When home for dinner, cook a batch of rice large enough to last you for 2-3 more meals, make a hand chopped salsa of tomatoes, onion, stone fruit, and jalapeno, and mix some lime juice & zest into sour cream or creme fraiche. Heat up corn tortillas, and make chicken tacos with rice, salsa, and crema. This shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes. As you’re cleaning up, make a chicken salad using a couple spoonfuls of tahini sauce, a dollop of the leftover lime crema and maybe a little mustard, mix this with whatever herbs you have on hand, diced jalapeno and any vegetable that lends a nice crunch (celery, fennel, etc.). Tuesday’s breakfast can be quickly fried leftover rice, whatever wilting vegetables you have in the fridge, and a fried egg on top. Make a chicken salad sandwich for lunch. For dinner, reheat your chickpeas in the broth you cooked them in, season with whatever you need to make it delicious, throw in some greens, leftover grains and let it steam for a couple of minutes. Top this with lots of grated parmesan and a sprinkle of dukkah and you’re looking at a 10 minute meal. Before going to bed, take the time to mix together a grated apple or pear with oats, chia seeds, nuts, honey, cardamom & yogurt and make enough to last you a couple days. Tomorrow morning you’ll have instant bircher muesli that you can doctor up with fruit, toasted seeds, and another drizzle of honey. My biggest advice in creating a menu that is satisfying and affordable is to plan, prep, and make sure not to forget about the foods that bring you simple pleasure when budgeting your grocery list. Always cook enough to have leftovers that you can easily repurpose into another meal.
You were familiar with the working world very young, how do you feel about having started to be a “professional” at a younger age than others?
I am very grateful for it. It shaped my independence and taught me how to be savvy and resourceful. I have always been self determined, and making my own money allowed me autonomy in making decisions for myself at a young age. My professional experience has helped me to gain respect that might otherwise not be granted with the stigma that is often associated with my age.
A lot of people are vegetarians, vegan or gluten-free today? All types of diets exist in New York. What are your thoughts about food restriction?
Restricting is the last thing food should be. Food is something to celebrate, it should be eaten and prepared with joy. The issue is that food restrictions give birth to extreme anxieties regarding what we should and shouldn’t eat, often demonizing whichever food that doesn’t fit into the restrictive model. If people were educated in that the real harm in gluten is often the glyphosate, or that in order to properly assimilate the nutrients within wheat you have to activate the grain to break down its antinutrients, or that raw grass fed milk is in its entirety a different product than the milk sold on supermarket shelves, or the food miles and energy it takes to produce and import fake meat products, their diet choices would most likely change. It is important to be fluid and receptive to what your body needs. Sometimes I don’t eat gluten at all, some weeks I eat more meat than others, and while I generally avoid refined sugar I’m not going to have a bad conscience for eating ice cream for dinner. Focus on choosing food that makes you feel good, and try not to stress about it.
What is your opinion of slow-food versus fast-food?
Alice Waters said this very well: ‘When you eat fast food, you not only eat the food that is unhealthy for you, but you digest the values that comes with that food. And they’re really about fast, cheap and easy.’ In other words, we are what we eat. Food has everything to do with culture, and in a country dominated by the values of fast food culture it never fails to surprise me what standards we put forth to our people. This system strips us away from our humanity. Slow food is real food. It connects us to our history, to our surroundings, it engages our senses, and requires our presence. It is the antidote to fast, cheap and easy.
How important social media are in your everyday life?
It is and it isn’t. I wish I could say it’s not important at all, but the majority of the network of people I’ve come to know within this industry are a result of the serendipitous way social media has of bringing like minded people together. I met most of my closest friends indirectly through instagram. I would be completely remiss if I didn’t give it credit where it’s due. It is at the same time a huge hindrance and distraction, and aids in festering the dystopian relationships we have with ourselves and our real life surroundings. It is a legitimate time sucker, and I find myself at war with it most days. Nonetheless, it is a powerful tool that I am ultimately very grateful for.
If you could open a restaurant in any city, where would it be, why, and what would you serve?
This has always been a difficult question considering that opening a restaurant to begin with is a difficult idea. If I ever were to open a restaurant, it would operate in service to the community that allows it to thrive, as a hub and refuge; the type of place you’d want to go to multiple times a day, with a book, on a date, with your kids, in a rush. I would open it in Savannah, GA as there’s hardly an option for a restaurant serving seasonal, healthful and delicious food. The people there have always supported my growth, so the idea of continuing to build within that city feels really sweet. There’s so many places I’m drawn to with more developed food scenes and easier access to better ingredients, but the idea of filling the void for a more conscious restaurant concept in Savannah excites me. We’ll see.
Follow Vilda’s work here.