As the world remains in a global lockdown, we caught up with the chef, storyteller and wellness advocate Sophia Roe.
At 31, the New Yorker has established herself in the food industry as a celebrated chef, with camera-born energy and likeability that has attracted a growing Instagram following of over 125K followers.
She found success as a chef in the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in New York, followed by a seven-year stint as a private chef for New Hampton’s wealthiest families that was far more her style. It was after this that she began to switch up her career and grow her social media presence.
Today as a chef, she teaches her loyal social community everything they need to know; from how to confit, to what to do with aubergine — that apparently, nobody knows how to cook — in her latest storytelling series Eat the Rainbow on YouTube. Kids remain her passion, as she continuously works to educate them about food, and gives them chances that she never had. Out of the kitchen, she’s writing two books and has even dabbled in presenting. Last year, she hosted the Uber Eats House at SXSW Festival in Texas, and interviewed — to name drop a few — Billie Eilish and David Chang. No biggie.
Currently isolating in Long Island, New York, Sophia bares her tips and some self-loving words of encouragement that we all need to hear right now. Though fear not, she’s not just another clichéd health and wellness guru that you may be used to hearing. She chooses not to follow the health obsessive herd and instead incorporates a refreshingly non-toxic take on the industries.
How is everything in New York?
I’m lucky enough to be staying in Long Island, which is such a different experience from New York. You can go for a walk and not see a person here. We’re just taking it day by day. We don’t know when this will end; it’s the uncertainty that’s making everyone feel so unsettled.
What have you been doing to keep yourself entertained throughout this challenging time?
SO much cooking like everyone else, which is nice. To be a chef and see people cooking, it just makes my heart explode! Whilst there are other issues; I think there are about 10 million people [in the US] that don’t have a job right now. Whilst that is sad, it also gives people no excuses [to cook]. The biggest excuse I hear as to why people don’t cook is because they’re too busy. Right now, people don’t have a choice; they have to stay at home and that is forcing people to cook, and I think that is awesome.
Self-care and wellness are another big part of your ethos. Do you have any self-care tips for our readers right now that are currently stuck at home?
YES! I have loads of them. I’m always erring on the positive side because it’s a slippery slope right now. If you read the news for 20 seconds too long, you’re depressed for the whole day. I’m doing this practice; it sounds so hilarious but everyone I know is doing it and it really helps. It’s a happy list. So, sit down and seriously write out what you’re happy about. You have all the time in the world right now, so why not do it? What you are happy about and in control of is so important. Not having control is the worst and that’s what we’re all so anxious about because we don’t know what’s going to happen.
I know I love having an Earl Grey with a splash of oat milk. I know I love that, nothing in the world is going to make me want a coffee instead. Having a piece of paper that you wrote on and that you are in control over to read for when you are anxious and depressed is very empowering. We all have time to do that for 10 minutes.
Another thing I’ve been doing is chatting to my friends but not face-to-face. Everything is face-to-face, Instagram Live and Zoom; what happened to an old-school phone call? I remember being a teenager and chatting on the phone to friends for hours so I’ve been doing that on such great capacity. You start one way and then in two hours you’re talking about something completely different. It’s a great way to pass the time.
I think this also is a great time for forgiveness. If you have a grudge, this is a great time to handle that. The world is a crazy place, and this is just reminding us of that. This won’t last forever so when we get back to it, we all want a fresh start. People are doing their taxes, business stuff, getting their lives in order; I think it’s important to do that with your relationships right now too.
It’s great that you have a platform that you can use to help people right now. As you said, everyone seems to be cooking.
Exactly, and I’m having fun with it. Though in America, it’s hard as you have accessibility issues. In Brooklyn, you can go five streets over to a whole new neighbourhood with people that have no access to fresh food, so it’s important that nothing feels tone-deaf. It’s important that people understand that they don’t need to rush out and get all new fresh ingredients and that they can use frozen items instead. Whatever you have is fine. This is not the time to stress about not having the exact ingredients as long as you have food in your belly. The last thing we need is more stress about not eating as fresh as possible.
Make a cake, enjoy it. Be happy that you made something that is delicious. That’s always been my messaging. Wellness is always a part of me, but the way I look at wellness is different to other people. To me, wellness is food, water, air, sunlight and movement. As long as you have some facet of those things with a little dribble of purpose, I think you’re living as well as you can possibly live. You don’t need to be doing thousands of hours of yoga and be a vegan to be well. In fact, I’ve met people who do that and are in fact unwell.
I agree, our feeds are clogged up with so many home workouts, it’s quite overwhelming…
Oh my god, if I see one more video… I mean come ON already! I get it, I can squat at home. Is this what I’m supposed to be doing all day, just lunging in my house, sliding on towels and isolating my core? Ugh, no. I’m making another roast chicken, how about that!
I just think, if you want to move your body and feel encouraged to move your body, then do it. Movement can also just be jumping around your house and dancing. I am loving seeing all these Zoom parties; they just make me so happy. I love that kind of shit, that’s the content I want to see! I want things to make me laugh!
Exactly, just getting through the day is enough right now!
Nail on the head. If you can find a way to successfully get through the day right now, you’ve already won because what a feat these days to just get through it. I’ve been recommending that people put their phone away when they can. I definitely feel the pressure to post because people are always looking at me for something. It’s rough. I’ve been doing these Instagram Live check-ins with everyone; how is everyone feeling, what’s it like in Italy now, what’s it like in Hong Kong. They’re great; it’s a little community of about 2,000 people and we just hang out every morning. That’s fun because it makes me feel a lot closer to my community. But the second it becomes pressured, you’ve got to put the phone away.
So, you’re also writing a book. That must be consuming a lot of your time whilst in lockdown?
It’s funny, I always said that I never had time to write my own stuff and now I have nothing but time! So, there are two books. One is observational based, that we’ve had to click pause on. I spent 36 hours on the New York City subway and didn’t surface. Yeah, I don’t recommend it [giggles], but I did it. It’s a book about what life is like on the subway. That one is very smooth; I’m having no issues with it. I always say people are not linear, you can be a chef and do so many other things. So that work means a lot to me. It will solidify me in a different market that isn’t food-related because not every day do I want to cook. The stories are all under a thousand words; they’re short little stories, all unrelated.
The other one is more memoir based. It talks about me as a chef; why I’m a chef, what my outlook is, who is Sophia. The recipes are set up like soundtracks, that you can read as a book. This one is taking a lot longer to write. I had a pretty traumatic childhood and getting all those details correct takes a long time. When you write a memoir and you’re only 31, it’s about your childhood and like I said, mine wasn’t very good.
Are there any stories that stand out that you can share with our readers from the New York City Subway?
Yeah, so out of the 36 hours I was down there, I saw 27 people crying and only one was a baby, so it was very interesting. It seems to be a New York thing, the train is your commute and even though there are people around, you’re still going through the same emotions.
There was this guy who was screaming on the platform and I’d heard his dad had died. He was talking to his girlfriend saying, ‘I can’t believe my father who every day of his life wore Yankee t-shirts and brown slacks and now he’s got this new girlfriend who wants him to be buried in a suit.’ And he’s losing his mind over this! You’re just hearing people’s everyday lives. There were so many interesting moments like that.
You’ve spoken about your childhood and growing up in foster care, where you weren’t exposed to eating well or experiencing nature. How do you think this has shaped the work that you do now with kids in trying to enable them access to these parts of life that you didn’t have access to?
Oh my god, it’s all I care about. Childhoods are funny. My mom was not a great mom but she’s also my biggest inspiration, in a way. You’ll never catch me saying horrible things about childhood, despite being in and out of foster care my whole life because it’s given me a lot of grace when considering who people are, in general. You just never know what someone’s been through. People are always shocked when they learn about my past because of course, how could you tell by just looking at someone! I think that kids generally are just tough and have their defences up. Many have been through a lot and I’m almost extra responsive to [those] kids. I don’t think I’d be as good at my job if I hadn’t been through that. You need to be tough to work in a kitchen, and these kids are tough.
I think this also is my style, it’s very intuitive. I don’t ever want to send people into the kitchen with a hard recipe. I want to ask, ‘what you do and don’t like, and we’ll go from there. I want to know what your taste buds are.’ I think that comes from being a kid and having no options. My past has informed the way that I cook now and the way I want people to cook themselves. You shouldn’t be eating food if it’s not tasty. I don’t care if this kale salad is good for you if you don’t like kale you shouldn’t be eating it! That may seem very anti-wellness, but I think just because something’s good for you doesn’t mean it shouldn’t taste good.
Most of the work you do now is with kids and changing their opinions on food… have you found that there has been a turning point in kids’ and adults’ perspectives on food that you’ve worked with?
I work with moms mostly now. We did a sauce class which was AKA, how to build flavour. You see these moms come in and state that their kids don’t like food. Kids care, you just have to talk to them in a way that makes them care. So, I tell them, talk to your kids; have you had something somewhere that you did really like? What’s a meal that mommy makes that you do really like? Say it’s chicken nuggets, your kids are telling you they like a texture and a style of cooking. So, how can we extend that into vegetables, how can we make a tempura green bean? A cooking class for a mom is basically a communication class of getting kids involved. I’ve never seen a kid not eating something they got to eat.
When I was a private chef and I was working with kids every day, the number one thing I learned they loved was getting their hands involved. If they get involved, they will eat it. Treat food like it’s a palette builder. Treat it like a sense. Let them taste your tea, coffee, milk; it’s the only way to learn what they like. A kid that cares about food is an adult that cares about food!
You’ve also been a private chef, how did this shape what you do today?
I worked for some wonderful people, big high-end people who I’m still under NDA for so I can’t talk about them! It [the NDA] will be up next January so I’m excited for that. I was in the Hamptons every summer from May to September; they all had kids and I loved it. It taught me a lot about patience and about making food for a person rather than just making a chef’s food. I did that for almost seven years. I went to one family at a time because sometimes the kids would get a bit older and it seemed like that family maybe didn’t need me. I’d been a private chef before when I lived in Miami, where I did it seasonally. I really liked that it was just me in the kitchen and the simplicity of asking, ‘what do you want for dinner?’ It felt like every day I got to make everyone’s dinner dream come true.
Did you do that straight after working for the restaurant?
Yep. I needed to make money. It was lucky that I’d done some events, so I had some connections. In New York, there are thousands of private chefs and people that need them. It felt for a while like that would be my career, but then I just got massive career burnout and needed to do something else.
I worked in makeup for a bit and moved on to working in social media and marketing for a while. They hired me because I was so good on camera as I had my Instagram. That’s why I tell people, don’t underestimate social media. That was when Snapchat was still a thing; it was all the rage! Instagram was popping off, so it was perfect for that time.
You’ve got a lot of interviews and videos on YouTube; will you be getting your own channel?
YouTube is something I’ve been pressing pause on for a long time; it’s full-time work. I have loads of videos, but I don’t have my own channel; my thing is more Instagram. I don’t see any cool brown or black, female-owned person that is doing anything food-related on there. Every food channel is the same sort of person. I want to see a chick take a train, skateboard into her house and make a gorgeous meal for her friends because that is me. Eating bad and not looking after your body isn’t cool anymore. I wish there was more focus on having a lot more fun in the kitchen, rather than people saying don’t eat this or don’t eat that.
So, we’re working on a channel. It will be awesome when it happens. I love that I get to be myself on my Instagram, so I feel very lucky. Some people follow me for food or beauty, and I can do a range of things and what I want. My biggest hope is that we are very community-driven. We want people to feel better about beauty and food. Sometimes the guilt is real with food, but who cares. If you want to eat cake, eat cake.
Do you see there being a shift once this pandemic is over in terms of food consumption and where food is sourced from?
My biggest hope when this is all over is that we’ve taken stock in humanity, even if it’s just a little bit more. Think of all the work that carrot on your plate took; the grocery store, the lorry drivers, the farmers and the resources it took to grow it. All the sunlight and water. I hope people eat slower and more mindfully. Understand what is on your plate and how it got there. Forty percent of the food grown in America is thrown directly into the garbage because they don’t hold up to cosmetic standards. People don’t want imperfect carrots. So, I hope people are just more mindful of everything. You may be able to order online, but humans get it to you. How we cook food has never been more irrelevant. As long as you appreciate how it has grown and how it got to your plate.
What have been your go-to recipes during quarantine?
I’ve been cooking, a lot! I’ve been doing a bit of everything. A lot of Japanese broths that are easy and can last about 10 days. You can quickly poach some veggies, drop some asparagus, spinach, dried mushrooms in. I’m keeping it light and not eating heavy stuff. My boyfriend’s a big meat person, so I’m roasting all the chickens; they’re the easiest thing in the world. I’ve been making confit everything I can; I confit everything, it’s the easiest thing to make food taste good. If I see those peppers I bought going bad, I confit them!
I cook rice in tea to infuse flavour; I use lemongrass or ginger instead of just water, it’s super delicious. Infusing teas into rice and serving them with a curry is so good! I poach veggies in tea too, why not use tea instead of water? I use a lot of tea, it’s a great way to impart flavour. Also, who doesn’t have tea in their cupboard?! An oatmeal Earl Grey, delicious!
Lastly, what are you watching, listening and reading right now?
I am reading every Joan Didion book she has ever written and I’m listening to every Jessica Pratt album; I love her. Then I’m watching every Alfred Hitchcock film I can right now! I’m doing this weird nostalgia thing. I still listen to The Daily every day and this beauty podcast Fat Mascara. I’m still implementing everyday things I used to do before because I don’t want to lose that, but also new things. Like reading the Zadie Smith books that I’ve always wanted to read. There are no excuses after this! At least I’ll come out of this with plenty of new ideas and content, right?
And from what we’ve seen so far, we hope she does get a lot more inspired as we’ll be waiting on her new projects and optimistic words to get us through the rest off this year. Keep your eyes peeled for Sophia’s books and follow her on Instagram @sophia_roe.
interview by Miranda Bunnis
photography Eva Zar @ Sunday Afternoon
styling Stephanie Tricola @ Honey Artists
makeup Mitch Yoshida
styling assistant Natasha Bock
makeup assistant Emma Ando
SOPHIA ROE’S HOMEMADE PESTO
A pantry essential that Sophia recommends for quarantine: seedy, homemade pesto. This pesto tastes extra delicious when the ingredients are chopped and mixed by hand. It’ll take a tad longer, but it’s SO WORTH IT (plus no food processor clean-up). You can use this pesto immediately, or you can portion out pesto into an ice cube tray, and store in the freezer for up to 4 months!
2 tbsp hemp seeds
2 tbsp sunflower seeds
2 tbsp sesame seeds
1/2 cup of whatever herbs you have on hand
2 tbsp shallot or green onion
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp sea salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup olive oil
Finely chop the shallots, garlic, and herbs. Set aside in a bowl. Add to the mixing bowl, the hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, nutritional yeast, red pepper flakes, lemon zest, sea salt and pepper. Mix in olive oil at the very end, until fully incorporated.