Covered in tats and grey hairs (as she likes to joke), with an electric energy that makes you wish you could hang with her every day (all day), Sophia is not your average wellness authority. As a self-described storyteller slash food & feelings advocate, Sophia's career gradually manifested. Having started in the kitchen with no particular ambitions outside of needing a job, she's now a celebrated chef in the process of writing her first book which recalls her traumatic childhood turned successful adult while simultaneously developing a storytelling series on YouTube. Amidst her packed schedule, we caught up in NYC. Here, she shares how growing up in foster care, learning about love through food, being the “other” bubble, getting sick and turning tragedy into positive life tools has shaped her world for the better.
Whatcha up to right now?
I’m writing my book!
Are all the recipes related to memories or tastes from your past?
Not all the recipes are food, because I feel not all wellness is edible. Some of the recipes are for the soul.
How did you start writing?
I love to write, especially short stories. If I didn’t make food, I’d probably be a writer. When I was little, my dream was to be on the radio. I loved listening to stories and interviews with interesting people. Tapping into that dream, I approached the format of this book as a broadcaster would conduct an interview. Mixed with hardship and moments of levity, it’s not a classic linear story but instead told from the perspective of my grown-up self interviewing my five-year-old self with recipes that coincide.
Where do you usually write?
My favorite place to write is the NYC subway. Most people hate the train, but I love it. It’s the most beautiful showcase of humanity that I've ever seen. Everyone’s next to each other from all walks of life and different experiences. Some are laughing, some crying, and other are throwing-up, all on their way to somewhere.
What are you working on?
As mentioned, I’m focused on my book these days. The project began about six months ago, which is not a super long time, but it requires a good deal of mental focus.
Plus, ironically enough after years of being secretive, I am starting a storyteller YouTube series and podcast. I love listening to podcasts about founders, but this will focus on real human experiences like, That Time I Went To Jail or, That Time I Came Out To My Parents.
Photo by Jennifer Trahan
Photo by Jennifer Trahan
When did you start to cook?
Early on I learned that food equaled love. It was simple. When I cooked, my mom gave me attention, so that’s what I did. When I was seven, I discovered a show called Chefs Of The World on The Discovery Channel. For the first time, I was exposed to these famous French chefs like Hubert Keller and Raymond Blanc. I didn’t know what they were saying, but I loved what they were doing.
Around the same time that I became obsessed with that show, my mom left me home alone for a week with canned food and instructions to walk to school. I took to cooking while she was gone. I found enough money to buy eggs, asked my teacher how to use a measuring cup, and made myself these awful pancakes. At the end of the week, my mom came home while I was cooking a batch and rather than look alarmed that her seven-year-old was using the stove, she asked, “What’s for dinner?” I handed her this mediocre plate of pancakes, she kissed me on the forehead and told me to use more butter next time — THIS(!) coming from a woman that never gave me physical attention. Sold. From then on, I would cook as my method of receiving affection. The kitchen taught me what love was from the person that was most unlikely to give it to me, even though she was my mom.
The other bubble?
My dad, who I never knew, was Brazilian Japanese, and my mom was a blonde hair, green-eyed, white lady. As a child I didn’t understand why I was dark, didn’t look like my mom, and my dad wasn’t around for me to relate to. I mean, how do you explain race to a five-year-old? You don’t.
Deeply confused, I learned about race from the Scantron tests at school. Which bubble are you? I would always fill in the “white” bubble. Well, I’m the “other” bubble, and I wasn't happy about it. My teacher would tell me that I couldn’t do that and I would explain to her that my mom was white. She insisted that I wasn’t, would send me to the principal’s office, and my mom would have to come to pick me up. After one of these episodes, I turned to my mom, looked her dead in the eyes, and asked when I was going to turn white like her. For the first time, she realized how lost I was and sat me down to explain race through paint:
“What happens if you mix black and white together?”
“You get grey,” I answered.
“Good. And, what happens if you combine all the colors of the rainbow?” she asked.
“You get brown,” I said.
“So, you are ALL the colors of the rainbow! And, another word for rainbow is OTHER,” she finished.
I was like, “OHHHHH, why didn’t you say something sooner?!” In that moment I was so proud to be an OTHER. I remember being at school after that, with my head held high thinking, “I’m an OTHER, bitches! I’m a rainbow!”
A memory with your mom?
When my mom was sober, she was magic! From time to time, she would be thrown in jail and sober up for a bit. After she would be released, we’d usually have five incredible days together. During these short stints of sobriety, she would hold my hand when we walked across the street and show me affection. One time when we were living in a shelter, she broke into a house so we could use the bathtub. She was clean, and I have no idea who owned the home, but I do know that she played with me in that tub for hours and I felt so loved.
How did you go from foster care to becoming a chef?
I had no plans to be a chef. I wanted to be a musician or a journalist. However, when I was ten, the government intervened and sent myself plus my three siblings to foster care. It was horrible. There was a lot of abuse and abandonment, and I’ve blacked most of it out. From about 10 to 18-years-old, I moved between 20 different homes, was very secretive and lied to hide my embarrassment. Nobody at school knew where I lived, came to my house, or ever saw my “parents.”
At 18, I went to UCF on a track scholarship but dropped out after I tore my ACL, which left me with a bad boyfriend, no parents, and in need of a job. I saw a local Vietnamese restaurant hiring was hiring, so I lied about my knife skills and landed a role in the kitchen. The kitchen was my saving grace and very relatable to me. It was chaos yet quiet, and I didn’t have to explain myself to anybody. I loved it.
After the Vietnamese restaurant, I moved with my boyfriend to California and then to Vegas before going to culinary school. Soon after, I dropped out, dumped the boyfriend and made my way back to Florida, where a chef friend suggested I become a private chef for this lovely wealthy couple. So I did, and it was pure joy to make food for them.
And, from chef to wellness?
Shortly after becoming a private chef, I got sick. I was diagnosed with a cluster tumor on my right ovary at 23-years-old, and the treatment was a hysterectomy. I refused until I found a female doctor willing to do a partial hysterectomy which left me with half. That experience made me obsessed with my health in an unhealthy way. I would stress about having ten cashews instead of eight, and I did Banana Island for 30 days wherein I ate nothing but bananas for a month. I put my body through all kinds of weird wellness shit that was actually made me sicker. Lost, I went on a silent retreat, where I discovered how angry I was about my life. I was addicted to believing that I was not great. The retreat, while painful, allowed me to begin healing. I balanced my approach to wellness and started to formulate my brand of food.
Now at 31, I don’t have kids or a partner, but I feel better than ever. I wake up good, and I go to sleep good. I feel good when I have a big buttery bowl of popcorn, and I feel equally as good when I’m on a 3-day juice cleanse. This, for me, is balance.
What’s your morning routine to start each day feeling your best?
The first thing I do every morning is drink water. I try not to reach for my phone, but the reality is I usually have water and then jump on my phone. People like to say they meditate before the phone, but I call bullshit on that. We all reach for it!
Then, I wash my face and brush my teeth, pretty standard stuff. I used to be crazy with tons of serums and potions, but as I get older, I find my skin needs less, and I've simplified my routine to include an excellent SPF and a cleanser.
I'm not super hungry in the morning, so I start with a juice or simple smoothie. But dinner is another story! Lots of people love going out, but I prefer to cook Ramen, lentils, vegetables, and fish for myself.
What else do you eat, or not perhaps?
I haven't eaten land animals, dairy, or eggs for ten years. Dairy wreaks havoc on my skin, eggs make me nauseous, and I avoid land animals because I don't want to contribute to the industry. Although, if I'm traveling all bets are off, and I eat what's being served. It's a privilege to be vegan and therefore inappropriate of me to demand dietary accommodations when I'm in someone else's country.
Photo by Jennifer Trahan
Photo by Jennifer Trahan
What are you reading?
One of my all-time favorite books is called Working by Studs Terkel, an old-timey white male broadcaster that's a bit rough around the edges. As the title suggests, it’s a book about work, told through a series of small vignettes about people’s jobs such as a construction or a factory worker. It’s a portrait of what work looks like in America. I'm also rereading (for the 5th time), Patti Smith's Just Kids. She’s the ultimate post-punk poet and the most magnetic author. I’m completely sucked in by her.
Lastly, THE book every creative should have... The War Of Art, by Steven Pressfield. An essential for anyone that has or is experiencing a writing or creative block. I don’t care if you're starting a fashion brand, writing an article or designing a car, this book will help you understand when you’re feeling stuck.
A healthy habit you developed that has changed your life?
Repurposing myself, and the way I look at trauma. Instead of feeling like a victim, I've learned to turn my inner conflict into a positive tool. I never thought in a million years, I would feel this way, but I do. I now appreciate what I've been through because no one is qualified to do what I do besides me since there's only one me.
Any advice for someone wanting to follow in your career footsteps?
Have a clear identity and take stock in your origin. It's ok if it looks a little gruesome. Mine was rough, and I lean into that on the daily. You can't be everything to everyone, so don't try. I'm certainly not for everyone. People frequently tell me that I'm so brave for telling my story, but I'm merely telling the truth. We can't make the truth an act of bravery, that's dangerous. In this life, we're obligated to present ourselves as ourselves, and that's it. Perhaps an act of courage would be telling my story on stage in front of 500 people but me simply getting up every day and being me is not brave, it's just life, it's wellness. I'm certainly not the image of wellness either. I'm covered in tattoos, with piercings, gray hairs, and a horrible potty mouth, but I sleep great, and my skin is excellent. I am well. Whatever you find yourself to be, if you feel happy, then you are well. I want there to be less stress in wellbeing and more acceptance. In short, decide who you are and go for it.
Any wellness advice you can leave us this?
I can’t say the way I choose to live my life is what everyone needs to “be well,” as it’s not a one-size-fits-all prescription. I don’t know what YOU need, but I can share what I need, in hopes to inspire your brand of wellbeing. I needed a silent retreat and tons of talk therapy, coupled with writing a book to feel well. You may need something different. Discover what that is for you and do it.
Photography by Jennifer Trahan