Louisa Shafia is a chef, teacher and writer who has cooked her way through the eco-friendly kitchens of yoga retreats, vegan restaurants and fine catering events. She is an expert on farm-to-table and Persian foods, as well as a former editor and actor. A graduate of Manhattan’s Natural Gourmet Institute, she has shared her culinary knowledge in two cook books, Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life (2009) and The New Persian Kitchen (2013). She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Q: What made you want to become a chef? Was there an element of your family life growing up that led you to this career choice?
A: I grew up in a family that appreciated good cooking, and because we sought it out everywhere we went, I was exposed to all different kinds of unique and delicious food. But it wasn’t only the taste that drew me in – it was the association of happiness and excitement that came along with our eating adventures. Whether I was going to have lunch like a grown-up lady at the Frog/Commissary restaurant in Philadelphia with my mom, heading out to Pennsylvania Dutch farm country with my family to count cows and buy corn and peaches or trying deliciously buttery escargot in Paris, it was always joyful. That wonderfully satisfying feeling of bringing happiness to people through food was key in motivating me to cook for a living.
Q: What’s the best cooking advice you’ve ever received?
A: “Fat carries flavor.”
Q: Who or what is behind your culinary inspiration?
A: For sure it’s my mom. When I was growing up, she was cooking everything from Persian food to Julia Child recipes to Chinese hot and sour soup. She’s a big entertainer and she recruited me from about the age of five onwards to help prepare food for her parties. She gave me a great foundation and a natural feel for food.
Q: What’s the first meal you ever learned to cook on your own?
A: It had to have been scrambled eggs – but fancy – with chopped scallions and tomatoes, and toasted whole wheat bread on the side.
Q: What are three tools you can’t live without while cooking a meal?
A: A sharp knife, a fine mesh strainer and a rubber spatula.
Q: What ingredient are you most willing to splurge on?
A: Sustainably raised meat from small farms purchased from a butcher who I know.
Q: What’s one budget item that should be on every home gourmet’s grocery list?
A: I’m currently obsessed with sumac, the fine purple flakes of the sumac berry that taste like a cross between lemon juice and MSG. Sumac is an ingredient that sets off the flavors of other foods and can be used in any savory dish where you would otherwise use lemon juice. Sumac is delicious on everything from cucumber and tomato salad to fluffy grains like rice and quinoa to meat marinades.
Q: What’s the best dish you’ve ever made?
A: A one-pot meal of rice noodles with ginger peanut sauce and fresh cilantro, that I made from the barest scraps of food lying around the kitchen. It tasted exceptional because it was late and my husband and I were starving, and he thought I had conjured a miracle by creating something out of nothing.
Q: Is there a chef that you really admire or look up to?
A: I’m a big fan of Chef Hoss Zaré in San Francisco. He’s a chef who grew up in Iran and has a background in classical French cooking. Some years ago, at his restaurant Zaré at Fly Trap, he started serving beautiful, high-end Iranian food with French flourishes and delicate flavor variations. He uses Persian ingredients like sumac, saffron, dried limes, rose petals and angelica flowers to create dishes that are inspired by traditional Iranian cooking and shaped by Northern California’s spectacular produce. I’m inspired by his artful riffing on Persian classics and I’ve never tasted anything like it.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you would give an amateur chef?
A: Get as much experience as you can and learn from as many good people as possible before striking out to start your own business. The people you work with will enrich your own cooking vocabulary and expand your culinary creativity beyond what you can imagine.