Louisa Shafia C’92’s lifelong dream of becoming an actress was coming true in all the wrong ways.

She had dressed up as the daughter of a 19th-century gentleman to give museum tours in Yonkers. She’d performed a bilingual version of Don Quixote in high-school auditoriums across the land. And now she was being “victimized by a witch” in a low-budget horror flick in upstate New York.

“It was a really wonderful learning experience,” she says a decade later. “But as Rilke says, ‘If you ask yourself in the dead of night, Must I do this, or die?’ the answer was no.”

Shafia had already reached that verdict once, after several years working in public radio at WHYY in Philadelphia, where she’d ended up as an editor on Fresh Air, NPR’s flagship interview show. The Spanish and women’s studies major needed a new direction.

She found it in a yoga studio. A sign on the wall advertised a job opening for a vegetarian cook at a yoga retreat in Maine.

“I realized that I’d always loved to cook,” Shafia remembers. What’s more, she’d been doing it for years. “My mom recruited my sister and me, starting at about age seven, to be her sous chefs for cocktail parties and dinner parties,” she says. “So I decided to explore that.”

The pay was low: room and board, plus free yoga lessons. But Shafia got hooked. Her boss had a lot of relatives in the area, who’d drop by with things like rhubarb and leeks. There were roadside stands packed with garden-fresh goodies—and cardboard boxes to put your money in, on the honor system. The farm-to-table ethos had never seemed so immediate, or so right.

Soon after summer’s end, she enrolled at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York. NGI’s “plant-based curriculum” served as a springboard to San Francisco’s Millennium restaurant, which specialized in vegan cuisine. Shafia’s stint in that environmentally enlightened kitchen, where vegetable scraps landed in compost bins rather than garbage cans, made a big impression. In many ways, it would serve as a model for Lucid Food, the catering company she started after moving back to Brooklyn.

The business got going in the right place at the right time. Food journalist Michael Pollan had begun preaching the gospel of local, organic, and small-scale farming in The New York Times Magazine, and Shafia was coming from the movement’s West Coast vanguard. “Lucid Foods got really popular, really fast,” she says. “Basically, people discovered they could get this beautiful, elegant food, with four-star-quality hors d’oeuvres—but everything’s fresh from the farmer’s market, everything’s local, things are being composted, everything’s coming in recycled containers, there’s not much tinfoil or paper bags being used ... And companies would say, ‘Hey, we want to use this to represent the image of our company, to advertise that we’re eco-friendly too.’

“So I just kind of fell into a trend that was happening, where companies were really trying to green their image. As well as a lot of individuals who were excited to find someone who could prepare food in accordance with their own environmental ideals. And even though this stuff was a given in northern California, and maybe Portland, Oregon, nobody was really doing it in New York yet.”

In the past five years, Shafia has catered to clients ranging from Isabella Rossellini to Men’s Health magazine to The Colbert Report. (“It was a blast,” she says of the last, citing “snarky, hilarious comments” from the show’s writers about her eco-sensitive menu.) She occasionally cuts loose from the high church of Serious Food by way of performance-art events called “Masked Meals,” in which blindfolded participants open their mouths and minds to taste things and combinations their eyes might never lead them to try. “The first menu we did, we gave people lychees, chocolate, ginger juice, and it culminated in Pop Rocks on the tongue,” Shafia recalls.

Lately she has shifted her focus to food writing and consulting. She blogs for RachelRay.com, and recently began writing for ReadyMade magazine. Last November saw the publication of her debut cookbook, Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life.

The book tackles the modern omnivore’s dilemma in calendrical fashion, grouping recipes by season along with occasional advice on things like composting and windowsill gardening. The very first recipe leaves little doubt about Shafia’s commitment to a diet that’s healthful for eater and earth alike; it’s for an elderberry cold tincture. “Elderberries really are a seasonal thing,” she says. “They blast through farmers markets for about two weeks in early fall.  And if you’re lucky to get them then, you just have this wonderful treat. [The tincture] is so easy and inexpensive, and it’s a really great way to maintain your health.”

Elderberries aren’t the only boutique ingredient in Lucid Food. Stinging nettles also make an appearance, as does carob, a domestically grown edible seed pod that “doesn’t have to make the same long, fuel-guzzling trip to us that its tropical nemesis chocolate does.” But Shafia also has a yen for comfort food that draws compellingly from her father’s native Iran, like her rustic Persian New Year’s Soup, whose cargo of dried beans and fresh herbs exemplifies the wholesomeness and economy of traditional peasant cuisine. Shafia’s new dream is to travel through Iran, collecting material for another cookbook.

And what about her old one? Would she go back to acting if Hollywood came along with a role that didn’t involve screaming her way through the woods, Blair Witch style?

“Only if there was, like, a great food scene involved,” the kitchen convert laughs. “No, I love working with food. The wonderful thing about it is that you can keep evolving and never get bored. So far I’ve been a restaurant cook, a caterer, a food writer, a food performance artist, and a cooking teacher. So I feel like I have so many wonderful things to choose from, I’m going to be absorbed with this for the rest of my life.” —Trey Popp

 

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