Follow chef and writer Sophia Roe on Instagram and you will quickly notice that everything she does is infused with an infectious, relentless passion. Whether it’s sharing a new recipe, discussing her love of mushrooms, or speaking about food justice, Roe comes to the table ready to dig in. (Yes, the pun is intended.) Her Vice TV show Counter Space, which Roe hosts and produces, utilizes her skills as a storyteller to cover everything from global cuisines to systemic racism, and has earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Culinary Host.
Food is the lens through which Roe sees the world, and the world — high fashion, included — is paying attention to what she puts out. This year, Roe was selected to be one of 10 chefs to help create and plan the dinner menu for the Met Gala, which was entirely plant-based (okay, yes, some attendees weren’t ready for the veg-forward fare). She also got to attend and stunned on the red carpet in a disco-inspired, custom Halston orchid degradé caftan gown over a scuba-neoprene slip catsuit. So that was a moment.
| Credit: Jess Farran
Aspirational as she may appear participating in fashion’s big night out, Roe’s approach to food is straightforward, heartfelt, and always approachable. And while she has nearly 340,000 Instagram followers, her connection to cooking and community makes her feel like a friend who just invited you over for an amazing meal. We spoke to Roe, a certified Badass Woman, about how her past informs her work as a chef, how joy is a part of everything she does, and what makes fungi so, well, fun.
Your work as a chef, writer, and TV host is deeply rooted in social justice, activism and education about food equity and access. How much of this comes from personal experience?
I was a college dropout and I just needed a job. I never really saw food as a place that I could have an actual career, because I just never saw myself in it. You know, I saw Ina Garten. I didn’t understand that as a profession, you could be a cook. But I knew I had tons of trauma, and then when I worked in a restaurant I was like, “Oh, wow; this is coping. I actually feel very good doing this. Maybe I don’t see myself in it, but I do like how I feel in it.”
So when people ask about food, and what I love about it, the thing that really gets me going is just full bellies. Yes, it feels good to cook. Yes, it feels great to educate people about social justice. I love that. But the thing that feels the most great is when there’s no talking and everyone’s just eating. That’s my favorite thing ever.
I think that really goes back to my relationship with hunger. And that’s really why this stuff is so important. We love to use terms like “food insecurity,” for example, or “lack of food access.” And I use those terms because I do want people to understand what I’m saying, but what we’re really talking about is hunger. So we really need to use that term. We’re actually talking about people going to bed hungry. Let’s think about it like that.
Is food a way for you to initiate these conversations with people?
Oh yeah, it’s the in. When I see a lot of people speaking about food insecurity or food access, I don’t see it really woven through the lens of hunger. And I think that is where we need to be hanging out. You just have to make sure everybody and everything is included in these conversations. I think we all need to afford these conversations nuance and intricacy. And a lot of things can be right. It can be right for you to be vegan and for you to believe that that is helping you save the planet, and it can also be right for someone in Yemen to drink cows’ milk or farm camels. All of those things can be right.
Whether you’re cooking or speaking about these nuanced topics, your work always seems to be infused with such joy.
Oh, man, it’s so joyful. I think it’s because I know what it’s like to be hungry. The joy for me when I’m cooking for people is, like, ‘Oh my God, eat everything! Eat every piece of it.’ This is my job. I feel like I was destined for this in every way.
Your passion for mushrooms is especially joyful.
I’m famous for going on a fungi foray, which is when you just go out and pick mushrooms and you don’t eat them, you just study them. That’s my favorite thing. For me it’s a peaceful thing. You might be the only person to even see that mushroom. That might be the magic of it. It might not be meant for you to eat. It’s just meant for you to appreciate and to enjoy.
Your work as host and producer on Vice’s Counter Space is really where we see food as joy, community, and activism come together. Is there going to be a second season?
Yes; we’re so lucky, we’re right in the middle of making it, and we’re coming off of being nominated for an Emmy. This season is challenging because we’ve got to talk about the climate in a way that might not make people feel good. We really need to take a look at our consumption and where it’s coming from.
What does community care look like to you?
When people ask, ‘What can I do for my community?’ I say, you can start with equity. You can ask. You can get to know your community. What are your neighbors’ names? Do you know them? Do you know what they do? That is who I’m most inspired by: the people directly around me. They really lead the charge when I’m considering saying yes or no to doing a job. If it doesn’t seem like something that could benefit my community, then it probably won’t benefit me, either.