For Maggie Lawson, food lies at the intersection of an eclectic and fascinating mix of talents and interests that allow her to straddle the line between food artisan and artist. From community and social justice to art and teaching, food has been the glue that binds her to family, others and herself, whether it takes the form of providing personal chef services through her business, The Heirloom Chef, or feeding her neighbors as part of a social practice, food-based art installation in her neighborhood.
Like many of the food artisans I’ve spoken to, food was a central part of Maggie’s experience growing up in what she called a “homogeneous” community in Ohio. As a child, she cooked with her mother, who let her “destroy” the kitchen as soon as she was old enough to cook for herself. But she didn’t start thinking about the implications of food and community until she spent time abroad, living in France for a year before college and then in Spain for another year after graduating from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in International Relations.
Spending time in France, in particular, made Maggie consider not only why she “ate the way she did” but, because food is such a central part of French culture and with everyone always talking about food, it made her start to think about the social implications behind how we eat and where our food comes from. She was then able to put these interests into practice when she joined Americorps and was placed in Oakland as a health educator for middle schoolers in East Oakland.
As part of her placement, Maggie taught a number of health-related programs including youth leadership, cooking and nutrition. She eventually started a program where she taught high school students to cook and then share the skills they’d learned by teaching elementary school kids to cook, as well.
“A lot of it was about behavior change, basic nutrition and how to eat better. Sometimes it had to do with the situation they were living in – there’s a food desert in East Oakland,” she said.
The experience taught her a lot about food justice and education and how eating is connected to heritage—things that would later feed into her work as an artist and personal chef.
Her evolution from teacher to personal chef came about in part because the program she was teaching in lost funding, so her position was cut. After spending some time at the Tassajara Zen Center near Carmel, where she worked in the kitchen doing work study, one of her colleagues from the kitchen introduced her to personal cheffing, and she took on her first personal chef clients, an elderly couple in Berkeley.
That was four years ago, and Maggie has since evolved the business through training at the Women’s Initiative in Oakland, developing the Heirloom Chef brand and taking on enough clients to sustain herself and allow her time for art projects on the side.
“I wanted a way to keep doing artwork and have something…where I would still have a creative process and contribute to someone’s life and their well-being. That’s something that’s specific to being a personal chef that isn’t in the restaurant business. I really feel involved in [my clients’] lives.”
Maggie concentrates on wholesome food made from scratch with high quality ingredients that allow her clients to eat well everyday. Depending on the client and their situation, she may provide large quantities of food to a client on a bi-monthly basis or provide weekly menus for people. She has also done some catering and private small-scale dinner parties.
According to Maggie, there are two primary reasons why her clients come to her looking for personal chef services—either because they’re overwhelmed or because they want to eat better.
“People are so overwhelmed, and food is a basic need, so providing support around eating better helps with that feeling of being overwhelmed.”
In addition to making food her business, Maggie also uses food “as a medium for expression for all the things that interest and drive me,” she says. More often than not this has taken the form of getting involved in feeding her community and making that act of feeding into art, which Maggie says is part of a new field in the art world known as “social” or “public” practice. According to Maggie, “social practice” is a highly participatory process in which the artist serves as both a community organizer and artist, staging real-time “performances” that involve others as part of the artwork.
For example, last year Maggie staged a Take-Out Window out of a window in her own home. She recruited a number of neighbors to make and serve food from the window over the course of a day, with each taking a shift in a six-shift day. She created a stairway that led to the window so people could approach the window and order from the menus her neighbors volunteered to serve during each shift, then provided picnic tables outside her home for people who came to the window to sit and eat. She videotaped interviews with the participants (volunteer cooks, neighbors, passersby) discussing their experience and posted them online afterward. She’s currently working on a grant to do a 100-person sit-down meal on her block to get the people from her neighborhood together for an evening of food and art making.
“I want people in the neighborhood to be part of the piece, too. Some people would not go to a museum. Art should be part of our everyday lives and not relegated to specific spaces,” she said.
Another interest of Maggie’s is how food is related to family and heritage. “We inherit lots of stuff from our family,” she said. Inspired by family photos of her grandmother (who is also her namesake) as a housewife in the 1950s, Maggie has also done a series of self-portraits of herself reenacting scenes of a 50s housewife in the kitchen, each of which incorporates a photo of her grandmother somewhere in the background of the photo.
Whether through her business or art, food provides a way for Maggie to create and feed others and herself.
“I see food as a transformational experience and expressive medium,” she said.
What drew you to food?
I feel like it’s just natural—it’s always been my number one creative outlet. It feels cathartic to me; my body just fists into it and it feels natural to me. And I really love being creative.
Food is highly expressive. It’s a way to talk about a lot of things I love. It’s a reflection of my cultural heritage, a way of looking at larger systems that work and don’t work and that’s my interest in food justice. And it’s just this amazing social experience, food–all things I love.
Why personal chef services and catering?
Two things—people are overwhelmed and food is a basic need, so support around eating better helps with that feeling of being overwhelmed. You don’t want to carry out every night or go out to eat all the time. Or because people want to eat better or they have some specific health needs—they have allergies, etc. I’m not a dietician, but I will follow diets like Paleo or whatever if they want to. [Some clients] work with nutritionists, and I’ll work with what they recommend.
My food is really wholesome—whole grains, organic ingredients. I make things from scratch and use high quality ingredients. It’s restaurant quality, but not for a special occasion; it’s for eating well every day.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
Well, I think it’s kind of like the beginning was my mom’s kitchen—sitting in the kitchen talking with her and eating together. My dad traveled a lot, and we sat down [when we could]. I love Midwestern flavors—meatloaf, corn on the cob, zucchini bread. The food I make is a reflection of those things I love. California is a reflection of the things I didn’t eat growing up—collard greens, tomatoes, quinoa. You gotta speak quinoa if you live here!
Also having lived abroad–having friends from all over the world and learning about their foods.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
I listened to this guy speak who wrote “The $100 Start Up,” and he said the most successful entrepreneurs are those that just started somewhere. You want to make granola, just freakin’ make granola. You don’t need a business plan, etc. I just put up a Word Press site.
I had a part-time job that was easy and that I could do well easily, and I grew my business little by little and grew this myself. I’m a single woman, and I’ve built this by myself. I wrote the business plan after I started.
I’d recommend getting support—La Cocina, the Women’s Initiative, Renaissance Center—or hiring a business coach to learn how to run a business. You can be really good at what you do and really bad at running a business and you won’t be successful.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
I think just trusting that the right clients are out there that can pay me a fair rate. Just the financial aspect. There’s a lot of up and down in the beginning—learning how to be a good employer to myself, to employ myself well. I have health insurance and an accountant. It’s not like having an employer where they’ve ensured you that every month, and they’ll pay you a certain amount.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
I think it’s the Shiitake Mushroom Meatloaf. It’s very quintessential to where I’m from. My mom was saying that it [meatloaf] was our favorite thing growing up. I don’t know when I consciously ate a shiitake mushroom for the first time, but it was when I came to California. It’s not something I would have considered making when I first started cooking, but it feels like home.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I get to keep evolving and growing to create a life for myself that I want. It’s about creating a business but it’s also about creating a life for myself that I want. Of course there’s also flexibility, too, and working with the clients. I get to be true to myself. I love how creative it is. It’s always evolving. I’m not bored.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
I really admire farmers. I’ve worked a little with Full Belly Farm, one of the first organic farms. They employ their workers year round and find things for them to do in the winter so they don’t have to lay them off. I’ve been to the farm many times, and it has a magical feeling. Three families co-own it. They’re always growing the business in some way. They’re super open to the community and have an annual hoedown to support the farm, and their produce is amazing. They have a lot of heart, and I admire them building a sustainable business. That is not easy. Farming is hard. I really admire them.
Minh [Tsai] from Hodo Soy. Love them. Organic soybeans from Illinois. Being from the Midwest, I love that. Minh’s a nice person and cool guy, and I admire that he’s grown a business little by little. They offer a really high quality product. That’s hard to find. I use their tofu a lot in my dishes. They’re Oakland based.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
I don’t know. That’s a hard one. This is totally not going to sound like a chef’s last meal, but I love tacos—tacos with a lot of fresh salsas. I just love tacos. And a nice cocktail with Mezcal in it—I’m all about Mezcal these days. Mexican food was a thing we ate a lot in Ohio—it’s kind of comforting—and generic “Asian” food.
Favorite Bay Area resto/chef/food?
I really like Bryant Terry—I’ve followed his career over the past few years. He’s a vegan soul food chef and moved here the same time I did. He has a new cookbook coming out. His last cookbook incorporated stores and art from local artists. I admire how much he’s used the food he grew up eating and evolved it to be his. He had food justice education in New York and moved out here, and I really admire him. I see him out sometimes, and I get a little intimidated! He’s definitely one of my favorites.
I love Chez Panisse. I wouldn’t say Alice Waters is my hero in the same way Bryant Terry is, but you go to Chez Panisse and you get really well made, simple food. You get a good steak. They have the highest quality ingredients and invest in making them good. I admire that. Before she started cooking the way she did, a lot of high-end food was from the furthest place away, but she started the local movement. That’s the way they cooked in France. She also lived there. You can only get this this time of year and that’s what you get—she started that here. She’s created the local food scene.
The Heirloom Chef
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