The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Tara Thomas is a chef and a co-founder of Breaking Bread, an organization that delivers healthy meals to New York communities facing oppression, inequality, and food insecurity while supporting local, BIPOC-owned businesses. We chatted with Tara about her work and rethinking how we source our food, while she christened her new Hot Dish with a vegan lasagna.
It was curiosity at first that drew me in. I’ve always loved the process of creating something. I got that from my mother, who has always pushed me to try new things. As a child, I used to play in the backyard and make believe I was feeding guests with flowers and leaves. It felt like I was a little alchemist back there.
It was curiosity at first that drew me in.
I loved the Cooking Channel over cartoons as a kid. I especially loved Ina Garten and her approach to food — it made me think about ingredients going from farm to table. My parents got divorced, and cooking in the household changed. I started cooking more, trying out dishes from the Food Network shows. My dad taught me how to really taste things and experiment with more vegetables. Cooking became an escape for me — it was and is something I can come to and ground myself with and share with others.
Cooking became an escape for me.
I never really saw a career for myself in food, even though I wanted there to be one. I pursued science, studying environmental engineering. I took a gap year and went into it with so many unknowns, but that one year turned into three, and I’ve really created a career out of it since then. It feels like things have come full circle: I love cooking, I care about the environment, and I want to uplift people on the margins — my work allows me to do all three.
I love cooking, I care about the environment, and I want to uplift people on the margins — my work allows me to do all three.
I had started catering and recipe development work in Portland before I moved to New York, but I wanted to move to the city for a real change and to be around more people who looked like me. It was so different here at first — there’s a lot of trash and plastic, and it feels like there is a big disconnect between people and nature here, compared to Portland. It also feels like an appreciation for nature exists on a privileged scale. People of more privilege are more likely to respect their environment here because they’re taught that, and then there are communities who see caring about it as just an affluent thing. You can see that as you move from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Everything is about decolonizing food and making it accessible to Black, brown, and underserved people.
My first summer here I lived in Bushwick, and I just walked so much. I came across this community garden called Phoenix Community Garden at the cornerstone of Ocean Hill-Brownsville and Bed-Stuy. Brownsville and Ocean Hill are food deserts, but the community garden started a marketplace a few years ago to bring fresh food there. I started to volunteer there at the start of the pandemic, up to four days a week. They wanted to ensure they had enough food to give to their community during that time. It feels like my education is paying off. So many things I’d learned were put into practice there.
We were trying to figure out how to make systems more efficient so that it benefits the community, not just for a profit, which felt good to me. At the garden, everything is about decolonizing food and making it accessible to Black, brown, and underserved people. You can see people in the community feel joy and feel empowered by their food there, and it’s inspiring to be a part of it.
We’re building a circular model of how our money and our resources can move through the community.
I cofounded the organization Breaking Bread, which helps deliver food to people on the margins while supporting our community restaurants and small businesses. I work with a group of cofounders that had started working on it before I joined, but it became more established in the summer of 2020. They had been working on raising money from the community and doing food drops around the time of the George Floyd protests. They’d raised enough money to deliver more than a thousand meals, and the group wanted to keep going.
It’s all volunteer-driven, and we’ve seen ourselves and the work blossom. The thing that excites me the most about it is that we’re able to raise funds in such a grassroots way from within the community, and that has attracted the attention of bigger brands that want to support the work as well. People are working together, not just by giving money but by building a circular model of how our money and our resources can move through the community. It’s not just donating $10; it’s $10 that’s also supporting a local restaurant and giving a meal to someone who needs it.
Sometimes there is a lot of dread around cooking, but I make it a meditation.
I made a vegan lasagna in Hot Dish. It’s made with almond ricotta, vegan mozzarella made from cashews, marinara (that I made in Saucy!), and lots of vegetables. Sometimes there is a lot of dread around cooking, especially when it’s a long recipe, but I make it a meditation. I had time to prep the components this week, so it felt like I was taking the time to make myself something that I can enjoy later as well.
Food is the thing we consume the most, and it’s the greatest change we can make if we rethink how to source it.
I can’t wait for spring again and to have new ingredients to create and play with. I’m also looking forward to being back in the community garden, and for the projects we have coming up for Breaking Bread. I want to inspire folks to support us, but also to research their own community gardens and organizations. This is such a good time to look at how we source our food for the year ahead. Food is the thing we consume the most, and it’s the greatest change we can make if we rethink how to source it. It means we have to get uncomfortable and change habits — finding your local gardens and producers — but it’s worth it.
Photos by Michael Grant.