Chef Taji: Choosing Nourishment Over Noise

If you live in Los Angeles, chances are that you have crossed paths with Chef Taji and her magic in some way or another. If she were a Game of Thrones character, she would have a title like Daenerys Targaryen: 

Taji Marie--Culinary Educator, Goddess of Soul Nutrition, Gatherer of Good, Purveyor of Fresh Food, Queen of the 405, and Nourisher of Kings.

(NB She actually feeds the LA Kings. They won the Stanley Cup twice in the last five years and I think her granola recipe deserves some credit for that). 

Anyone familiar Los Angeles knows full well that traveling between neighborhoods is no small feat. One does not simply go from the South Bay to Silverlake, or even from Santa Monica to West Hollywood. 

And then, there's Taji, who somehow defies the laws of LA living. In a single week, her work spans from Manhattan Beach to Downtown, then to El Segundo, then back home to La Brea and beyond. Most incredibly, in a single week, she not only feeds hundreds of people through her catering company and her work for Grow, but also teaches them how to feed themselves through cooking classes and her blog. When the weekend arrives, you might find her hosting a Gather for Good event or a nourishment retreat.

Taji is an understated culinary matriarch quietly feeding Los Angeles from all angles with fresh and comforting cuisine (e.g. bison mushroom ragù, broccoli spanikopita, homemade harissa, oatmeal with pomegranate and satsuma...). She bucks trend by ignoring the foodie zeitgeist, the ever present "eat here! yelp this! gluten is the devil!" that hounds the psyche, in favor of a more grounding information source: your own gut.

Besides offering foundational skills and support in her cooking classes, she works to unchain students from what they've been programmed to fear (yes, fear!). She says that most often the challenge is getting people to let go of cemented ideas about what is good and bad to eat, and the right and wrong way to prepare food. "It just doesn't resonate with me that we should be so extreme," she explains, "it's about balance and what feels right for you."

Her greatest advice? Trust your gut. It's Taji's philosophy for life and food. A mantra instead of an equation. An approach that speaks to a more soulful need for nourishment. 

"I like to say that we're all emotional eaters, even though that's kind of a dirty phrase sometimes...I think food is emotional, I think eating is emotional. I think you have to let that in when you talk about how to feed yourself better."

Taji and I share some resounding parallels in our lives. We both love food and we've both had serious health problems that have challenged that love very seriously at times. In fact, when I first met Taji, I was hardly able to eat more than toast and miso soup due to stress. But, deeper than that, we've both worked through trauma and stress that had manifested in our bodies and our eating habits. 

...Which brings me back to nourishment and, for me, healing: 

Call it a mind-gut connection. Call it soulful nutrition. Call it emotional eating. I am so glad that Taji is sharing with the world what we all need to hear when it comes to our eating habits. Through her own life journey and passionate work, Taji reminds us of the difference between consumption and nourishment, of the serious effects of stress on the body, and most of all, that the compass to navigate all the noise is trusting your gut--physically and emotionally.

Be you. Be emotional. Listen to your body. Nourish yourself and your soul.

...How many chefs tell you that?! 

Above all, Taji reminds us that the most incredible gift that comes from nourishing yourself is not just your health and happiness, but the ability to nourish others--even across Los Angeles when you get really good at it!

#trusturgut #foodislove


On the Menu with Steph Chen

I had the privilege to spend a day with baker and entrepreneur, Steph Chen, in Santa Monica. And actually, I'm lucky enough to be her neighbor! I could climb a fence and into her garden like we were 12, but I haven't tried yet. We spent the morning chatting over coffee and homemade pies and pavlovas, then headed to our local farmer's market for some sunshine and fresh ingredients for her upcoming pop up event, Pies and Pavs, at Cafe Demitasse

Steph navigates through the Santa Monica Farmer's Market like a pro. She knows where to buy eggs that glow bright yellow like marigold and pork sausage that will "change your life." I actually had forgotten cash, and she sent me home with a bundle of foodie goodies that quite honestly did change my life! 

I was so impressed by her expertise and inspired by her style, that I just had to know what her daily menu of books, ideas, foods, and inspiration looks like. Here's her top five things at the moment:


What's On the Menu with Steph Chen

1. Tartine & Momofuku Milk books: These are the OG books I got many years ago that has influenced and inspired my baking the most. I love the classic and rustic recipes from Chad/Liz and super clear instruction for any novice baker. But I also love to be challenged and innovative with flavors and technique like Christina Tosi. To me they couldn’t be more opposite and I like to play in-between the two. 

2. Pilates Platinum! I’ve been obsessed with my mega reformer pilates studio in Santa Monica. It’s definitely my workout mode of choice and have found some amazing instructors who know exactly how to motivate and make working out fun! 

3. Black Sesame: This is one of my most favorite ingredients and soo versatile! I love using it in sweet and savory bakes. I grew up eating black sesame desserts because it’s very popular in Chinese cooking. To me this tastes like home so it always comes back whenever I’m writing new recipes. I would write an entire book on ways to use black sesame if I could. :) 

4. Hiking through nature: I love taking hikes whenever I travel somewhere beautiful. From Patagonia, Big Sur, Costa Rica and even the Santa Monica Mountains, I love getting my soul filled up in nature away from cell reception and screens. 

5. My Hubby Kelvin: Last but not least, Kelvin is my favorite person on this planet. He always knows exactly how to make me laugh and I’m most happy when I’m with him doing nothing. 


Steph Chen's Kitchen Intuition

Steph Chen’s life story follows a dreamy narrative that everyone wants to jump into: kick ass woman quits her successful corporate job for passion project in baking and cake design.

*cue inspiring montage of trading paperwork and pencil skirts for Kitchen Aid and high top sneakers*

Steph, baking pies at home in her bright Santa Monica bungalow

Steph, baking pies at home in her bright Santa Monica bungalow

But before you get swept away by that dreamy sequence, I want to stop you. Because that’s just the frosting--her whole story is so much richer and so much deeper than that.

At first glance, her turn into the baking world may seem sharp and surprising, but after getting to know Steph, I can’t help but feel that she was meant for this all along...that all the pieces of her life, no matter how small or disconnected at face value, are all flying together in the beautiful crescendo that is her present and future as a baker-entrepreneur extraordinaire.

The famous pistachio colored Kitchen Aid.

The famous pistachio colored Kitchen Aid.

This “it’s meant to be” feeling, however, does not undervalue the immense courage that it took for her to make the leap into the unknown and stick too it. Steph was working behind some of the the biggest brands in the world (in her twenties nonetheless) and when she quit for her own wellbeing, there were not a bunch of cheerleaders at her side. The stark reality is that when you make such a decision, even the people that you love cannot help but cast their own fear, doubt, and not-so-positive feelings about how you traded job security for what seems like a cute hobby.

Steph credits the gift of her beloved pistachio colored Kitchen Aid as the catalyst for discovering her new passion and ability in the kitchen. At first, it was quite literally an aid to relieve stress from work. When she started, her baking knowledge didn’t go much beyond boxed cake mixes, so she taught herself how to bake from scratch, using every birthday and event as an opportunity to create something new.

And that she did. If you take a look at her recipes, Steph’s baking is such a breath of fresh air. It is so uniquely her! Through her ingredients, like matcha, strawberry, and sweet red bean, and her cake molds of Game of Thrones heads and little Yodas, you can truly get a sense of who she is: a California girl with Chinese roots, a sense of humor, a penchant for fine details and innovation, a love of pop culture, and a huge heart.

Steph's Hello Kitty cake mold. As a little girl, she would spend hours playing with PlayDoh. She never thought it would amount to anything...

Steph's Hello Kitty cake mold. As a little girl, she would spend hours playing with PlayDoh. She never thought it would amount to anything...

At some point between career induced anxiety attacks and new found kitchen confidence, Steph auditioned for the second season of ABC’s The Great American Baking Show and made it. While on the show, Steph had to bake things that she had never made before, yet still made it to the finals. Since then, she’s been working as independent cake designer and recipe developer, which she shares on her blog, Sugarbear Bakes. Most recently, she also helped produce Gather for Good with Chef Zoe Nathan (full disclosure: that's how we met!). 

When you consider Steph's family history, her rapid transition from amateur to professional is not so surprising. She grew up in Cerritos, California as the first generation granddaughter of a Chinese immigrant family of movers and shakers. Within her immediate family, everyone is some type of leader or gamechanger, whether it’s running schools, a business, city council, or political activism (her grandfather was part of the KMT party that fled China to Taiwan with Chiang Kai Shek). So, suffice to say that to get up and make things happen is simply part of who she is. But, when I ask her about the moment she declared that she was a professional baker, it gave her pause. Perhaps it all hasn't sunk in yet. Neither quite had the uncanny and enchanting similarities of these two photos: 

Steph's maternal grandmother, Ellen King, circa 1974.

Steph's maternal grandmother, Ellen King, circa 1974.

Steph, in 2016 as a finalist contestant on The Great American Baking Show.

Steph, in 2016 as a finalist contestant on The Great American Baking Show.

Incredible, right?

Within the last ten years, Steph has gone through a number of milestone life moments. Two of the most major include that she married the love of her life, Kelvin (the man who gave her the fortuitous Kitchen Aid and supports her unconditionally!) and she went after her calling against popular vote. But before any of that, she lost a monumental part of her life and her heart: her grandmother, Ellen.  

"I just love that name," Steph says, "Ellen King." The name is undeniably resonant. It is feminine, strong, and royal--especially fitting albeit ironically for a matriarch of an incredible family. Steph's grandmother was known to rock a good bright lipstick and Chanel suit. She is the one who taught Steph to take her time with details, especially in the kitchen, even if it takes you all day and into the night. In the 1970's, Ellen immigrated to the States as a single mother with her children. She opened a successful Chinese restaurant in New Jersey called the Shanghai Egg Roll King before moving the family to Orange County, California. Some of Steph's fondest memories with her grandmother are the weekends spent together while she was a student at Chapman University. Steph would skip the college party scene to go home to take her shopping and just be together. 

The parallels of Steph's journey with her grandmother's are remarkable, in trajectory and sartorial expertise. Both took a leap into the unknown and landed as culinary creatives. Both left their comfort zone with the intuition that there was something better out there--something not pre-made or perfectly planned, but possible.

Can you imagine if Ellen hadn't moved to to the States? If Steph had stayed in advertising and stuck to adding water, oil, and an egg to cake mix? If they had not doted on details? Even Steph's experience in advertising has influenced her work to be inventive, deliberate, and well organized. 

Ultimately, Steph and her grandmother remind me that we usually have all the ingredients for what we need, even if we don't consciously recognize all of them. It's about trusting yourself, using what you got, and embracing the endless combinations of unknown possibilities that may come from that.

And oh yeah, never settle for less than best! Wear that Chanel suit. 




ZOE NATHAN, Goddess of Goodness

Ok, in case anyone is still wondering or needs confirmation, Zoe Nathan, pastry chef, cookbook author, and restaurateur extraordinaire, is the coolest woman in the world. She is a goddess of goodness.

She first stole my heart with a brief lesson on the spirituality of cooking (bad vibes will taint your food), and then sealed the deal with her affinity for high top sneakers and 90’s hip hop on loud speakers. She keeps it real and is just so honestly magnificent.

For most people (maybe I’m just speaking for myself here), deciding to have one kid or where to go out to dinner is a process...And then you look at Zoe, who, with her husband Josh Loeb, owns six successful restaurants and has three beautiful children (you may spot them taste testing behind the counter at the family café, Huckleberry). And on Saturdays, she brings her community together to eat cinnamon rolls, drink amazing coffee, and support human rights. 

Zoe makes her work look easy, but candidly admits that it isn't always. “It’s mostly a little bit complicated,” she explains to me as she cuddles her daughter, Tallula, who has a fever. Take for example, the fact that she works while the world sleeps. She recently asked her son, Milo, if he thought that was cool, and he replied, "I think it's weird." Ha! Kinda true, Milo...Zoe shares sweet moments like this on her Instagram, and her followers adore such honest posts about simple pleasures, motherhood, and rough days.  

Above all, spending time with Zoe revealed to me that good will, teamwork, and courage make things happen. Zoe and Josh are dream team at the forefront of a new wave of restaurateurs and chefs that are bringing heart and humanity into the industry through livable wages, health care, and respect for individuality (in addition to incredible cuisine). If you've ever stepped into one of their restaurants, it makes for an evident Midas touch.

Gather for Good is a great example of Zoe and Josh's life philosophy in action. Whatever you do, do it well, do it with heart, and take care of the people around you...And then, maybe it's not so crazy that anything is possible. We can all do big things if we just get out and go for it together.


The other day I sent a work email with the closing, "With love"--not "Kind regards," "Sincerely," or a simple "Best."


And I sent it to three people that I had just met a few days before: a respected director, a renowned baker, and a famous chef/restaurateur. I spent about five minutes freaking out if my closing was wildly inappropriate and what their reaction would be. Then I spent about five more minutes in awe of the fact that "WITH LOVE" was actually what just naturally flowed from my heart to the keyboard and into the ether.

When I chilled out, I remembered that this is simply who I am and what I do: I love. If I were POTUS I would probably still write "With love" on most emails. And decorate them with emojis.

Similarly to my email closings, Seeking Salt comes straight from my heart and life experience. From a working class upbringing to waiting tables during undergrad in New York City, I do not take for granted what is placed on the table and I find great joy in slowing down to enjoy it. My philosophy and practice is that food is love. Food is hard work, nourishment, expression, generosity, diversity, gratitude...Food is love for others, ourselves, and the planet. 

Food is love, which also makes it political. These days there is too much rhetoric of Us vs Them, Mine not Yours, and "earning" basic opportunity or human rights.  It rings the same as the lunch table denial "You can't sit with us." This privileged and aggressive speech is not only blind to the reality that we are all in this together, but ignores the hard work and generosity that people give to their communities and country. 

Seeking Salt is my project to spotlight these issues with humility, humor, and humanity. I'll be seeking out great food and the salt of the earth type of people that work hard to provide it: chefs, food banks, restaurants, immigrants, and farmers, just to name a few. I can't wait to share their stories with you.

So, I hope you'll join me. 

With love,


P.S. This one's for you, Uncle Colin #dumontforever xx


My late "Uncle" Colin Devlin, an NYC restaurateur, with his daughter Lulu on their farm in Pennsylvania, Easter 2011.