Chef Gabriela Álvarez is the founder of Liberation Cuisine, a company that “nourishes movements of change and collective transformation.” Her work uses “intentional experiences in the kitchen and at the table” to confront issues of food access, self-determination, and healing. Learn more about her work through our conversation below.

What role did food play in your early childhood?

My family has roots in Brooklyn, and for as long as I can remember, we always shopped at the Park Slope Co-Op, and saw people of all different shades and backgrounds coming in and having access to fresh, organic food. My mother also treated her autoimmune illness with vitamins, minerals, and food, as opposed to conventional methods. That showed me how powerful food could be as medicine.

How did you first get interested in the idea of “liberation cuisine”?  

After deciding to study Public Health in college, I realized quickly that I didn’t want to research all the diseases that were happening to my community. Instead, a crucial question I asked myself was “How can we be empowered?” I went into cooking because it felt like a really concrete way that each individual can get hands-on in their own health and become the expert of their well being.

The leading causes of death around the world are diet related. One way to change this is through the kitchen.

Your website speaks a lot about the spiritual aspects of cooking. Why is that aspect so important?

We all agree that food is energy. We literally eat to give energy to our bodies. But though we understand how that biologically works, we don’t always acknowledge how food can also become the energy that we bring into it. There have been studies showing how our mood or intention can change the food we eat. When a simple dish turns out delicious, people will often say “the secret ingredient is love,” and that’s the idea. Shifting the energy you bring to your meals can really shift the food that’s being made.

When I have conversations with people about my work, I’ve realized a lot of emotional stuff can come up with people around the kitchen. I’ve heard things like “I live alone and I don’t want to be living alone, and cooking alone reminds me of that,” or “I’m a perfectionist who feels like I mess up a lot of things in my life and cooking always feels like something else I mess up,” or issues around the gender dynamics in cooking, or its connection to our society’s fatphobia. Many of us simply don’t spend positive time in the kitchen anymore. So even shifting the tone of what the kitchen symbolizes can be an enlightening experiencing.

Before cooking for myself or with students in my cooking classes, I try to find some way to first circle everyone up and set intentions, and shift the vibration in the kitchen to one that is loving and nourishing.

What do you think our society gets wrong in our relationship with food?

I think our culture has moved far away from being intuitive and present with our food, and remembering that food is very connected to our ancestors and our history. For example, we don’t always realize that rice and beans are so often cooked together simply because they make a complete protein. Our ancestors knew that, either intuitively or after experience. I think it’s important to acknowledge that others before us have already spent years figuring out how to make food and how to combine it.

These days, there are so many diets that tell you what is right and what is wrong, but I’m spending more time looking at what and how my ancestors ate. And I’m also recognizing that I can often intuitively understand what my body needs. The way we often practice Western medicine is by believing that the doctor is always the expert, and the patient doesn’t know anything. But I think that takes away our power as individuals. Someone can always tell me that what I’m eating is “wrong.” But only I know how it feels for me.

The spiritual and ancestral aspects of food are not often what we see in the media when we think of “foodie culture.”  

It’s not. And, it’s often also portrayed as super white, and actually, super masculine. It’s funny how, for a very long time, society promoted the image of women in the kitchen, and yet these days, the people making the big money in restaurants and cooking shows on TV are often white men.

I can only speak for New York City, but in the food culture here, there’s also these ethnic phases that happen. It’s been Italian food and Chinese food, and then we had a phase of tapas, then Puerto Rican food, etc. Just the other day, there was a New York Times article claiming that Mexican tacos were the “next big thing.”

It’s too fast paced and too focused on who is going to get the limelight each month. And too often, it is just white men in the limelight, regardless of what kind of food they’re cooking. It general, it isn’t Mexican chefs and Mexican restaurant owners benefiting from all the publicity of the “taqueria phase”. Instead, a white chef will visit another country, learn recipes, bring them back, and make money off of them, without giving back to the country he learned from. That’s why reclaiming one’s traditions is so important to me. If we don’t do it for ourselves, someone else will or it will be lost.

For those who travel a lot and have a global scope of the world, we should keep in mind that it takes a global family to create our products and our meals. We should think of all the life that is required to make those meals happen. I think that’s a huge component to liberation cuisine.

Who are some of your role models in your line of work that have helped change this portrayal of food culture?

Bryant Terry. He’s Afro-vegan and soul food chef, emphasizing the African-American history and stories that created that cuisine. For me, seeing him was the first time I got to see people share stories that combined the ideas of social justice and ancestry and real life with food.

Since then, I’ve got to connect with the folks at Soul Fire Farm and The People’s Kitchen, who work on dismantling racism in food systems. Decolonize Your Diet was started by two professors who document and promote information around the American diet before colonialism. All of these people have done a lot in terms of making the conversation of food much wider than what it is in mainstream media.

What would you say to people who may be skeptical of the power of cooking to create social change?  

If we can do one daily radical act, it is to take care of our lives, and to make sure we are 100% here and present and able to live fully.  And three times a day we can choose to feed ourselves well, even when there’s so much stuff to make us believe that we don’t matter, or that doing something for someone else is more important than sitting down and eating this meal for ourselves. It’s hard in our society, but I think it’s very important to remember to uplift ourselves if we want to create a change in the world.

Last but not least, what’s your favorite thing to cook? Biggest guilty pleasure?

Guilty pleasure and favorite thing to cook are the same: plantains. All the time, in any way. I love to prepare it, whether it’s mofongo, or soup with plantains, or canoas, or chips. If I had my own restaurant, each item on the menu would probably involve plantains somehow.

For more on Gabriela’s work, check out her website here.