‘I think the biggest challenge [in the kitchen] is to work against stereotypes. Yes – kitchen work is hard physical work but the lack of women is not connected to the heaviness of pans. And No – screaming like a MF in the kitchen is not necessary to prepare good food to make people happy.’
Chef Sophia Hoffmann is an inspirational woman that possesses a drive that extends far beyond the kitchen. She actively uses her voice to change the paradigms of the current gastronomy world and to educate people about the benefits of zero-waste and plant-based cooking. With three books published, an active youtube channel and a career as a chef for Isla Berlin, a cafe built to minimize food, water, and packaging waste, she shares her journey getting where she is today.
Where did you grow up and how was your childhood like?
I grew up in Munich, the capital of Bavaria and one of the biggest cities in Germany. Growing up I always knew I wanted to explore the world and leave my hometown for even bigger cities. As much as I love nature, I am 100% a city person. My hunger for independence and adventure is probably one of my strongest characteristics. My family is very unconventional, my Dad is an artist and freelancer, he was the ‘housewife’ and cooked for us. My mum has always been the main breadwinner. She worked as the headteacher of a primary school. My parents were both born at the end of WW II so they taught me values like sustainability, upcycling and environmentalism already as a child. I had a very happy, carefree childhood that I still can take strength from – nowadays I understand how precious that is.
What did you want to become as an adult?
After a very happy childhood, I had some rough teenage years where I really had difficulties finding my way and figuring out who I was and to regain the confidence I had as a child. It took many many more years until cooking became my profession and my passion. Even though I always loved it I never thought about making it my career. I left Munich and moved to Vienna where I pursued a career as a DJ/ party promoter and singer in a band for almost 10 years. Parallel to that, I found my way into journalism via writing about music. After moving to Berlin 5 years later I started writing about other things for several magazines and newspaper and in 2011 I started my own blog and my interest in food slowly grew.
Walk us through how you started off your career as a chef and a food activist.
It started with my blog, which was only partly about food and recipes, but once people reacted well to the food content and started asking ‘where can we eat this?’ I decided to do Supper Clubs in 2012 and serve them food. In 2013 I fully changed from DJ booth to kitchen and never looked back. I started working in restaurants, learning, practicing, going crazy about food.
Who has influenced your food interest the most?
My parents were my biggest influence. My dad turns leftovers into fantastic things and my mum always baked the picture-perfect pastries like the traditional apple strudel or Christmas cookies. When I decided to do follow this profession seriously, my then-boyfriend was also big support, really pushing me to succeed. Even after we broke up I am forever thankful he gave me that sweet little kick in the ass that I needed in those first years.
What led you to write a book?
People around me used to say: You should write a cookbook and I thought ‘well, I have enough recipes for one’ so I thought why not give it a try and together with a befriended photographer and a graphic designer we made a portfolio and basically pitched it to different publishers. My first book was released in 2014, followed by my second one in 2016 and my third one just at the beginning of this year.
What were the biggest obstacles in conceptualizing it? What are the great aspects of writing it?
As I have written a few books already I can say some things were similar, some completely different. One of the greatest aspects is seeing how I have developed and grown in the last five years since my first book. My newest book ‘Zero Waste Kitchen’ is way more than a recipe book, it is filled with food knowledge and facts about the value of food. It was a lot of research and I learned so much myself writing it.
What are some of the major issues you are trying to tackle with your activism and how do you act upon it?
I have always been a loud person, one of those that spoke up in a group. I think with being able to do that, which is a certain form of privilege, I am obliged to give my voice to those who cannot and empower them. And also there’s enough to be angry about at this moment in time, so I use my anger to unite with others and try to make change happen. Apart from environmental climate topics I also care about social equality and feminism and basically, all these topics are connected anyways.
What is a Zero Waste Chef?
It is a chef that mainly cooks plant-based and veggie-centered food. And as part of that, I try to use products are as sustainable as possible. The restaurant I currently work at (IslaBerlin) follows a circular economy model so that fits perfectly with my books and activism work.
Tell us about your work as a chef and what are the main goals behind Isla Berlin?
Isla is run by my friend Peter who has an academic background in sustainability and circular economy. We try to produce as little trash and waste as possible. We also reuse and upcycle as much as possible. It’s a vegetarian place, so for example from leftover milk from coffee foam we make yogurt and ricotta that we include in our dishes. We try to use up all parts of veggies and fruits, dry and ferment a lot and turn old bread and pastry into new dishes.
What do you find most challenging about building a career in the food world?
I consider myself one of the people who try to change the paradigms of the current gastronomy world. In networks, we work against sexism and other forms of discrimination. I think the biggest challenge is to work against stereotypes. Yes – kitchen work is hard physical work but the lack of women is not connected to the heaviness of pans. And No – screaming like a MF in the kitchen is not necessary to prepare good food to make people happy. And I also hate the prejudices some people have against plant-based food – it’s delicious and it makes me angry if people doubt that.
What do you think is unique about being a chef in Berlin compared to any other big city?
There’s a lot of stuff going on these days and especially a lot in the sustainable food scene and we have great producers and a lot of ecological produce. Also, I enjoy my great network of great females from the Feminist Food Club. We made a list of all the women working in food in the city. We are many and the number is constantly growing. It is very empowering.
Is there a favorite project, personal or professional, you have ever done and why?
I am really blessed to work with so many great people in so many great projects but one of my highlights so far was when I was invited to the James Beard House in New York City last year to cook a six-course vegan dinner with 5 other female chefs on International Women’s Day. Not only was it a great prestige to be invited to cook there but also all the chefs supported each other magically and effortless. We got standing ovations by the 85 guests. Such a great empowering experience.
What are your thoughts about (or your relationship with) the internet and social media?
It’s a love/hate relationship. On one hand, it gives me and others a voice that I can use to promote my own work and opinions and use it in a political and empowering way. I also get so much positive feedback that shows me how much impact has what I am doing. On the other hand, it eats up my brains and some days I just wanna delete it for good. Luckily with a part-time kitchen job, I have to take natural breaks anyway.
Who have been some of your biggest personal influences and inspirations over the years (in business/life)?
I always find it very hard to answer this question. This is not directly connected to the food world, but I am heavily influenced by music, literature, art, pop culture and subcultures. I could always identify with strong women, rock stars, glamazons, and doers: Vivienne Westwood, Joan Jett, Grace Jones, David Bowie, and Frank N. Furter.
What are your future plans?
To open up my own restaurant. With my business partner, I currently work on the business concept and we wanna get started in 2020 when we will both turn 40. I think that’s a great goal! And at some point, I want to write a book that is not connected to food.