Noticing Neighbors Kolika Simmons
What happens when a classically trained chef collaborates with an educational urban farm? Apparently, a whole lot of good for the community.
Kolika Simmons is a chef and food blogger, and approached KC Farm School with the idea for a trade: In exchange for her own CSA share, she would develop recipes to accompany the produce distributed through their CSA program. Those receiving produce through KC Farm School receive her recipe card that includes the ingredients, and can spark inspiration on what to cook.
For the past two years, Kolika has also been a Seed Starter in the Let’s Grow Wyandotte program. This program has helped to start over 200 gardens in the county, including locations such as front yards, patios, and community spaces. KC Farm School provides the tools, plant starts, and mentorship to support local residents in experiencing food sovereignty. Alicia Ellingsworth, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of KC Farm School, shared how Kolika engages with their mission:
“Our economic model is circular, and we believe that when we share what we have, we all can have what we need. Kolika exemplifies that! She is very generous and creates amazing recipes!” In this sit down interview, Kolika Simmons shares the stories behind her culinary journey.
For readers that might not know you, could you explain a bit about your blog and what you're up to?
I started my blog wannabgourmande.com right when I started culinary school. I was at a bit of a crossroads in my life. I was 20 going on 30, and had just moved back from Los Angeles with shattered dreams because I wanted so badly to be a fashion designer—and that didn’t work out. So I came back home to Tucson, where I'm originally from, and was horribly depressed. Then, I saw the movie Julie and Julia.
It somehow occurred to me when Meryl Streep, as Julia Child, says, “Why don't I go to cooking school?” I thought, oh, my God. Why don't I go to cooking school? Because I have cooked all my life. I love food, and I've always taken pride in cooking—but for some reason, it had never occurred to me that it could be something that people would pay me to do.
Hayley: So you signed up? Kolika: I immediately signed up for culinary school. That began my journey as a chef. I was a chef for a little over twelve years, and Wanna B. Gourmande was my first idea for food blogging. I've always loved writing and taking pictures, so I thought I would just give blogging a try.
It was right when blogging was at a big peak, when everyone was doing stuff on opensalon.com. I also wrote for Open Salon, won a couple of awards, actually, for the open challenges. So that was neat. Hayley: Are there any pieces you remember most? Kolika: There’s one I'm recalling right now where I got an honorable mention, it was about ‘Using Cooking as Therapy.’
Then I wrote a piece about Sonoran dogs, which are a delicacy. They're amazing. So I just kept up with Wanna B. Gourmande all throughout culinary school, and developed my online persona. I've got impostor syndrome really bad, so it’s “wanna be gourmande” because, hey, I'm not saying I'm a chef because at the time I was not a chef yet. I'm just trying my best, you know? That was always my thing. Gourmande is just a word for a fancy foodie, which is always what I felt like. I knew how to do certain things, and I knew I had a way with words, and I knew I could communicate well. So then Instagram came up, and I finally signed up for Instagram, and then it all connected. Everything was there! It has all really evolved with the Wanna B. Gourmande brand.
Hayley: It’s a great way to combine all of those things you’re good at. Kolika: It's always just been a passion project, and I have been able to get a few hustles from it here and there. One of my big passions is food advocacy, and specifically advocacy for food insecurity. So it developed out of Nourish KC, which is where I was working around 2015. It's so ridiculous to me that people would profit off of food the way they do. I was always fine with it for the restaurant, but the fact that there is anybody going hungry, I've always believed that we should judge society by our weakest. How dare we not take care of each other as such? That's how I met KC Farm School at Gibbs Road through being the chef of Nourish KC—then Alicia and myself became fast friends. Hayley: Is this how you partnered with their Let’s Grow Wyandotte program? Kolika: Yes, fast forward to 2020. When the pandemic hit, they began Let’s Grow Wyandotte. It’s a program that helps start gardens in backyards, schools, and public spaces. I've been gardening my whole life and I know a thing or two about food preservation, so I asked: hey, could I do a trade with you? If you give me CSA veggies, I will write a weekly recipe that you all can include with everyone's CSA. (community supported agriculture) I'll just create limitless content, and we can trade post for posts. It started like that, and then just evolved from there.
Oh, my word. That adds a whole different feeling, though, to the person that's receiving the vegetables and the produce. To get a recipe, with a warm writing voice in it? That feels different.
That's the hope.
Hayley: It’s so fun to read your blog, because when looking through it, I never knew what type of recipe was going to be next! You create a wide variety of dishes. Using that knowledge, what types of recipes do you include with the produce?
Here's the thing about me: I am such a big fan of seasonal eating, and that's become my latest challenge. We here in America have this incredible abundance, and we've always had an incredible abundance of produce grown and shipped in from everywhere. Of course, that would create a huge carbon footprint. However, by eating seasonally, not only can we help our own bodies—by taking in the local insect biomes of pollen which helps with allergies—but we are also decreasing our carbon footprint by eating something that was grown hyper locally. I find that when I have too many options, I become overwhelmed. It's always been kind of hard for me to narrow things down. So instead, I like to let each ingredient speak to me. That's why I never quite know what is going to happen as I’m cooking. Hayley:
You’re listening. Kolika:
Yes, I've always leaned towards cooking the ingredient-driven way. I was very much inspired by Alice Waters when I discovered her in the middle of culinary school. We did a unit on her because she's like the Godmother of local cuisine. Following that way of cooking, it keeps it fresh because I never know what I'm going to do.
One thing that was different this year has been finding a way to include that May is AAPI month, which is Asian American Pacific Islander month. I gave myself the challenge to cook only Asian and Asian inspired type foods the entire month of May. That's the only constraint I gave myself, within the
seasonally driven ingredients I have.
When you are a chef, our number one pet peeve is to be asked: “So, what's your specialty?” That question drives every chef I know insane, because the entire point of being a chef is that we're not supposed to have a specialty. We're supposed to be equally good at everything. That is the point. A cook has a specialty, and a cook can do one or two things very well. A chef is meant to be able to do everything right all across the board. In my time as a chef, I find that when you have too many options, it can be overwhelming—because when the choices are limitless, it’s easy to get a little bit of anxiety. Like, what am I supposed to choose? But when you give yourself the constraint of ingredient-driven cooking, and let the ingredients speak to you, then you can learn everything about that ingredient from the inside out.
What are you hoping to learn about each ingredient? Kolika: Learning the environment that it grows in, learning its life cycle, learning the compounds of what would make a flavor. For example: how would I describe, say, rhubarb to a person that has never had it before? I would describe it as a sweet and sour celery because it's a vegetable, but it's also extremely aromatic, and it has a little bit of stringency going on—but mostly it's sour. So when you add sugar to it, it creates this incredible dimension of all these wonderful flavors. It's very, very deep—but it's somehow not heavy.
Hayley: In learning about how the food grows and where it's from, how does that change your emotions when eating it?
Well, for me, I have a little bit of synesthesia. So when it comes to ingredients and tasting things, I've got very strong visuals and emotional memories. For example, I only really like to eat strawberries in the late spring, early summer, because that's when my strawberries are ripe. I've got a huge strawberry patch, and I don't even like to eat strawberries unless I grow them anymore. The kind that are in the store, they're bright red, but they're just so gross. They're just tasteless, and they never smell or taste as good as the ones that grow. I associate that with the beginning of the summer and when other things are becoming ripe together, that makes it easier for me to figure out what should go with what. Strawberry and rhubarb are going to be ripe at the same time, so of course I'm going to have strawberry rhubarb pie! That's my favorite pie in the world. It's changed a lot of how I live just by trying to commit to only eating and only buying what is naturally available. Hayley: That’s a neat rhythm to sync with.
It's my own way of, I guess, saving my own little world. That’s how I like to think of it.
I love that it also adds some meaning to it. It could help you to appreciate each ingredient when it's here, you know what I mean?
Yes. You've lived many lives, but you only get one body at a time, so you might as well live meaningfully in that time!
I love your inventiveness in talking to KC Farm School and asking, hey, can we exchange this? It's such a cool project to include the recipe cards. How have you seen goodness through working on it?
That is such a big question. I love that question. Okay, so seeing goodness and witnessing goodness, it heals your heart. It really does heal your heart. What did Anne Frank say? “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” And Burke said something like: All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. This is good people doing something. Hayley: True. Kolika: One of the catch phrases KC Farm School likes to use, which I love, is: “Action is the solution.” You'll see that hashtag here and there, and I love that action is the solution. I love witnessing the community that is formed there because it is truly a community. I have seen friendships made. I've seen partnerships formed. My son is only seven months old, and I feel amazing having brought him into the world—even though the world is massively broken. Because the piece of the world that I am inhabiting has a community where I know that he can learn and grow. It's got a big, diverse village that he can learn from.
The farm itself is an incredible project. I'm sure you've done your research on it. The farm itself is a teaching farm, and what's amazing about it is that it's entirely not for profit and it's central to the community. It's so important to have places like this. There's so much anxiety that I did not realize was around cooking for so many people—and I guess I just didn't realize that because that's my privilege. I grew up with absolutely no food insecurity. There was always food. There was always somebody who knew how to cook the food, and there was always somebody who enjoyed the cooking. So that was my privilege, and I acknowledge that fully. But there are so many people that just hate food, and there's so many people that just think food is disgusting—but it's just because of the types of foods they are eating. It's not their fault that they are anxious about new foods, because if you only grew up with access to canned, frozen, or drive thru food, then cooking may feel like a waste of time.
I’ve had chances to talk to kids and ask, “Hey, where do you think food comes from?” Their answer is always the store. So then I follow up with: “Okay, where'd the store get it?” Then they would say they got it from the trucks that bring it to the store. Hayley: Sure. Kolika: “Where do the trucks get the food?” Then the conversation would just stop. It wouldn't occur to them that food comes out of the ground, and food comes out of the earth.
It seems like you have a really neat mission wherever you go, and you're using it however it comes up. You know what I mean?
You know, life is so funny. Life is so big and wide. Part of it, I tried so hard. My biggest fear about aging is not wrinkles, and it's not anything like that. It's the fear that I'll become so set in my ways that my world view won't be able to change or shift with how the world is changing. I don't want that to be for myself because, I mean, even just as far removed as my father's or mother’s generation to mine—it’s such a jump. If I were to raise my own son like I was raised, then that means I would be raising him for a world that does not exist anymore. If we're not adaptable and looking into what can be changed and improved upon, I mean—shouldn't we try to make everything a little better?
Shouldn't we try to make everything better for everyone? Shouldn't we be experiencing and connecting with our fellow man? I mean, that's what civilization is all about. There was an anthropologist who marked the beginning of civilization as the point when we learned how to take care of each other. There was an archaeological dig where they found a skeleton with a healed femur bone, and it was from 10,000 years ago. She marked it as the beginning of civilization because back in those days, there were no hospitals. A healed femur bone means that that person was cared for. That means that their wound was bound, they were carried around, they were fed, and everyone was taking care of each other long enough for that to heal. That was actually the mark of civilization when we started to take care of each other like that.
Hayley: I have a bit of a challenging question: You said your greatest fear would be not opening up to learn and change and adapt. Kolika: Yes.
So then what is your flip to it? If you push it to the positive side, what is your goal that you hope for?
That's a great question. My goals have changed so much. At one point I wanted to be a world famous fashion designer. At one point I wanted to be a writer. At one point I wanted to be the greatest chef that ever lived. At one point I wanted to run away to some, like, mid-Atlantic town where people think I was a village witch. Right now, my goal is just to keep my son alive and myself alive for the next 18 years. But long term, I think my only real goal is to just live a meaningful and impactful life, whatever that looks like. So as long as I am being impactful, and as long as I am doing everything I can with the time that I have to leave the world a little bit better than how I found it, then I really am at peace.
All media originally published by Kolika Simmons, Wanna B. Gourmande, and KC Farm School Gibbs Road via their online platforms.