a Conversation with ZOsCUISINE
Meet Zo of ZOsCUISINE, a community-oriented culinary artist, working within the intersections of food-sovereignty activism and systems-based justice seeking work.
Could you tell us a little bit about your journey as a culinary artist and how you came to create ZOsCUISINE?
So, it's funny, I always joke with people that the start of ZOsCUSINE was because I got with a beautiful woman and needed to learn how to cook (says Zo, laughing). But that's not the whole story, by any means. I've always had a passion for cooking, but the real inspiration came from my grandmother. She raised me from a young age and taught me about the importance of matriarchy, protection, and family. She expressed her love through cooking, using fewer words and more gestures like rubbing my hands or sharing freshly-picked fruits. Coming home after a long day to find food on the table and enjoying a meal as a collective, created a love language for me that I didn't know existed beyond my kin.
When she passed away a couple years ago, my relationship with food took on a new dimension. I no longer had that person who expressed their unconditional love through food. I innately became that person because my mom likes to cook, but doesn't love it, and my dad can cook but doesn't have the same passion. However, I quickly and passionately discovered that I genuinely love to be in the kitchen. It was only after my grandmother's passing that I realized cooking became a way for me to express myself through and through, to navigate difficult days, and to learn about the world and the people around me without uttering a single word. That's how it all began, with my grandmother's influence and the journey I embarked on after her passing. It became more nuanced and layered from there, but she remains at the core of it all.
Is community and togetherness something that has also inspired you in your culinary practice? How do you perceive its role in your work?
I firmly believe that food and togetherness are inseparable. Community is the backbone of culinary experiences, and it greatly influences my practice. What I am doing now is not something I made up on my own or something that someone only slightly older than me created. It's about embracing ancestral techniques, paying homage to them the best we can, and giving credit where it's due. These are not things I would keep to myself; they are lessons passed down from previous generations, and I’m beyond thankful to host even small parts of that knowledge. That's what community means to me. It's not just about me and my kin today; it's about the people who paved the way for all of us.
Community forms the foundation of my work. I would never claim that what I do is solely mine because it isn't and never will be. It's my interpretation and my take on it, but the essence of it comes from the collective knowledge and traditions that have been shared with me. That's why community is crucial. Without ancestral practices, knowledge, and traditions, my work wouldn't exist. It's important to recognize that it's a result of the contributions and wisdom of those who came before us.
Is it part of the message and ethos you aim to communicate through your culinary creations and collaborations with others?
Absolutely, it is at the core of what I crave to convey. I never want people to feel like when they experience “my” cuisine, or the work of a single person. If anyone feels that way, then I've failed in my job. I never want to send a message that an individual is solely responsible for this work. Interestingly enough...
So, the message is about fostering a dialogue?
Precisely. The message is conveyed through a dialogue. I communicate through the plates I create. If it ever feels like one person has put together the entirety of the experience; the ceramics, harvested the ingredients, manipulated them, and prepared the dish, then I've done it all entirely wrong. I collaborate endlessly with farmers, ceramicists, and other local community members and artists. This isn't just my doing. I didn't create the zucchini itself. It doesn't magically appear before you. Instead, it's the result of conversations and relationship-building with farmers and artists, discussing their organic models, their farms, and so forth. It doesn't make sense for me to claim ownership over any of that, ever. The ownership belongs to community.
We both share a deep commitment to sustainability and local sourcing. Could you delve deeper into this principle and how it influences your culinary creations?
That's an interesting point. I have a complex relationship with the term "sustainability." We, as a collective species, have brought the Earth to a point where our current trajectory is not sustainable. So, claiming sustainability at this stage feels paradoxical. We are sustaining something that is already in a dire state. It doesn’t quite align.
Instead, I prefer to engage in conversations about regeneration and regenerative practices. How can we restore what exists right now? For example, a friend of mine reminds me often of a passed-down practice; that when you take something, you give something back. So when I use zucchini, I can buy some seeds and plant them. When I forage, I leave extra herbs or food-waste scraps in a field to regrow. This idea of regeneration goes hand in hand with investing in a community that does similar labour in the areas of creating accessible fridges, gardens, and farms. It's about regenerating our food systems rather than simply sustaining them.
By embracing regenerative practices and supporting local communities, we can contribute to the transformation and healing of our food system.
So, it brings me to my next question: Do you consider that the culinary landscape has changed since you started, and where do you see it heading in the future, especially considering the growing awareness and emphasis on local sourcing?
I can't claim complete ownership of this question because my experience in the industry is relatively short, and I am still young. So, my perspective may be skewed. However, from what I observe, the culinary landscape seems to be moving in different directions.
On one hand, it is heading towards a progressive path with a focus on regeneration. Chefs are increasingly exploring alternative proteins like ants, crickets and so forth, as well as incorporating regenerative ingredients that do not harm endangered species. This signifies progress in our food systems.
On the other hand, there is also a concerning trend of commodification and elitism, where some chefs create extravagant dishes using rare and endangered ingredients and animal-by products solely for the purpose of catering to a wealthy and arguably, classist clientele. This is a contradictory and hypocritical aspect of the industry that I don’t identify with at all. It's important to acknowledge that there are chefs pushing the boundaries in the right direction, while others contribute to further damaging our food systems.
Overall, I believe the culinary landscape is moving towards a more sustainable future. That's where my focus lies for now. Let's remain hopeful and continue striving for positive change.
We met here in Montreal. Obviously, you moved from Toronto to Montreal a couple of years ago. How has this change in environment influenced you or your perspective creatively?
It has had a significant impact on my practice and how I approach my craft. One notable aspect is the level of privatization and the heavy influence of large corporations in Toronto compared to Montreal. In Montreal, there is a certain grace and peace in the prevalence of individually owned businesses, often referred to as "mom and pop shops." This allows for a more personal connection and the ability to support local entrepreneurs. While you do find franchises and chains in Montreal, there is still a strong presence of intimate, independent establishments. This level of intimacy is what fuels my creative process. I am not driven by the A&W's or McDonald's of the world; those are the last places I would ever support financially.
Montreal boasts a vibrant market culture and a focus on farm-to-table practices. While Toronto is catching up in this regard, Montreal has embraced these principles for a longer period of time, in my personal perspective. This can be debated, no doubt. The food and beverage scene here [in Montreal] has existed in a different way, shaping the way I perceive and approach my craft. All that has inspired and influenced my culinary practice, emphasizing the importance of local, independent businesses, and a strong connection to the farm-to-table philosophy.
On a more personal note, what is your favorite element or dish to prepare and why?
I've recently developed a love for cooking with a wide variety of vegetables. It challenges me to manipulate each vegetable differently in terms of texture and taste to achieve a balanced dish. Unlike proteins, where it's easy to rely on a standard approach, working with vegetables requires maximum creativity and so I strive to honor each ingredient by using it in a unique way. Playing with vegetables, especially in the context of Arab cuisine, brings me creative freedom and inspiration.. Arab cuisine is heavily reliant on plant-based proteins, roots, chickpeas, lentils, and other highly nutritious ingredients. These ingredients are generally, also, more readily accessible within our food system. I believe we should focus more on these plant-based options rather than solely relying on animal-based proteins. So, yes, I enjoy exploring Arab cuisine and the art of manipulating vegetables to create exciting and flavorful dishes, not so short of an answer - sorry!
Could you give us a sneak peek into your process of creating the menu for our upcoming event? What can our guests look forward to?
You can look forward to the fact that everything on the table comes from people you can personally meet and engage with. These are individuals you might run into at a local market down the street. I promise you'll genuinely appreciate them. I still get goosebumps when I talk to the farmers I source ingredients from on the daily. We even exchange phone numbers, and they've expressed a desire to have dinner together. It's an honor for me. Beyond that, even.
So, what guests can anticipate is the knowledge that everything they'll be eating is sourced close to home, in a system we are striving to regenerate. We're not simply taking from the system and commodifying it. Our intention is to honor it in the best way possible.