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Sonya Kharas
Program Manager
The League of Kitchens
September 12, 2017

Although Sonya's work has taken her many places, one of the biggest values she seems to have accrued through the process is: perspective. They say that to be an artist, one needs to learn to see, and Sonya has managed to hone that skill, even as she admits that the way forward is often unclear. This seems to us the exact combination that leads to wisdom and happiness. To learn more about her work at League of Kitchens, an immersive culinary adventure where immigrants teach intimate cooking workshops in their homes, visit www.leagueofkitchens.com.

When did you know that you wanted to work in food? 

Food has always played an important role in how I understand myself and my cultural identity. When I was growing up, my family had dinner together every night. The food on our table was eclectic: some days we ate the rice and dal that my father remembered from his childhood back in Pakistan; other days my mother made the chicken noodle soup that is so characteristic of her Jewish ancestry. Neither of my parents are particularly religious, so these dishes, and the stories that often accompanied them, became the main way that we expressed ourselves and maintained our family traditions.

I always enjoyed these dinners, but I did not think that something so personal and domestic could ever translate into a job. When I moved to Berkeley, California in 2006, that assumption was proven wrong. There, I met so many people with careers that centered around food. I encountered urban and rural farmers, school garden and cooking teachers, farmers' and mobile market managers, brewers and fermenters, and more. I was inspired to follow in their footsteps. I moved to New York City to get my Master's Degree in Food Studies at NYU, and spent the next few years trying on as many different hats as possible within the food world. I ran a summer camp at a community garden; I sold artisanal cheese at a public market; I organized volunteers for my neighborhood compost collection; and I managed a farm-to-food pantry program at a local non-profit. With each new job I expanded my network and broadened my understanding of what it looks like to work in food. The people and the possibilities in this field motivate my each and every step. This is true now more than ever as I work with the instructors at the League of Kitchens, an incredible group of immigrant women, as well as our customers and partners, whose diverse skills and experiences show me just how much can take place in the kitchen and at the table.

How did you get your current good food job? 

I know Lisa, the founder and CEO of the League of Kitchens, from high school in Washington, DC. We ran into each other a few years ago at the Just Food Conference in New York City, and Lisa told me the plan for her new business. I immediately loved her idea to create a cooking school where immigrants teach their family recipes out of their own home kitchens. I took a practice workshop taught by Despina, the Greek instructor, right before the launch and loved it!

When the Program Manager position opened up last year, I had a job and wasn't considering a change. But the idea must have worked its way into my imagination. A few weeks after seeing the listing on Good Food Jobs, I reached out to Lisa and asked if the position was still available. It was, and I applied. I started two weeks later!

How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?

I define a good food job as one which a) promotes public interest in the food we eat; b) instills a sense of responsibility for the ways that food is grown and transported from farm to table; c) promotes physical health, vibrant and democratic communities, and a resilient environment; and d) meets the needs of a global citizenry, while preventing the disappearance of local cultures and traditions. This is a tall order and requires a broad view. It is also amorphous, and necessitates an open mind. These are two qualities which I hope I have developed by having a range of diverse experiences. I worked on rural farms in Italy and urban gardens in Bangladesh; I taught nutrition to middle school students and adult food pantry clients; I organized neighborhood volunteers and managed a statewide grant. I often felt like my experiences lacked a single focus or direction. But they prepared me for the diversity of my field and gave me the perspective I need in my current job where I work with incredible home cooks from all over the world. The instructors at the League of Kitchens remind me every day that there is no one way to have a conversation, cook a meal, or work a good food job. These differences are at times confusing. More often they are exciting and let me know that I am on exactly the right path.

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?

There is a lot of innovation in the food space right now. I find all of the new projects and ideas very inspiring. But it also means that there is a lot out there that is still untested. I'm not naturally a risk-taker so it has been a personal challenge for me to take a chance on a job that excites me and not blame myself if it doesn't work out. At the end of the day there is no other work that I would rather do.

Name one positive thing that a former employer taught you that you continue to appreciate? 

I think my best employers have been the ones who have made me feel valued - by showing personal kindness, by investing in my professional development, or by simply asking for my advice. It is easy to make someone feel replaceable. It is a much greater and more important task to make an employee feel like they really belong.

What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?

I think we have a huge opportunity to look critically at who currently holds the "good food jobs" that shape our food system. Immigrant workers, whether on farms or in restaurant kitchens, are often excluded from positions that hold real power. We have an opportunity to change that and to acknowledge the skills and expertise that many of these immigrants bring to the table. I think that is one of the most powerful aspects of my current job at the League of Kitchens, where the immigrant is the expert, the teacher, the host, and the cultural ambassador. My job is to support them and to make sure that they have everything they need to share their incredible expertise and to make their voices heard.

I also think that there are great opportunities to realize the power that food has to bring people together. Right now the world feels incredibly divided. Brexit, restrictions on immigration and free trade, political polarization - my news feed at times seems only to communicate the myriad ways in which we as a global population cannot get along. In the midst of this disunity, my job at the League of Kitchens feels like a small antidote, a glimmer of hope. It represents the great opportunity we have right now to realize the power of food to bridge gaps, forge relationships, celebrate diversity, and to create a more inclusive society.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?

For me, compensation is always about supporting a good life. With the League of Kitchens, I work from home and make my own schedule, which has allowed me to create a healthier routine where I cook more, spend more time with friends and family, and take better care of myself in other ways. It's an incredible form of compensation. Plus, our company-wide potlucks can't be beat!

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