She is a trained hairdresser, former singer, party organiser, fanzine, podcast and book publisher: Sophia Hoffmann could fill many lives with what she has already accomplished. Famous for her vegan cooking, she has taken a different focus with her new book Zero Waste Küche (Zero Waste Kitchen). We talked to her about living in Berlin for the past 10 years and how to save the planet.
Sophia, in your last book, you wrote that you loved cooking from an early age. You didn’t start your career as a chef, however, but rather as a DJ and promoter in Vienna’s nightlife scene. Why did you decide against a career as a classically trained chef at that time?
When I finished school and I had to think about what I wanted to do with my life for the first time, I found it really hard to make a decision. I had never thought about becoming a chef. I wanted to experience something and partying was a big part of my life back then. Combining business with pleasure, I started relatively early to make a job from this.
At some point, food became my tool; that was about eight years ago. It came at a point in my life where nightlife became less interesting to me. Looking back, I think it would have been much easier to start working as a chef right after school. At 20, I did an apprenticeship as a hairdresser, so I know what that’s like. If I’d have known back then that I wanted to end up here I could have done it. But there are millions of reasons against it and it is interesting that I still have to explain myself when I’m asked if I’m a trained chef. Especially for me as a vegan chef it makes no sense, because the training is still based on animal protein and I have a completely different approach. This, and also the fact that the restaurant business is very sexist, maybe made me subconsciously decide against it.
I already began working in this field as a teenager. Sexist behaviour, particularly slurs and remarks, were so common it became unremarkable. If you grow up like this you maybe don’t realise it and think this is normal. That definitely changed for me. I’m a member of the Feminist Food Club and the other women there also often entered laterally into this business because of this reason. The harassment quota is at 100%. Everyone had these kinds of experiences there.
But before you made a name for yourself in the food world, you packed your bags and left Vienna for Berlin. What made you leave?
I lived in Vienna for five years, but grew up in Munich. I escaped Munich because I wanted more. I had this strong desire for adventure when I was younger and so I spent five exciting years in Vienna, where I sang in a band, organised parties, made art, published a fanzine and much more. I’ve always worked on the side, but it was never quite enough to make a living. At some point I thought I’d achieved everything in Vienna. I had a great network, I knew everyone and thought to myself: “OK, I could comfortably settle down here now,” but I wasn’t ready. I was 28 and decided to go to Berlin, even though I didn’t really know yet what I was going to do there at that point. It was a conscious decision to reinvent myself, and I’m fond of a drastic change. So I moved to Berlin, knowing maybe five people here, and I even ended a relationship for it. Or maybe it was the reason why I moved (laughs).
You’re known as the “Vegan Queen”. Do you feel limited by being labelled a vegan chef?
Absolutely. I’ve been trying to get out of this niche for a while now. The new book is about sustainability and conscious consumption. It’s never been about forcing everyone to become vegan in a dogmatic way. On the other hand, I have experienced a lot of dogmatism towards me. During press events for the first book, Sophias vegane Welt, people came up to me and said things like: “You vegans…” I think we all agree that we need to eat less meat and need to consume more consciously for the planet and this is what the new book is about. Veganism isn’t the main solution. If it’s not fair trade or it’s packed in plastic it won’t save the planet either.
Something that really upsets me is people asking me if my food tastes good. To ask this to someone who has been cooking successfully for many years is just rude. Either someone cooked well or they didn’t. Also people don’t grant me my own style because it’s already labelled “vegan”. Within vegan cuisine everyone cooks differently, and the fact that you can have your own signature dish and style is beyond some people. But we’re slowly moving away from that.
You’re not only a chef but you’re an outspoken activist, not shying away from topics such as sexism and sexual violence. Speaking about topics like that can lead to hateful comments. How do you manage to keep a positive outlook towards your work?
I decided a while ago to talk about my experience with sexual violence and have openly spoken about it a few times now. I reached my limit at some point. I broke down when the Kavanaugh trial was discussed publicly; it retraumatised me as a survivor and I realised I don’t have an eternal source of energy for these topics. I went to a therapist and tried to find new boundaries for myself. For many people who do political or social activism it’s important to find out where your limits lie and how to protect yourself. You can’t change the world or solve a problem within a day. You have to ask yourself: what can I do? Can I be the voice for those who can’t talk or don’t have the energy? I got a lot of messages from other survivors who were so happy that someone spoke about their experiences so openly. It made them realise that they aren’t alone. It’s similar with the topic of sustainability: you can make small steps and encourage people to try out parts of it at home. And change things step by step.
You’ve been very successful in what you’ve been doing for the last 10 years. Have you ever had any major setbacks and, if so, how did you deal with them?
This is something no one likes to share that much, but of course there have been projects that have been offered to me that fell through. I was once offered a TV show that never happened. You become more cautious after a while and look more closely at those offers. Something I still struggle with is my financial situation. I’ve noticed a gap between my media coverage and my income in the last years. I had to sit down this year and think about how I would want to make a living. Of course being self-employed is always a bit up-and-down but it’s tough to think: OK, I’ve had a great article in the weekend issue of a big newspaper but how am I going to pay my rent? I’ve started cooking part-time in the kitchen (at Isla Coffee, an award-winning circular economy concept café) again and my long-term plan is to start my own business and not be so dependent on those social media things. I don’t even want to earn much money; I think I would have chosen a different career path if that was my goal. I’ve consciously decided against a few offers. Last year I reached a personal milestone: I denied offers that could have been three times my yearly income. That was hard but I’m glad I did it.
You talked about your family background in your last book: your parents were very ecologically conscious and you quoted your grandmother’s knowledge. Do you think living without producing waste is an intuitive skill we’ve lost?
Absolutely, I think it’s a combination of things we forgot. Things like the expiration date have been invented by the industry and they made us think that food will basically harm us if we even do so much as smell it after it expires (laughs). This is something where we could rekindle the knowledge of our grandparents’ generation. The term “zero waste” also brings a very modern component into play. Environmental footprint, plastic packaging, fair trade practices – these are all things our grandparents didn’t have to deal with.
So I see it as a mix of these two aspects that the consumer should focus on. And again, it is important to say that no one can achieve 100% sustainability. It is more about becoming more conscious, losing the fear of the unfamiliar and closing the knowledge gap to achieve a better relationship with our food again. In Germany, there is a mentality that food should be cheap, and that well-produced food – Bio food – is too expensive. But we still manage to throw away 16 million tonnes of food every year. It’s a luxury problem.
Almost everyone can reduce their footprint and waste.
If you can’t be 100% sustainable, what do you try to focus on?
I still don’t manage to shop completely without plastic packaging. I manage in many areas like fruits and vegetables, because I buy them in stores where they are offered without packaging. I try to buy basic foods in unverpackt shops [shops that sell package-free produce and encourage you to take your own containers]. We have the luxury of doing that here in Berlin. What I fully manage to avoid, however, is food waste. But I think everyone can do some research and think about what they can do. Almost everyone can reduce their footprint and waste.
If someone came up to you and asked you if they should rather go vegan or zero waste, what would you answer?
For the environmental footprint, it’s better to live vegan. It’s quite interesting, I know a few entrepreneurs who had their footprint calculated for their products, among them a company that makes cashew cheese and yoghurt. And they still have a better footprint than the respective bovine products, even though cashews need a lot of water to grow and are flown halfway around the world. But I’d say if you can’t manage to go completely vegan, maybe reduce your meat consumption. My boyfriend became a vegetarian this year. Voluntarily (laughs) – it was a slow process, but I never pushed him. People say veganism is an STD, well maybe there’s some truth to that! He stopped drinking milk but he stuck with the cheese. And cheese is interesting because it has casein in it, which is a substance from the mother’s milk, and it works on the hormone receptors like some morphines do. It’s essentially like a drug. I have a deal with my boyfriend that he only buys and eats Bio cheese and if possible only from Demeter [largest certification organisation for biodynamic agriculture] farmers because they have the best conditions. I’m also not 100% strictly vegan. I’m cooking vegan but sometimes I eat vegetarian. I’m extremely critical, however, about where the food comes from. I basically would have to know the chicken personally to be able to eat its egg.
You like radical changes. What can we expect from you in the future?
My next radical change has already happened: I converted my blog into a website because I didn’t want to be a blogger anymore. There are so many great people who do this for a living and I noticed that I don’t have the time to be fully invested in this and upload content regularly. I’m a chef, a writer and an activist, not a food blogger. Those are the three cornerstones of my work that I want to focus on in the future. I’m also planning to open my own restaurant in 2020 with my business partner Nina. It’s gonna be something – watch out!
To keep up to date with everything in Sophia’s world visit sophiahoffmann.com