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Chef Sophia Roe on changing the scope of conventional cooking

Sophia Roe has proven time and time again that she is a person of many accomplishments. Since receiving the Emerging Voices Award from the James Beard Foundation, being the face and host of his hit TV show, Counter space, From being the first black female chef to receive an Emmy Award nomination in the culinary category, the 33-year-old food arbiter has literally manifested the life of her dreams.

From a young age, Roe always knew she was destined for greatness despite a tough upbringing. Born and raised in Florida in the late 90s, her journey to success began in homeless shelters, where Roe and her mother often slept on cots. She remembers often being hungry throughout her childhood and considers this one of the driving factors that led her to advocate for food education accessible to marginalized communities around the world.

“No one should ever have to know what hunger feels like,” she tells TZR. “I had a very difficult upbringing, you know, both of my parents were drug addicts and I always had this crazy ambition to work because I was so terrified of not having anything forever. I grew up sleeping on beds in random shelters when my mom and I had no place to stay, and I don’t really know why, but food has always been my calling.

And while childhood should be a time of play and carefree living, Roe is focused on learning to take care of herself. “I can’t tell you enough how much fun I haven’t had in my life,” she says. “I didn’t have fun, I didn’t have a good time. People have these memories of going out with their friends and living life to the fullest at an early age. Well, I’ll be the first to tell you, I had none of that. I just remember that all my childhood, it was me who was hustling.

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As difficult as this truth may be, said stampede propelled Roe’s culinary journey and success. The Florida native recalls an early fascination with cooking, watching Great Chefs of the World on PBS as a child. “I was obsessed with food and thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I used to ride my bike and go to the library and I remember taking all the food books I could find,” she says. “There was a Vietnamese restaurant that was hiring at the time and they finally hired me to work for them when I was 19. That was pretty much the start of everything. I’ve worked in so many different types of restaurants and locations over the past 14 years.

Roe’s hard work and vast culinary knowledge eventually extended to the digital world. His rapidly growing Instagram and YouTube communities led to the creation of Counter space, a VICE television show that Roe produces and hosts, which aims to democratize the food industry by educating not only viewers about cooking, but about food systems and policies that affect the world at large. It fearlessly addresses (and dismantles) the tropes and stereotypes that often inhibit communities of color, serving as a vehicle to investigate why these tropes even exist and shine a light on underrepresented communities that face a plethora dietary disparities.

“The show is so meaningful because it’s not a show about me, it’s me putting on a show about other people and all people of color who need to be recognized on a scale world,” she told TZR. “Food industry broadcast media is not for people who don’t have access to refrigeration. They don’t speak to people living in food deserts or people who don’t have the resources to buy healthy foods. Food cannot be reserved for a specific demographic or group of people. We need to make it accessible to everyone.

Roe’s vision and hard work clearly resonated with her audiences and peers, leading her to receive the James Beard Foundation Award for “Emerging Voices” for her work on Counter space. The show also received two Daytime Emmy nominations.. The chief’s journey serves as much-needed inspiration and encouragement, but to be clear, with such esteem comes pressure. “I never want to be the first black woman to be nominated for anything again, I think it’s such a lonely place,” she says. “That can sometimes be a hard truth to swallow, even if the work is needed.”

In Roe’s mind, she’s simply a “steward of history,” called upon to encourage the important conversations the world should be having. “There’s a historical reason why black people have always been associated with fried chicken,” she says passionately. “I want people to really investigate why there are certain tropes about us and food. I really want us to change that.

By using food as “a lens to explore our changing world,” Roe has changed and is changing the scope of conventional cooking. Her position as a prominent face on and off screen has become a guide for women, especially young black women, who may never have dreamed of seeing themselves on television, let alone in a high sitting position of industry success.

“If all kinds of white people can dominate an industry like food, I don’t see why different kinds of black people can’t dominate it,” Roe says. “There’s a lot of space for everyone, and I really want to hope for more for black women, they need something to hope for so badly.”