I had to really listen to Bonita when she spoke. Such a soft-spoken woman, and if I went so far as to describe her as slightly shy, I don't think I would be too far off the mark. Her voice was melodic and soothing, and she possessed a calmness about her that I wish I could bottle up and take with me everywhere I go.   

Over the next hour, Bonita Shelby, a Washington, DC native, would reveal to me how breast cancer, infidelity and the essential oils, led her on a journey of healing by harnessing the power of food as medicine.  

"Diagnosed with breast cancer 28 years ago, I wanted to become more clear and intentional of what I was putting in and on my body." --Bonita Shelby  

I was a certified public accountant and after a stressful week, mostly on Fridays, I would buy a pint of chocolate almond ice cream. It was my date! Looking back, it's interesting to see how I came to love ice cream. I remember my grandmother would always ask me to go to the store and get her three kinds. Most people have never heard that term, but that’s what she called Neapolitan ice cream, three kinds. My grandmother could eat an entire container and I certainly followed in her footsteps as that is a far too easy task for me to accomplish.  

But sometimes things are happening with our bodies and we simply ignore the subtle signs, assuming it’s something minor. It took decades for me to realize that after eating ice cream my breasts would begin to ache. It was the ingredients, the milk in the ice cream. Once I realized this, I eventually moved to goat or coconut ice cream which agreed with my body much better. Over time, I began to realize the importance of what I put in my body. 

When I got married my husband, who was somewhat health conscious, would tease me about eating pork and what pork was doing to me. As time passed, eliminating it from my diet became an easy change since I wasn't going to cook a pork dish and a non-pork dish. It just became easier and easier to cut pork out completely. I was able to substitute ham with corned beef and I began to make other substitutions along the way, until I weaned it completely out of my diet.  At that point, I did not enjoy cooking or even being in a kitchen, and if I had my way I would eat out all the time. But things began to change. As I said, my husband planted the seed in me that began to open my eyes to the need to make healthier food choices and to understand how those choices could impact my health.   

Unfortunately, my husband and I grew apart; we both had outside affairs and we eventually separated and then years later, divorced, amicably. Decades later, he would lose his battle with metastatic prostate cancer. 

Years after my divorce when I was 36 years young, I had an unexpected diagnosis of stage 2 breast cancer in my left breast. This was only months after having a clear mammogram; but I had felt something, so I went to see my general practitioner again. I was referred to a surgical oncologist and he advised me to have a lumpectomy, and to undergo chemotherapy and radiation. I didn't know then what I know now about food, essential oils and their medicinal uses, so I was very obedient to what the doctors advised. I never thought I would die and I was comforted and loved that the surgical oncologist said, "Let's get you back to your life!", and that's what happened! 

It wasn't an easy happening.  I was a new Christian; but I had two dear faith filled aunts who were nurses at Howard University Hospital where I was treated. They knew the health practitioners involved in my treatments and they told me not to listen to negativity and to be careful when sharing my diagnosis. And so, I was, because I didn't want to hear people say, “Oh yes, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer or my aunt was diagnosed, and even after she went through all the procedures, she still passed away.” That is deflating, hearing those voices of negative stories. It’s not that people weren’t trying to be helpful, and I don't mean to give light to the loss of their loved ones, but those experiences were not helpful to my overall well-being. So, I shut it down to almost total isolation, especially during my treatments. I focused and built up my relationship with the Lord and I gave Him the glory for my healing. I ran to the Lord and I do believe He led me to certain things along the path of my life.  

After my weekly chemo treatments, I was so weak and sick to my stomach. Sleeping was the order of the day and I would go for days with no appetite and then, just like that, I would want to eat everything. I saw a cycle developing of going for chemo treatments, not eating for a few days, then having a voracious appetite and eating for the week before the next treatment and then everything repeating again. It was a flow and that's how it was, but I needed to use supplements to build up my strength and to get rid of the debilitating fatigue. 

My treatments lasted for about nine months and thankfully, 28 years later, I walk in divine health!  I believe that out of the ashes of my experience came many things: the idea for my business, DiVine Health Choices, the use of essential oils as a lifestyle and in cooking as well, and the daily awareness of nourishing my body with real, good food.  

Because of my victory over cancer, I wanted to become more aware of what I was putting in and on my body. I began to eat out less and I realized that by eating out less I could control what went into my body. That desire to maintain control evolved into creating a mini-cookbook filled with recipes for healthy, tasty, quick and real good food. I wanted to show people how they can eat many of their favorite foods by substituting certain ingredients. But it’s not just about the food that goes into your body, it's what's put on it, our emotions and relationship with our Creator – body, mind and spirit. 

Over the past five years, I’ve been learning how to use genuine essential oils in cooking. I wanted to use essential oils to bring out the natural flavors and because of their beneficial, natural and nutritional properties. I would love to go into restaurants to show chefs and their customers how using genuine essential oils can create remarkable flavor. I make a yummy lavender lemonade, basil salad dressing, spaghetti sauce with oregano essential oil and I use dill essential oil in many fish dishes. But it's not just these oils, all essential oils have multiple therapeutic uses and support a healthy lifestyle and wellness; but for food preparations and recipes, the focus is really on flavor by using an essential oil for seasoning.  

Food has the power to jog memories and sometimes food is the memory. It was in the early 2000s when I realized my love of cooking. I was cooking split pea soup. As I was standing over the stove, I began to remember when I worked at the Government Printing Office as a bookkeeper years ago. I would go to the cafeteria and I remember ordering split pea soup which had these tiny little carrots in it. I loved that soup! It was something about it and the comfort I felt while I was eating. For me, that memory was comfort. 

--When you look in the mirror, what do you think of the woman staring back at you?   

When I look in the mirror and see the woman staring back at me, I think she is a work in progress, always! I've done well in getting on a healthy lifestyle journey, but she still has work to do because she likes to eat and it shows. Ha!  


On the day of the interview, I met Angela Rakis at her home. A natural hostess, she served a tray of cured meat, fruit, cheese and crackers. She asked if I preferred to sit in the living room or go to the kitchen. For me the answer is always the kitchen. So for the next couple of hours, we talked, ate, laughed and shared life's hardships while standing at her kitchen island.       

Over the few hours that I interviewed Angela, she would talk about how her life revolved around food (admittedly not consciously, more culturally), even using a scene from the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding as a comparison.  “It really is like that . . . weddings are four course extravaganzas. Food is just engrained in our lives. Growing up, if anyone came to the house, mom would have a tray similar to what I just gave you. If someone came over we had something to eat. If someone was upset we had something to eat.  At funerals and memorials, wheat berry memorial food or koliva, a dish made of boiled wheat berries, almonds, walnuts, honey, raisins and powdered sugar was a dish always served in memory of loved ones passed. Food is simply a part of us and it often dictates what we do."       

Angela's story begins with the arrival of her grandparents to Washington, DC. After arriving they would open a store, and that store would become an interesting piece to Angela's story.  

Chances are if you are a Washingtonian, you may very well remember either your parents or grandparents shopping at the Florida Avenue Market to purchase fresh produce and meats. Opened on February 15, 1931, Union Terminal Market (as it was originally called) was located on Florida Avenue, NE, practically kissing Gallaudet University. Now known as Union Market, it is a chic market where people go to shop, eat, and sometimes just to be seen.    

Angela is perhaps tied to this landmark market more than she may think. Her grandparents used to buy produce for their store at the Florida Avenue Market and her mom still remembers coming to the market as a kid. After listening to Angela's story, I began to wonder if her grandparents had any idea that they would one day open their own storefront? Or that their store may very well be the unseen spark in Angela that would instill in her a love of food that would in many ways shape her path over the course of her life.   

Her grandparents' store became a hub for the local Greek community and although Angela was unaware at the time, those hours spent in the store, cleaning, bagging grains and doing any little task asked of her, left an impression upon her.  So much so that every turn she took in life, lead her to food.        

"You constantly tell yourself it's not the right time, but . . . if you succeed, great; if you fail, it will suck but you did it. You gave it your best." --Angela Rakis    

--Angela, tell me, how has food played a role in the woman you’ve become?      

Some of us say we learned to cook in the kitchen with our mom or grandma, but for me it comes in several different pieces. Being part of an immigrant family, food is how we communicate on a lot of levels. It's just always been there. 

My grandmother immigrated from Greece to the United States in 1936, eventually landing in Detroit where she met my grandfather who was also Greek but he was born in the states. They got married in Detroit and moved to Washington, DC around 1949 or 1950. They weren't in DC long before they had their first food stand at Center Market, which was located on 5th and K Street, NW. By 1955, they opened their own store, The Acropolis Food Market on Georgia Avenue and Kennedy Street, NW before moving to the final location on Georgia Avenue and Underwood Street, NW. My grandparents' store was one of the first Greek/Mediterranean stores in Washington, DC. Back then, there weren't many stores to buy foods similar to those back home, so my grandparents opened the store to bring those familiar food items such as feta cheese and olive oil to the Greek community. It was a place where after church on Sundays, locals would get their groceries for the week, pick up the Greek newspaper, have a coffee and sometimes gossip about the latest happenings. My grandmother was unable to attend church because she had to open the store on Sundays, so my brothers and I would sneak out of church early to see her before the crowds arrived. It was a family place. My mom worked there and she even met my dad there. I 'worked' or maybe it's more accurate to say the store was our babysitter and us kids helped out with little odds and ends. By the 1980s, after my grandmother passed, we closed the store, but through the years, a piece of it has stayed with me. 

After graduating from college, I moved to New York figuring that would be a great starting point for a career in advertising. But the food thing kept coming up. I always enjoyed hosting friends and baking. Whether it was putting together care packages for college friends that couldn’t go home for the holidays or baking gifts for family. I simply loved it. But as a career, it just never crossed my mind.   

I landed a job at an advertising agency and worked there for several years. Unfortunately, when my account went to another agency, I was laid off. I asked myself, now what? I took the severance package which wasn’t much but it was what I needed. I had some Amex points and a little money and going against all rationale, I decided to go to Italy for two weeks. I needed a break and time to clear my head. I never traveled alone, never did anything so spontaneous. But I figured it out and I did it.             

While traveling through Florence and Venice, I took a cooking class where I was exposed to the art of pasta making. It was just a fun, touristy class. But yet again, I began to feel that need for food to be in my life. Now when I came back home, that’s when reality started to hit. I had to find a job. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do and that’s when a good friend of mine said, “You should become a baker . . . you’re always baking pies, cakes and cookies.” I didn’t even think that was a real job. Remember, this was before Food Network was huge and probably prior to the celebrity chef phenomenon. I couldn’t imagine getting paid to bake! That fall I started my culinary education at the French Culinary Institute, now the International Culinary Center where I had classes from 8am to 3pm and worked from 4pm to 10pm, mainly at local bakeries.     

I worked and went to school around the clock. Between the internships, school and doing a little baking business on the side with some classmates, it was tough. But so was paying that New York rent! I soon realized, as much as I was enamored with food, culinary did not pay so well.     

I made the decision to go back to corporate, but still well within the realm of food. I was frustrated. I had a passion for pastry, but it was difficult to make ends meet. I lived in an apartment with two people, one of which was getting married. So how would I pay an even larger chunk of the rent? If I could, I would have opened an American style bakery. A neighborhoody type bakery. But with apartment rent and new student loans? Well, I guess, if I were being honest, I think I was just too scared.  Every day I would hear about shops and restaurants closing and at the time, I didn't know the steps to take to make it happen. Maybe I could have done it but I didn’t have the confidence . . . I just needed more time to grow. I went back to the career services office at my culinary school and told them I wanted to either work for Martha Stewart or Whole Foods Market. And since someone has to practically die to get a job at Martha Stewart, I landed a job with Whole Foods Market. 

I became the marketing coordinator for the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut region. Now here's the thing, in marketing a marketing coordinator position is entry level. Well at Whole Foods it’s a senior position. I certainly did not realize this! I figured I could do this entry level position in my sleep and bake on the side to build my business. But it was more intense than I could have imagined. Working in a new market, pulling together the marketing plan. It was fast paced almost all the time. The bonus was that I had a great boss. She was growing into her own, she trusted me and she brought us, her team, along for the ride.      

As my years with Whole Foods grew, so did my confidence. Retail is always changing and you learn everything taught in business school without going to school! I was lucky because anytime we were up against a challenge, my boss would let us figure it out. That was instrumental in building my confidence. I traveled to Greece to learn about the process for harvesting olives and Italy to learn the process of making Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. It was constant learning, my world revolved around food and I was still able to accomplish goals financially.  

I transferred to Washington, DC with Whole Foods because I wanted to be closer to family. But it was after this transfer that I began to feel as though it was time for me to leave. Initially it was fine. Opportunities flowed my way and leadership seemed to trust my judgement enough to allow me to see projects through. But things with my new manager just didn’t work out the way I would have liked. The longer I stayed, I was given less freedom and felt more confined and unable to grow. In this capacity, I had a male boss and, well, there are just some men that do not like confident women. I wasn’t always a confident person. I had to work at it, and prior to this point in my career, over the past eight years or so I slowly built my confidence. I built solid teams and I was an effective leader. I won the All-Star award seven times and best program in the company. I was proud of the teams I put together and I always felt Whole Foods valued their leaders. Like I said, I worked hard to build my confidence but towards the end, my confidence was getting holes shot into it and I quite literally felt it dwindling away. I don't think I realized it then, but once you start having a bad feeling about a job, you've probably already been there five months too long.   

Through total serendipity, I met a woman who would be my next boss at a Sips and Suppers dinner for Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen. I struck up a conversation with her and we of course began talking about food. I was being quite New Yorky and said, "There's no good food in DC, it's just terrible. I can't find a good place to eat." She then began to tell me one of her missions was to bring food soul back to DC. I told her, "You know, I hear this Union Market is opening in a few weeks, I hope that does something." Then she perked right up and said, "Yeah, I hope so too, that's my company . . . we're the developers!" And I said, "Oh, well who are you?" And she of course returned the question. I then realized I was talking to Jodie McLean, CEO of EDENS, a real estate developer who opened and operates Union Market. It also became apparent that she was the landlord for some of my Whole Foods locations.  

I worked with Jodie for a few years, and that gave me the opportunity to work with small retailers and restaurants. But I began to see myself getting further and further from food as my position began to focus more on the nitty gritty of real estate. I missed the food, and I would find myself trying to nudge into any project that was remotely related to food. I stayed for three or four years and decided I needed to get back to food.  

The months leading up to my departure, I kept receiving emails from friends and family about a local pizza shop closing in my old neighborhood. I initially thought, I don’t know why they are sending me this . . . I have a job. It was a restaurant. I never wanted a restaurant. But I adored the place. It was nostalgic, part of my childhood and it was a local joint where kids worked during their summers off. Did I want to run a restaurant? Could I run a restaurant? Of course, I asked people close to me what they thought. I think I was secretly hoping they would say no, that is crazy and you shouldn’t do it. I never heard those words. I didn’t have the restaurant managing piece, but hey, I opened upwards of 40 Whole Foods and each one was different with different concepts, different goals and of course a different set of challenges.  

You know the confidence thing is scary. One minute I feel like I can do it and the next I don’t. It’s tough. Going through the process of buying the pizza shop, most of the conversations with the lenders, and advisors revolve around, “When the business fails, this is what we will do!” It’s not expected for me to succeed. The bank, the Small Business Administration, do any of you want to know what will happen when I succeed? I mean, how about asking me about my business plan? I once listened to an NPR show and the discussion was about how different the dialogue is for male and female entrepreneurs. I mean I’m spending all my capital before I even get the loan. I could easily psych myself out because there is so much negative talk. I could just tell myself that it wasn’t meant to be. I mean, I'm fighting just to get a closing date! 

All this makes me think of my mom and how she didn’t settle. Even when it came to my grandfather telling her what she could and could not do as a young woman. My mom came from a traditional family and my grandfather told her she could either be a hairdresser or a secretary. She wanted to go to art school in Baltimore, but he told her he would not allow it. She ended up going to cosmetology school where she became a hairdresser. After taking time off when she had my brothers, she needed to renew her license before going back to work but she decided she no longer wanted to be a hairdresser. Needless to say, she never renewed that license. She became a stay at home mom until I was about seven or eight years old. Then one day, her best friend came over with a typewriter and said, “We’re getting jobs today!” My mom looked at her and said, “Jobs, what do we know how to do?” Her friend responded by saying, “We know how to do lots of things. We are moms!”  

Mom was hired at a local bank and she also took classes at Montgomery College. Her boss told her if she earned solid grades, they would pay for her classes. I mean, talk about not settling! She eventually worked her way up and by the end of her career she became a vice president. Even though it took her close to 20 years, I watched my mom walk across the stage to receive her diploma from Trinity College which just so happened to be the same year I received mine. She did it. She didn’t settle. Her dad didn’t let her go to school, but in the end, she accomplished her goals. She obtained her degree and she became an artist. She does shows, sells her art and has even won awards. Mom just turned 74.  

When you work for someone else, you constantly tell yourself it’s not the right time but you think of all the things you could be doing were you not holding yourself back. I don’t want another boss. If I succeed, great. If I fail, it’s gonna suck but I did it. I gave it my best. 

I was talking to an entrepreneur friend of mine, telling her about obtaining financing and just getting over those final hurdles to purchase the pizza shop. She told me, "This is the exact spot where most people give up, and if you do give up, in five years-time you will see someone else realizing their dreams and you will wonder what if."  

 I don't want to wonder what if.  

--When you look in the mirror, what do you think of the woman staring back at you?     

I think she’s confident, loyal and she’s making things happen. Sometimes she forgets that she’s done so much already. She’s gotta remind herself that she can do things. It’s all possible.   


Muskogee, Oklahoma. A city shadowed by the presence of the Arkansas River with a population of less than an eighth of most larger cities. This is where Tabetha Zimmermans’ journey began: as one of ten children between her mom and dad. As far as her mom’s side, Tabetha was one of five kids, all of which had different fathers.

Tabetha was taken away from her birth mom at four years old. Her mom, in constant battle with addictions, had three of her children taken away including Tabetha, her older brother and older sister. At times, when her mom would show the court she could function and be an effective mother, she would almost regain full custody, but usually the kids ended up in foster care again. Tabetha remembers being left at home for days at a time and having no idea how they would get their next meal.

For anyone who knows what it is like to go hungry, sometimes as a kid, you don’t realize how poor you are until you see others living differently. Tabetha began to see that difference when she started going to school, and because she was a welfare recipient, she received free lunch. Now, free lunch programs differ from state to state. In some states, there is no differentiation between the free lunch and the regular lunch for which kids pay. However, sometimes the differences can be as noticeable as the color of the bag which your lunch is packed, the line you stand in or the food you are given. As a seven-year old in 2nd grade, this was Tabetha’s reality: dealing with the stigma of everyone knowing she was on welfare and receiving free lunch. What she really wanted was to blend in and feel normal.

It was unbeknownst to her at the time, but Tabethas' unseen relationship with food would soon begin to alter the course of her life. It would not be a stretch to say that the very fact that she was on free lunch served as the impetus that would propel her to perform high academically, obtain a full scholarship to attend George Washington University in Washington, DC, to co-founding a business focused on a female positive lifestyle brand.

“...I was so confused as to why I was so different and it made me strive so hard not to be different.” --Tabetha Zimmerman

Tabetha, tell me, how has food played a role in the woman you’ve become?

I was raised between my mom and foster care. My mom was addicted to everything from drugs, men, shopping you name it. She would just leave us home alone for days and days. Luckily for us, someone noticed what was going on and called social services to intervene. They usually always ask if you want to stay or go, which is such a hard question to pose to a kid. I mean, what do you know at that age? But I remember, we all said we wanted to leave. As kids we figured we would stay together, but in hindsight, now I know there was no chance of that happening. They took the three of us, including my older sister and brother and we were separated immediately.

I was an easy sell because I was young and a girl. My 6-year old brother was placed in a boys- home and my older sister lucked up and was placed with our great aunt. My mom would somehow get sober enough to get some visiting rights granted by the judge so I would see her and my brother, but my sister never wanted to see her. My mom was neglectful and since my sister was the oldest she took care of us. You had a nine-year old taking care of a six and four-year old. That was a lot of responsibility and stress to put on a kid. She probably resented mom for that very reason. Since we were all in the system in Oklahoma, although we were separated from mom, we sometimes ended up at the same elementary school. It was weird because we all had different last names so people couldn’t understand how we were related. That was something that as kids, we found ourselves explaining a lot.

We all cried out for attention. My way was to assimilate and to be as perfect as possible. I didn’t want to be noticed. I’ll never forget when a parent told me I was a leech on the system. Can you imagine an adult saying that to a child? So, my goal was to blend in and be normal. Whereas my brother was like a bowling ball. That’s the way he looked for attention and it has taken our lives in completely different directions. As a child you don’t realize the consequence of your actions. He acted out because as a young kid that's what he learned. By being in a boys-home, they were treated like men and it didn't matter their age. He had to grow up really fast: fighting to survive, no real discipline and quite a bit of physical abuse. My mom got herself together enough to get partial custody of us, but we ended up being taken away, yet again. The system wanted to focus on rehabilitating her because the goal is to get the family together, but as soon as she got us back, she went right back to her previous ways. By the time I was in the 2nd grade I taught myself how to cook and how to bake cupcakes. It was little things like lunch and birthday cupcakes that mattered to me and I guess many kids. My mom would want to try, I think she did, but addiction is so complex and why people do it and what triggers their use...there could be a myriad of reasons. I don't know. I tried to understand it but I don't. I didn’t have a mom or dad to pack my lunch, and certainly not to bake cupcakes for me on my birthday. I remember being in the second grade and staying up until midnight trying to bake and put icing on cupcakes so I could take them to school to say, “Look at what my mom baked for me!” I actually took those cupcakes to school.

For all of the unwanted attention that being on free lunch brought me, it was because of the free lunch program that I won a laptop. I was in middle school and because I had the highest GPA of all the kids on free lunch, I was awarded a laptop! That accomplishment was a huge deal for me and I knew if I studied, worked hard, and in my mind, assimilated, then I would be alright and I would make it through school and even college.

After years of going back and forth between mom and foster care, the last time she regained partial custody I was about 11 or 12 years old. She decided it would be a good idea to move to Florida. We moved to Jacksonville, Florida because my brother was constantly getting kicked out of schools in Muskogee. Even if we moved to the next town, my brother was still getting kicked out of school. I remember wondering why we were moving. I finally got some traction under my feet. I kept my grades up and did everything I could to just blend in and right when things start to go well, we move. I mean life was far from perfect, but I didn't want to move away. Even though I was the kid who could never bring friends over because I lived in the projects. Kids would ask me where I live, but because I moved around so much, I would just pretend like I didn’t remember the address. I even had to remind my mom to enroll me in school! She would simply forget to enroll us. Yet with all this chaos, I was finding my way and I did not want to leave. It wasn't until later that I realized the real reason we moved to Florida. Yes, it was difficult finding a school for my brother because of his expulsions, but it was more than that. Before we left Muskogee, the supervising case worker still had power of attorney over us, until the state gave back full custody to my mom. As soon as she got full custody, she moved us out of state immediately.

Unfortunately, in Florida, mom was the same as she was back in Muskogee. Her addictions to alcohol, drugs, shopping, and men were a constant struggle for her.
For me, Florida was a culture shock. Oklahoma is such a poor state, so moving to Florida I saw a huge class divide. Middle class looked like sheer luxury. I couldn’t even figure out where the kids bought their clothes. I didn’t know they made stores for a specific brand. Now as an adult I've traveled to a few countries, but moving to Jacksonville, Florida was the biggest culture shock I have ever experienced. In Oklahoma you just didn’t get picked on for the clothes you wore. We wore Walmart clothes. But in Florida, everything was name brand.

I started working as soon as I could and once that happened, I never ate lunch at school again. To earn side money, I would do chores for my friends' parents, and since the age limit to work in Florida was 15, I started working in restaurants. My first restaurant job was as a hostess at Caps on the Water in St. Augustine, a tiny city south of Jacksonville. This is where I began to develop my love of restaurants. I mean, there wasn't anything not to love. All I had to do was remember 18 types of fish! I memorized the menu, smiled and was as accommodating to customers as I could be. That's all I had to do and I could make at least $100 cash a shift and get fed! It was hard work. We busted our asses and we worked long hours, but I loved it because in time my colleagues became my family. Caps on the Water was fine dining and that was where I began to learn about food. I learned about truffles, different cuts of meat, and most importantly how to eat. Prior to that point, I lived off butter noodles.

I always knew college was the way out. The summer prior to my senior year, I started working on my essays because I figured, once the deadlines starting rolling around my essays would be complete. I had this binder with all my application papers and I carried that binder every single day until I got my acceptance letter from GWU! Now, it's crazy how I got into school. I guess like with a lot of things in my life it was intervention and caring of others. I was dating this guy when I was in high school and even though I was quite private about my life, (he knew nothing of my mom or my childhood) he knew I wanted to go to college. When he introduced me to his mom, both she and her husband took a vested interest in me accomplishing my goal of attending GWU. His mom became my mentor and like a mother to me. She told me point blank that I was going to get into school. Not only did I get into GWU but I got a full ride! I was determined on my own, but the additional perseverance of my newfound family helped to make that dream happen even quicker. But nothing could prepare me for the hurdles I would have to jump to start at GWU that fall.

One of the largest hurdles I had to jump was to provide sufficient documentation to satisfy questions regarding financial aid. You see my mom and three of her previous husbands were still claiming me on their taxes. I had to get an attorney, clergy member and others to vouch for my character. I even had to fight to get divorce decrees for my mom, who at the time had already been married multiple times. The paperwork was never ending, and I constantly had to "prove" who I was or who I was not.

Now, getting into college was one thing, but being prepared for college was an entirely different being. I was an "A" student and I always used school as a tool to create a better life for myself, however, the transition from high school to college was difficult. I didn’t even understand the basic fundamentals of how to write a paper largely due to the huge gaps in my education. Schools in Florida just are not funded, it's a state focused on seniors, the retirees. Private schools are great but the public schools are not. Schools simply are not a priority. So that transition to college academics took quite a bit of adjusting. But I did adjust.

I worked in restaurants while studying at GWU. I worked my way up at Four Seasons and Farmers Fishers and Bakers and then managed at Kimpton Hotel Group where I had a lot of great years. After working in local hotels and restaurants, I knew I wanted to start my own company and I also knew I wanted that company to be a catalyst for the female economy. It was during this time that I spoke with women trying to get their items in stores and often times, I saw them selling themselves short. I've dealt with being held back in previous jobs because of being a woman and believed there was a way to make money, help people and not mistreat people in order to advance. I am a strong advocate for this and I believe in companies that are willing to go in to disrupt this type of business culture.

You know, there is so much bled out of us as women. We work through pregnancies, get paid less, and are looked over for advancement and raises. Then some kind of way when we decide to take that leap and start our own, a rule that isn’t a rule somehow makes us undersell our value and it holds us back from our goals. There is no reason for it. I co-founded Golden Pineapple with these core values at the forefront. Golden Pineapple is a female positive lifestyle brand. I wanted women's images to be portrayed in a positive way. Cut the over hyper-sexualization of women. Cut that! So at it's heart, Golden Pineapple focuses on the intersection of herbalism, art, meditation, and philanthropy to create mindful products, events, and connections.

The business model has evolved, but it stays true in advocating for that female positive lifestyle. The focus on herbalism and cannabis, combined with fermented drinks such as kombucha, hemp seed teas, edibles and eating positive is inherent in the purpose of this company. Let's face it, we are now seeing the effects of not feeding our bodies correctly. I have an iron stomach, I grew up eating powdered milk and powdered eggs and probably drank Dr. Pepper daily. I always felt my body was ok. But the research is clear. We need to take better care of our bodies, and I am a believer that through the use of foods, herbs, edibles, drinks such as kombucha, hemp seed teas and cannabis, we can take better care of our bodies...naturally.

When you look in the mirror, what do you think of the woman staring back at you?

I think she is still a work in progress. I am learning to see the positives before the flaws, physical and character wise. But I also see a lot of beauty. It's been a long journey. I like her! I'm still figuring her out.


Where are you and your mom right now?

The last time I spoke with her was about five years ago. I thought moving to DC would help our relationship, by giving us some distance. She's still in Florida and has two more kids and married to a new husband. I had to leave because there was too much abuse. My mother can be the warmest person or the coldest person you've ever met. But when I would talk to my mom it would take every bit of positivity out of me. I just could not let that happen. Hopefully one day I will be able to reach out to her. But there is so much that I need to work through. I make progress, then I speak with her and I take 10 steps back. I go back to feeling like a kid and opening that door takes me back to that world of chaos. Maybe one day, but I don't see it in this lifetime.


It was an unusually warm evening in Washington, DC when I met Pastry Chef Jennifer Costa over drinks at the Sonoma Restaurant and Bar on Capitol Hill. I found Jen, as I began to call her, sitting right in front of the large floor to ceiling glass windows looking out on Pennsylvania Ave, SE. As we began talking I noticed a tattoo on the inside of her wrist. I asked her about it and she told me it was a California poppy. I wouldn’t fully understand what this tattoo meant to her until after our interview.

My first encounter with Jen was at a local favorite kitchenware store, Hill’s Kitchen. What was the cause of our interaction? Well, what else but the various uses and practicality of copper pots. I was eyeing the now discontinued Mauviel copper cast iron collection and I was throwing question after question out to Leah Daniels, Hill’s Kitchen owner, about copper. It just so happened that Jen was standing right there and since most of my questions were pastry/candy based, Leah said, “Why don’t you ask Jen…she’s a pastry chef!” And that was our introduction.

I found Jen to be quietly intense (if there is such a thing), and even though our conversation lasted for only 10 minutes, I quickly gathered that her love, and probably first love was food and that is what led us on the path to Sonoma on that mild February evening.

Jen, tell me, how has food played a role in the woman you’ve become?

My brain is that of an artist. It’s hard for me to do something in a straight line. Food was that connection where I could be outside of the box. -- Chef Jen Costa

I grew up in wine country, Healdsburg, CA and I knew from a young age that I loved food.

I became a vegetarian when I was 10. I guess there was just something about seeing Charlotte’s Web and Bambi that forever altered my view of eating animals. My mom, thinking more along the lines of having to prepare an additional meal and essentially how this would affect her, told me if I could learn to prepare my meals without disrupting the families dinner that I had her blessing. And so I started preparing my meals and learning my way around the kitchen.

My mom worked for a winery and I figured if I worked for her, I could earn some money on my own and do whatever 14 year old kids do with their money. The winery had a large banquet kitchen and I worked setting up the banquet hall, by pulling out chairs and setting up the tables...just odds and ends. It was the worst! More and more I found myself hanging around the banquet kitchen. I would ask, “Can I slice the cheese?” “Can I prepare the fruit display?” I was enamored with the kitchen and quickly forgot about the table and chair setup; the job for which I was actually hired to perform. Over time, my love for food continued to develop in this amazing way while my friendships with the kids at school began to take a dive.

When I was in elementary school I was around most of my friends but then I moved to middle school where I was truly alone. The girls didn’t want to hang out with me and the boys didn’t like me because I was the heavy girl. I was constantly teased about my weight, holding it in and never really telling my parents. So the kitchen became my refuge and food was that connection where I could be outside of the box.

By the time I was in the 9th grade I knew my path. I knew what I wanted to be and I told my parents I was going to become a chef. I graduated from high school, moved across the country to Rhode Island and attended Johnson & Wales University.

Johnson & Wales provided that safe place for me, that sanctuary. I was with people who loved food just like I did and who wanted that chef life. Although I loved school, the demons of my earlier childhood still haunted me. Some things you just can’t run from, and eventually in time, you will have to face them.

I think there is a direct correlation between being a pastry chef and the size that you are, so that has always been in the forefront of my mind. I was always concerned about my size and what people thought of me. While in school, I exercised to the point of exhaustion and the end result was a battle with bulimia that would force me to reach out for help through an outpatient treatment program. But it’s a funny thing, that even with all of these challenges, I still knew I was on the right path.

After college I interned for seven months at the Waterside Inn in Bray, England, Michel Roux’s three-star Michelin restaurant that sat on the banks of the River Thames. My mom’s work ethic and drive for perfection played a major role in me going after this internship. She is the type of woman that won’t get out of bed to do things half-assed. So when I went for my internship, I went for the best that I could get. It was truly the hardest job of my life, but it was also the most rewarding job of my life. I often worked from 7am until midnight. I mean, it was as if my brain was just in that zone for hours and hours. Everything had to be done to a level of perfection that I hadn’t seen before. This opportunity stirred up my interest to work at that Michelin star level.

Seven months later, I found myself back in my hometown and the food scene was quite literally bursting. I was broke and I needed a paying job so I went to Cyrus, knocked on the back door and introduced myself to the head pastry chef, Annie Clemmons. “Hi, my name is Jen Costa, this is my town, I grew up here and I need a job.” Annie told me she would find a place for me and she did. I worked at Cyrus, under Douglas Keane, a man who could walk into a room of chaos and immediately evoke a sense of calm. Sometimes, through the course of a busy day, I would see Doug and it would put everything back into perspective.

I moved to Las Vegas for a while where I saw what chefs could do when there was no limit on costs, where you could use gold leaf on everything. I worked under Pastry Chef Uyen Nguyen at Guy Savoy, where my desire to show people how wonderful food was, was continually fueled. Before winding up on the east coast, I met my future husband and moved to San Diego where we were married. I know it sounds so cliche, but I was invigorated to be in San Diego because I wanted to get my hands back in the dirt and get to the root of it all: farm to table. While working for Jeff Jackson at the Lodge at Torrey Pines, who is truly the “Alice Waters” of Southern California. I fell in love with family style meals because within a party you may not know each other prior to your meal, but the food that is shared during the meal creates dialogue and it is through these dialogues that bonds are formed, even if for a short period of time. The truly amazing thing about being his pastry chef was that I built all of my menus around the farms and what came directly from the farm that day! There was no advanced planning, I had to put the menu together after the food arrived.

Although, my husband and I later divorced, the fondest memories that I have are our “Sunday dates” to the Hillcrest Farmer’s market. Since I was off on Sundays we would go to the market, and plan the night’s dinner as we picked out food. If we didn’t know a specific fruit or vegetable, oh well, we would buy it anyway. He was an emergency room nurse and knew nothing about cooking, but when we got home I found myself loving the space of teaching him about food and how to cook food. I began to realize how strong my desire was to teach and my ability to show people the wonders of food.

I always envisioned myself being on television and teaching people. I wanted to work for the best restaurants and I wanted to teach people about desserts. It has always bothered me when a look of shock comes across people’s faces when they find out that I am a pastry chef. “You’re so thin to be a pastry chef!” they would say. As if to say, being a pastry chef equates to being large and large equates to being unhealthy. And because of this, many people look at dessert as something bad. I want them to know that food is not the enemy. It’s what fuels us. It’s just that sometimes we choose not to eat right. I really get upset when people say they can’t have dessert because they are on a diet. I mean, that is terrible! I’m using the best ingredients. I’m not using a bunch of artificial junk and I’m not going to over serve you. I’m going to give you a perfect portion of wonderful bites that you should want to enjoy. I think people forget that or don’t know that there is a right balance. It took me some time to figure that out, that right balance, but that is what I want people to see.

When I think about my life and what I want, my mind goes back to an audition that I had a few years ago. I auditioned for Top Chef and they asked a question that I still think about to this day. The question was, “Chefs have big egos, do you?” My reply was I’m confident but that is not a metaphor for a big ego. I still believe this. I believe that I can have it all, and that’s what I want! While I might be getting older, I make it clear to my boyfriend that I want my first baby to be my restaurant. And that what’s most important to me in life is having something to call my own.  I mean, I grew up watching my mom! My mom worked hard, took care of four kids and put my dad through college so he could become a teacher. Now, without a college degree of her own, she is running a huge company because she worked her ass off! She also successfully raised kids that aren’t too fucked up! She was my role model and it's because of her that I know that as women we can go after our goals.

Do I like the woman I see when I look in the mirror? I think she is a beautiful work in progress. I try my hardest to be better than I was the day before. I have worked all over the United States and abroad and I’ve come full circle. I know what I want and that’s the goal right now. To focus on a farm to table project and bring people together with a shared loved of food. I started Poppy’s Pop Up with my best friend, (named after my grandfather who was affectionately called Poppy) in Washington, DC with the California culinary style that I came to love in San Diego.  As a chef, my job is to teach and share passion and Poppy’s Pop Up is the start of that for me, with the hope that one day it can grow to a brick and mortar in California.


My life interjected with Chu Chu Kibour in the summer of 2013. We were in a class together, a class whose sole purpose was for us to learn to live the lives we wanted to live. To cast our stories about ourselves and all of our preconceived notions to the side and to truly live the lives we believe we were meant to live.

The teacher split the class of about 45 into groups, and these were the people we were ‘assigned’ to for the duration of the class. I was placed in a group with 5 people, including Chu Chu. Initially, I was intrigued by her. A seemingly self-assured woman with a warm, beautiful smile and naturally curly and autumn colored hair. After brief introductions, I learned that she was not only a business owner, she previously owned a restaurant, and now a salon; but she was a painter and quite often displayed her pieces in local art exhibitions.

Why was Chu Chu here? I mean, I get why I was here given my constant issues dealing with self-worth, depression, confidence and finding my place in life. But Chu Chu seemed, to me, so powerful and assured in her style and her walk. But my quick, brief assumption of her life was not her story. The beginning of Chu Chus’ story would take me on a journey oceans away to the city of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. 

Chu Chu, how has food played a role in the woman you have become?

“Food played a major role because it wasn’t given freely.” --Chu Chu Kibour

--My mother left me when I was two years old. She left me and my sister, Elizabeth, in the care of my father and his wife. My father loved me, this I knew. But my stepmother had no maternal instincts, no warmth. She didn’t fit the comforting, nurturing image that many of us may have of our mother’s. But nevertheless, she loved me the best she could.

School left the same voided feeling as well. Growing up and going to school was a struggle, partly because I didn’t feel loved. I’ve always been an artistic person. And school was hard... I remember feeling different because it was hard for me to focus and I learned different and saw things differently. Now, there are names for it, but in Africa, a child would not be labeled as having attention deficit disorder (ADD); there you were just labeled a dummy.

I didn’t feel loved at home and I felt out of place at school. I began to rebel because I wasn’t getting the love or attention that I needed as a child. I guess my way of rebelling was stealing food. I didn’t steal out of hunger or necessity. But my step mother controlled everything and food was monitored, so I stole because I was able to give freely to myself something that was not given freely to me.

In Addis we had a cook and whenever she prepared dinner she would place the food in the oven to stay warm. When I came home I could not find the injera bread, but I did find what she prepared for dinner: curry potato and cabbage with meat sauce. I ate all of the meat sauce, a portion of food for the entire family. I simply ate it all. I didn’t care that she made it for dinner. I didn’t care that it was enough for the entire family. I didn’t care that she had to cook it all over again.  I needed comfort. I needed love. But even with all the aggravation I caused her, she never told my parents. Maybe she knew or understood what I was going through, to this day I don’t know. But I do know she cared for me and she always had my back. For those things, I will always be grateful.

I still relish in the smell and I remember it as if I could walk five steps and be right back in my childhood kitchen. I was just so delighted in the fact that I could have control over what I was given and what I could have. This is how it felt to have arms wrapped around me! The embrace of a mother. All of these feelings that I had not yet had the privilege to experience. I realized through food that this is what love is.

My rebellious ways did not let up and by the time I was nine, my father decided it would help if I went to live with my mom. I was elated to be with my mom after all these years of going through life without her but I also wanted to know why she left me and my sister.

My mom lived in a district of Addis Ababa called Gulele. Now staying with her was a stark change to the life I had with my dad and stepmom. I now lived in a place where I wasn’t only loved but where food was an extension of that love. You see my mom owned a restaurant and food was always around or being prepared. But most important, it wasn't monitored.

At the beginning I was trying to figure everybody out. It was a lot to get used to because in regaining my mother, I regained an entire family of people whom I did not know. But immediately I knew that my newly found family based their entire day around food. Food was every where and for some reason, even at that young age it brought joy to my soul!

I spoke with my mother about leaving me and my sister with my father, and I began to understand why she left. She had us by the time she was 17 years old. That is my daughter’s age now and I couldn't imagine her having two children at this age. My relationship with my mother was something different to me. But we had a nice relationship. She carried me for nine months, she’s my mom and I knew she loved me.  

Food was a true blanket of love and that love constantly showered me with abecha dabo, dorowat, cake, and the most beautiful golden spiced butter. In the years that I stayed with my mom I learned how to cook many different kinds of foods, but primarily Ethiopian and Italian. Even as an adult when I had my restaurant in Northern Virginia,  my mother was the one who prepared most of the Ethiopian food including vegetarian red lentils, yellow chickpeas with curry, azifa, and french lentils prepared with wasabi sauce.

After staying in Gulele for about two years, I then moved back with my father as his job transferred him to Zambia. I stayed in Zambia another four years or so, before moving with a Mennonite family who sponsored me to New Holland, Pennsylvania, the heart of Amish country. I was 15 years old and once again in a new and unfamiliar place.

Now, for the second time in my life, I gained a family whom I did not know. But this time, this family was thousands of miles away from my home, they spoke a different language, ate different foods and had customs and ways that I did not understand.

New Holland was predominantly a Mennonite and Amish culture and farming was big in New Holland. It is quite expected that after leaving Addis Ababa for Zambia and now New Holland, that every aspect of my life changed. But it was quite unexpected that I would, once again, find that same blanket of love in food thousands of miles away. I mean, I was surrounded by dairy farms so my new found loves became buttery foods, sweets, freshly made cheese, pies and ice creams.

My transition to New Holland was not an easy one. I dealt with issues of racism and ignorance and everything in between. But I survived. I married my love, became a mom and an entrepreneur and I've continued to develop myself as an artist. It is a life that has taken many turns, some expected, many unexpected, but it is my life.

Even now, when I cook at home, I have a habit of cooking more than my family will ever eat. It's funny, the parts of your childhood that you carry with you into adulthood. Maybe I cook too much because I don't want my children to experience that feeling of control that I experienced with my step mother. Or maybe it's just my way of loving them, just as food loved me when I first stole the family's dinner so long ago.

Chu Chu, when you look in the mirror, how do you feel about the woman staring back at you?

When I look at myself, I now see a smart confident woman, a good mother, wife, friend and sister who finally figured out that forgiveness and love for all is the key to everything. I keep my life simple. But I still cook a lot of food!