There is a secret that all great chefs know, and it’s that delicious food eaten in the company of others can have a transformational impact. This is true because humans are able to extract so many different kinds of pleasure from food: simple, nostalgic, complex, symbolic, luxurious, all of which can open doors to a state of euphoria. The pleasure we experience from food is often about more than just the taste, it’s also the connection with others and the shifting of perspectives. We can leave a meal changed, suddenly awake to the potential of other pleasures and possibilities out there waiting for us! For Olaiya Land, editor of Lionesse, the relationship between food and pleasure has become something of growing importance in her life.
“One thing that’s been very freeing for me is to lean into pleasure. In America we have this undercurrent of puritanical values and even just the word “pleasure” can feel a little bit naughty. One thing that’s really changed my life recently is trying to make sure that I have pleasure in my day, every day,” Olaiya shared in a recent interview. “It can be as simple as the pleasure of a perfectly ripe summer peach--and Washington peaches are amazing! I wait all year to buy them at the farmers market and I’m obsessive about waiting for them to hit peak ripeness. Do not put your peaches in the fridge! Put them on your counter until they fill your whole kitchen with their amazing, floral scent. That’s it’s own pleasure right there. Then make sure you really savor it as you eat it. So simple. But actually kind of hard to do in the age social media and attention drain.”
Olaiya’s background is diverse and impressive. Once a PhD candidate of French History in Brussels, an accomplished chef working in the best kitchens in Seattle, a successful serial entrepreneur as a co-founder of the wildly popular community kitchen The Pantry and founder of the food blog Milly’s Kitchen, Olaiya feels that at this stage in her life she knows more about what drives her and what her purpose is.
“It’s been clear to me that all the things I’ve done or been drawn to in whatever form have been about connecting people” she says “With the last four years of our crazy political situation, the Me Too movement and now the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve seen how disconnected we are as a society and felt the need to help women to come together and support each other.”
Fueled by these recent events, she started a new online journal and community called Lionesse. The business is underpinned by sisterhood and women helping other women to live big and be empowered, and feeling more freedom with food. “I want to create experiences for women to come together for adventure, travel, amazing food, delicious wine but also personal growth and sisterhood,” Olaiya says.
Part of the growth she hopes to help inspire is on how to lean into pleasure. It’s not an easy thing for women to do and admittedly took Olaiya many years before it was something she could positively embrace. “Women have been told to submit to restrictions and deprivation in so many areas of their lives that they are used to feeling restricted and indulging can feel wrong or shameful. Diet culture can really suck us in and so many of us are at war with our bodies. I personally dislike the term “clean eating” because it implies there is also dirty eating. I think that if every once in a while, you need to get nasty on a McDonalds cheeseburger, then that’s 100% okay You have to find the right balance for you,” she says.
Food does not make you dirty, food is not dirty. It’s true that being healthy helps us live our best lives, but we also need to think about food as something that makes us feel good without the guilt. I think the most important thing is that if we really listened to ourselves, when we were actually hungry, when we actually wanted fat and sugar, and gave in without restriction, we wouldn’t want that all the time. So many of us are in cycles of restriction and dissatisfaction with our bodies and our diets that those impulses become stronger. I think a healthy mindset - what I’m working towards personally - is to try to be more in-tune with what my body is telling me. Something that for decades I did not listen to and could not hear. Food is unique to our pleasures, so why let Instagram dictate what you should be cooking or eating when you really want what your grandma used to make? We need to listen to that inner voice of what pleasure and connection through food means to us.
While food clearly is essential to survival, it’s the pleasure involved that makes eating worthwhile. “Food for me has never been about the technical mastery, even though of course you have to master it to work in a professional kitchen, but some chefs use technique as a form of personal expression but it was never that for me. Food was always about bringing people together and now it’s also about the pursuit of pleasure”, Olaiya says.
While women have been coerced to reject the pursuit of pleasure in its many forms, our social, emotional, and physical well-being are greatly enhanced when we respect our personal wants and needs. Food cannot be removed from pleasure. Anyone who’s ever had a slice of chocolate cake or a summer strawberry knows this.
"When we would do communal dinners at The Pantry, or when I host a big dinner in my backyard, there’s this moment towards the end of the meal when people have had a little bit of wine and they’ve loosened up a bit from when they came in all nervous and uptight. People are talking to their neighbors, they’re laughing, they’re loose, they’re easy, they’ve had a great meal, and that moment is so magical. I love to sit back and watch that. That to me is always the goal of what I’m trying to create. Food for me has always been about creating this moment of pleasure and this kinship with others.”
If you’d like to be notified of when Olaiya will be organizing another women’s retreat through Lionesse, sign-up here! (and see you there!)
Olaiya’s Recipe for a Successful Dinner Party
“I’ve always been someone who loves to host gatherings, but my approach to them has changed a lot over the last 20 years."
Create a menu that is simple so you can be with your guests. A mistake I used to make a lot when I was younger was executing an elaborate and involved meal with sexy food, which is great and exciting, but you can’t talk to anybody! You’re in the kitchen the whole time. You can totally create a menu that’s impressive, interesting, and exciting and have it be simple. Prep things in advance or just let them be simple in nature. We are very lucky to have amazing produce all year around Seattle, and you can very easily create a meal dependent on beautiful produce.
Think about the seating arrangement. I always think about who will sit next to each other. If you know your guests, think a little about it. I’m not shy about connecting two people and saying you two should know each other. If you suspect that people might have something in common or would get along, you should sit them next to each other.
Wine! Or cocktails. It sounds funny but a little bit of alcohol can transform an evening, especially in Seattle. As someone who produced professional communal dinners for years, I can say with some authority Seattleites are pretty reserved. People are often nervous to talk to strangers and a little bit of booze definitely helps get the conversation flowing. At all my functions, whether its a meal for friends or a pop-up in a professional capacity, I have a 45 minute cocktail hour with drinks and small bites before we sit down to dinner. People are encouraged to stand and mingle which really helps things feel less stiff. Once you sit down you're a bit cemented to the people you’re sitting next to. So let people flow before and after dinner.