Leah Lizarondo is enjoying an iced coffee at Lawrenceville's Espresso a Mano, the loft-style, rustic coffee shop where your dog can nap underfoot and artwork by tattoo artists Jason and Cara Lambert lines the brick walls. It serves as Leah’s “office away from home.”
A colorful silk headscarf wraps around her head, tucking back her dark hair. There’s a tattoo—that roughly translates into her older kids’ names in Philippine—swirling around her left shoulder. At five-foot-nothing, with a calm walk that’s more like glide, Leah takes time to stop and talk to several patrons in the coffee shop. They may or may not know that she happens to be one of Pittsburgh’s busiest writers and most fervent food activists. And her journey to the kitchen was anything but expected.
“By all accounts, I’m a business person,” the former tech marketer and venture capitalist says of her New York City background. “I was good at it and liked it, but it was getting stressful. It was getting unhealthy.”
Leah was just in her twenties, but already “popping pills for some autoimmune disease doctors couldn’t diagnose.” She attributes what thought might have been fibromyalgia to the work-first lifestyle of New York.
While living in Brooklyn, she heard about people curing themselves by changing their eating habits. Since she was a young girl in the Philippines, Leah had an indiscriminate palate. “My father would bring us everywhere and we’d eat everything.” And like most people, she was a big meat eater—“breakfast, lunch and dinner, I had meat.” She thinks it began to catch up with her.
She and her husband, Bill Shannon, a skateboard phenom and artist (see Pop City article on him here)
returned to Pittsburgh just when she was having her second child.
Now the mother of three, Leah has been at the forefront of the food revolution in Pittsburgh. She chronicles her work every step of the way at the heavily trafficked Brazenkitchen.com
, a food blog she started with a simple question: Why can’t healthy food taste great?
“Everything was either grilled vegetables or hummus,” Leah says of her early struggles with diet transformation. “[Brazen Kitchen] is about food—good food, that’s good for you—with no qualifications.” She doesn’t like labeling her recipes as vegan, vegetarian or any other “an.” Although, she adds, vegetables are indeed the healthiest source of caloric intake. Mom was right after all.
Leah says she’s weary to categorize her cooking because “good food is good food.” Her dishes like mashed potato quinoa puffs with sriracha mayo
or the cereal milk panna cotta with caramelized cornflakes and strawberry puree
do all the talking. She says her health dishes are inspired by that same kind of sexy appeal that makes a bacon cheeseburger irresistible to so many. The self-proclaimed omnivore describes her food as “shamelessly good for you.”
And she’s finding that there are plenty of shameless readers out there, as the blog has gained a huge local and national audience. She sees the attention as “validation, affirmation, and encouragement” for what she’s trying to do.
Here's more validation: Brazen Kitchen was one of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating’s Top 50 Vegetarian Blogs of 2012 and it was a finalist for 2013 National City and Regional Magazine Awards. Her writing’s also been featured on Oprah.com, NPR, MSN and Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Recognition, whether it be from a friend or a national publication, “lets me know I’m not talking to a wall," she says.
Following in the mold of kitchen legends like Jamie Oliver and Mark Bittman, Leah says food advocacy is really the backbone of everything she does here in Pittsburgh. BrazenKitchen’s tag line? “Food Porn. Food Policy. All in One.”
Good food writers like the New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, “reel you in with their recipes and then give you a side of awareness.”
“You vote with your fork three times a day,” Leah says of the democratic process of eating. “You should care about what you eat and you should care about where your food comes from.”
She tries to weave bigger messages about food policy, sustainability and healthy eating for everyone—not just those who can afford to go to Whole Foods.
“Food deserts are urban areas, mostly lower socioeconomic spots, where there is no access to healthy food and they only have places like 7-11 to buy groceries,” Leah says with no small degree of frustration. Resources like urban farms, like the one her husband have in their backyard—literally, they own an urban farm in their backyard— keep food local and seasonal, helping alleviate some issues associated with hunger and accessibility.
On top of being an original trustee for Awesome Pittsburgh, Leah is also a Pittsburgh ambassador for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Her main role with Oliver’s foundation is chronicling all the food initiatives happening here in Pittsburgh, one of which is a cooking class at Obama High School in East Liberty. When she saw chefs from around the city coming to teach kids how to cook with an ear to responsibility and sustainability, Leah knew she wanted to contribute.
“Unlike most of the other food initiatives, the program has no corporate funding,” she says of the shoestring budget the cooking class has to stretch. Recently, Leah held a fundraiser at Bar Marco’s “No Menu Monday” in the Strip District, where she was the cook of honor. “It was amazing, and the response was great,” she says of the black-eyed pea fritters that served as the meal of the night. "Righteous junk food,” as she calls it.
Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Leah has cultivated a sense of food awareness, giving new appreciation to the tired idea of “authentic cuisine.” Some of her favorite spots to chow down: Eden
in Shadyside (“very artistic and detail-oriented”), Quiet Storm
in the East End (“your down-and-dirty vegetarian food”), and Fukuda
in Bloomfield (“a tiny place that reminds me of Brooklyn; the food is very personal to them”).
It's the personal connection to the food you eat that is important to her. “Everyone should be aware of the food they are eating in a macro and a micro sense. There’s sustainability issues, environmental issues and also personal issues with eating things like processed meat.”
On the ground level, she teaches cooking classes and, for a very select few, has a health counseling practice. “I like working with individuals who have heart disease, Type II diabetes, and other ‘lifestyle diseases’ that are ready to take charge of their health,” she says.
“I believe that food, health, sustainability are all connected. A triangle can't exist without one of the points. The BrazenKitchen blog features food as a gateway to the other two points,” Leah says. “And people don't want to hear preaching.”
The last thing she wants to be is the friend at dinner with their nose in the air who asks the waitress if all the fruit is organic and locally grown. She’s far too down-to-earth to nag, but Leah—an abiding lover of food—certainly wants people to question what’s at the end of their fork.
“I want to make the message—and the food—palatable.”
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen