The Way We Eat: Kathleen Johnson, Artist and Native Gardener in Los Angeles
Name: Kathleen Johnson
Location: Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, California
How many people regularly eat together in your home? Kathleen; her husband, Andy; and their 10-year-old son, Morris.
Avoidances: Kathleen rarely eats meat.
Kathleen Johnson is an artist and the executive director of Garden School Foundation, a “seed-to-table” education program that teaches children in under-resourced communities to grow, tend, and harvest good-for-you food. She lives in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles with her husband and 10-year-old son. We got to talk to Kathleen about her passion for gardening, the one thing she misses eating for dinner now that she’s a mom, and why she thinks dinner is “a drag” sometimes.
The work that the Garden School Foundation does sounds incredible. Can you tell me a little more about the program?
The organization has been around for 12 years or so, and we do garden-based education programs in traditionally under-resourced schools and communities. The kids come into the garden and alternate between hands-on work and nutritional cooking. They learn to propagate, plant, tend, harvest, and cook from their own ingredients.
That sounds wonderful.
We aim to connect children to where their foods come from and introduce them to whole foods and ingredients. We want to train the next generation of environmental stewards, promote community health, elevate tastebuds, and introduce a love and familiarity for new ingredients. That can follow a child for a lifetime.
You have a pretty epic personal garden too, right?
Yes, but it’s less of an edible garden! My personal passion is plants that are native to California, so that’s what our garden is exclusively made up of. California is losing more and more of its native wild lands, so planting them in your own garden can create a huge habitat in your yard and support the local ecology.
- Biggest challenge in eating? Time! There’s never enough.
- Percentage of meals you cook at home every week? I’d say about 75%.
- 5 things on your grocery list every week? They’re pretty basic! Milk, eggs, yogurt, almond flour (for pancakes), and corn tortillas.
- Where do you shop, primarily? Farmers market, Whole Foods 365, and specialty markets.
- What’s the last food thing you splurged on? Probably T-bone steaks from McCall’s, which is this amazing local butcher. I didn’t eat them!
- Top 3 default dinners? We eat a lot of really basic food. Quinoa or brown rice with kale is a big one. We use our rice cooker a lot. We eat salmon. And we eat a lot of eggs — everybody seems to like eggs. My son loves poached eggs, fried eggs — even quail eggs.
- Default kid snack? He’s always eaten everything, except raw tomatoes. Right now he really loves seaweed snacks.
- Best tip anyone ever taught you in cooking? Gosh, I learned to cook from my dad who was less a recipe cook and more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants cook.
- Cookbook you actually cook out of? My husband is really the cookbook cook. He loves them and has quite a collection. He is the more formal cook. I’m more of the informal. We love Jerusalem by Ottolenghi and I rely on Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
- Who does the dishes in your home? We both do.
What does a week of cooking look like for you?
I work largely from home because Garden School Foundation doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar space. Mid-morning I start with breakfast, which is usually a smoothie with a lot of stuff that I need in it like greens and protein powder, which is probably important to me. Sometimes I’ll eat lunch here too. I love quesadillas.
What do you like in your quesadillas?
Our friend Alan invented a special quesadilla that we eat all the time. It’s just a corn tortilla with cheddar cheese but you melt the cheese and then flip it over in a nonstick and make the cheese one giant crisp. Then you put greens or lemon on it. Our son has nicknamed it the “Alan Open Faced.”
Brilliant. What does dinner usually look like?
After the work day, I pick up the kid and then think about what we’re doing from there. We have a market really, really close by and always have staples we need at home. To be honest, we don’t buy a lot of food ahead of time or plan our dinners for the week. We should, though — that would help.
Dinner can be a real drag. Even though we love to cook and love making our own food, there’s just the daily grind of work and not a lot of time. Most days, it’s already 6 p.m. and I haven’t thought about what to eat, much less gather ingredients. I’m like Okay, we already have rice made, now let’s pick up fish. And that’s how it comes together. Somedays I just long for popcorn and white wine.
Ha! Yes. So many people can relate.
We cook pretty spartan during the week. That’s just the way we eat. It’s a rotation of quinoa, kale, and chicken thighs marinated with whatever’s around and we just throw it all in the oven. Thighs are great because I can’t overcook them. We also always have salad with oil and vinegar, salt, pepper, shallots, and parsley. Then some sort of sautéed greens with garlic and olive oil.
We also make a lot of lentil and bean soup. We always have Rancho Gordo Beans, which come out so creamy, delicious, and perfect. I love to make a basic soup like that and dress it up with garlic yogurt or crunchy croutons.
We cook more elaborately on the weekends for friends.
What was the last thing you made while entertaining?
There’s this New York Times harissa chicken recipe with arugula and leeks that I made recently that turned out well. Also, there’s this Marcella Hazan almond cake recipe that’s super simple and brings me joy every time I make it. It’s not too sweet and is just delicious with berries or whipped cream. It’s also amazing as a tea cake, or with coffee. It makes me happy.
The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. How do you overcome challenges to feed yourself? If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.