This Memorial Day, we are revisiting one of our most popular FACES of the South from 2020: Laura Lea Bryant. Since this interview, her new cookbook, Simply Laura Lea, has been published and you can check it out here.
Laura Lea Bryant and her company LL Balanced are becoming household names throughout the South. This holistic chef, author and all-things-wellness tastemaker moved to Nashville when she was 12. Food was an integral part of her childhood — she just didn’t realize the implications at the time. After a stint of ignoring her mental and physical wellbeing, she returned to the healing power of food. Now, her cookbooks have landed in kitchens around the world, and her avid Instagram followers peek into her life and culinary workspace every day. We sat down with the arrestingly beautifully — inside and out — Laura Lea Bryant to hear about her journey to this unique career, where she goes to recharge and some health misconceptions she aims to clear up one recipe, cooking class, and Instagram story at a time.
Describe your life trajectory to becoming a holistic chef.
My mom is an amazing cook — a better cook than I will ever be. Three hundred sixty-five days a year, we had these delicious made-from-scratch dinners every night with great conversation around the dinner table. I don’t think I realized how rare that was at the time, but I sort of put it in the back of my mind, and it was subconsciously percolating.
So then fast forward, I studied English at the University of Virginia and moved to New York City after graduation. I told myself, “I’ll be a paralegal, I’ll apply to law school, and then I’ll go to law school somewhere in the city. And I’m set.” Three weeks in the city working at this firm and I was utterly miserable. I knew it wasn’t the right fit, but I didn’t want to come home with my tail between my legs. I ended up spending the next four years in New York hating my job — hating my life in a lot of ways — and I grew incredibly anxious.
What finally woke you up?
I got sick physically and became a total control freak when it came to food and my body. I was partying all the time because that was my escape. It took four years of doing that before I realized I had hit a kind of rock bottom. I had this little North Face backpack I would fill with snacks and water, and I would spend entire days wandering the city, going to bookstores and farmers’ markets, picking out recipes. I started cooking for myself, going out less, trying new food — just doing my thing.
After about six months, I noticed that the anxiety that had ruled my life was getting a lot better. I fell in love with this idea that mental health can be affected by food. People were still really focused on the aesthetic part at that time. One day I Googled healthy cooking schools and found a nationally accredited chef’s training program in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. So in the span of a few weeks, I quit my job and enrolled in culinary school. It was a grind, but it was the best year yet. I moved back to Nashville in 2013 to start my business.
When you’re developing new recipes, where does your inspiration come from? Do you make them up? Fan requests? Your own twist on existing dishes?
It really is all of the above, and I don’t always know where the inspiration comes from. A lot of times, I recognize a dish I love that I don’t have a healthier version for. I play around a lot with family recipes, and I love getting requests from people. I keep a running list, and if I hear something a couple of times, I’ll make that a priority. And then another huge thing I ask myself as I develop recipes: “Is this stuff I already have in my pantry and refrigerator?” I want people to get the most out of my recipes. If we’ve made something one week, what can be made from what we have left over? It’s sort of this ongoing process.
What’s a common food misconception that bugs you?
I would say the overarching theme that concerns me is this idea of one size fits all. Sometimes I feel like I can sound either patronizing or dismissive when I answer questions like “Can I do this, or should I do this?” or “What’s right, this or this?”. But the reality is I just don’t know. I can’t possibly tell you what’s right for you. There are countless factors that affect nutrition: age, stress level, exercise, DNA, environment, immune system. I mean, it goes on and on. That’s why I think cooking at home is so important because you can control it. I would say the biggest overall misconception is that anyone’s going to have the answer for you besides yourself. And then within that, we often throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t think all dairy is bad for you — there can be some real health benefits in high-quality dairy and moderation. Another one is healthy fat. I mean, fat is incredible for you, especially for women. We have to be eating fat on a regular basis.
You have a new cookbook coming out on April 1. What can we expect from this one?
I really didn’t aim to reinvent the wheel with this book. I wanted to give my community more of what they like, which is just family-friendly, health-inspired comfort food. So it’s not a thematic book, but within the 125 recipes (all of which are different from the first book) there are some small themes that I chose specifically based off feedback — Keto-friendly recipes (lower carb, higher fat) and sugar-free alternatives (ditching sugar for Stevia and monk fruit). And for all the people with Instant Pots sitting in their boxes from Christmas, there are a lot of Instant Pot and crockpot recipes!
You have such a strong and engaging online presence. What are some joys and perhaps some struggles of maintaining that on top of everything else you do?
I really like this question, and I’m not sure I’ve gotten it before. I love interacting through my stories because food is static and a feed is static. I often feel a little disconnected without a lot of opportunities to interact with people one-on-one. It’s really fun, and it’s a great way for me to share content that doesn’t fit anywhere else. The hard part is that as my business grows, I have so many obligations to share on my stories that by the time I have shared everything, I often don’t have the capacity to share things I want, like my cooking. I also get a lot of requests to share other people’s stuff. I’m having a really hard time figuring out what to say “no” to and how to say “no.”
What’s something that people might be surprised to learn about you?
I’m super awkward and clumsy and really dorky. And I’m pretty introverted. I love people, but I recharge alone. I think a lot of people know I’m a crazy cat lady, and I think people would also probably be surprised by the amount that I indulge in things that aren’t healthy.
Where do you go in Nashville when you want somebody else to cook for you?
lou is my favorite new restaurant that’s opened in a really long time. I love what they’re doing. It’s actually different and really well-executed. I feel like I’m in the West Village of New York City. And then for something a little bit lighter, Cafe Roze.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and from whom?
I don’t remember where I heard this, but something that circulates a lot in my head is, “Do it anyway.” I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Benton’s podcast Primal Potential for a long time, and she gets a lot of questions about motivation. We have this idea that you first find motivation and then you do the thing. I think that’s an excuse for inaction and it’s actually the opposite. Sometimes you just have to do things regardless of whether or not you have the motivation. And then you create momentum.
What do you do on your days off or to recharge?
I don’t really have days off, but I like that for the most part. When I do have free time, hiking is probably a favorite thing. I go to Radnor a couple of times a week, and I indoor climb at Climb Nashville. I also love to draw. Oh, and Asheville, North Carolina! I go there about four times a year by myself and it’s like my home away from home. I’m obsessed with it.
Any other pieces of advice to leave us with?
Going into this year, I really want people — and especially women — to know that how you’re eating is just as important as what. If you sit down to an unhealthy meal, there are two different ways to experience it. Your body is actually going to respond worse if you have a bad mindset. There are meals that are nourishing in other ways. I’ve been the least “healthy” the last year and a half of my life since I got into health food seven or eight years ago, yet I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been.
Besides faith, family and friends, what are three things you couldn’t live without?
Chocolate, peanut butter and being outside
Thank you, Laura Lea, for chatting with us. Contact Laura Lea through this page on her website, and keep an eye out for Simply Laura Lea, her new cookbook, out now. Thank you to Leila Grossman for the fabulous photos.
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