A Healthy Love Affair with Food: Daphne Cheng

I recall my sophomore year in high school. My gym and health teacher was an Iron Man participant that resembled the character of Sue Sylvester from Glee. One week, the boys were segregated from the girls and we discussed “girl” issues like eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia). Until then, I never really heard of eating disorders. I sort of remember in history class that in medieval times, knights would regurgitate food to continue eating out of gluttony. I did not realize women did it to be thin. The stories and the pictures of anorexic and bulimic girls scared me.

A few months ago, I attended my first 3WCircle Chat held at Suite ThreeOhSix. The food was catered by “chef/vegetable connoisseur” Daphne Cheng. Vegan cuisine is something I typically avoid. I grew up when “good for you” vegetarian food tasted dry as hay. I was in college when I had my first vegetarian chocolate chip cookie. I worked at a day care center and a parent brought them for snack time. I knew something was wrong when the whole tray of cookies were untouched by the kids or teachers. I took a bite of one – a rice cake had more flavor. Needless to say, the experience soured me on ever trying vegetarian cuisine and God forbid the more restrictive vegan cuisine. Thank goodness that with time, the cuisine evolved into something more palatable. At this event, not only did the food look appetizing, it smelled delicious. Moist, flavorful, and spicy. I tried everything and went back for seconds.

When the event was over, I sought out the chef. She was a svelte soft spoken young lady, but when she smiled she lit up the room. When I found out that she was from the Chicago area, she had my allegiance – vegan or not. I fawned over her cooking. Daphne is a chef, underground dinner host, food entrepreneur, and owner of Suite ThreeOhSix specializing in vegan cuisine. When I spoke at the December 3WCircle Chat, Chef Daphne’s all vegan cuisine amazed – truffled popcorn, Japanese yam+sticky rice+ yam leaf+spicy ponzu, mac and cheese balls with scallion pesto, calabaza squash crostini + cauliflower ricotta with basil and balsamic reduction, and the best dessert bosc pear muffins with candied coconut. I have always been a picky eater. Yet, I was eating like it was my granny’s dishes.

Ronda Lee and Chef Daphne Cheng 2013.

For me vegan is what I stereotype as the “yoga” of our generation. It seems more like a status symbol than a healthy eating alternative. When I lived in Los Angeles, everyone was always on a “diet” – like it’s the latest fashion trend. In NYC, everyone is always trying to be “centered” via yoga or vegetarian lifestyle, yet New Yorkers are the most stressed people I have encountered. Yoga studios line every block and people will still bull doze you to get on the subway or simply walk down the street. So much for being zen and “centered.” My friend lived in NYC before law school and commented, “Ronda, you’ve been in NYC two years. How is it possible that you have never been to yoga?” It seemed cliché and fad-like. Almost every woman on the subway or train has a yoga bag and mat. I am not a joiner. So when I met Daphne, my cynicism kicked in. Was Daphne’s focus on vegan cuisine just a ploy to jump on the bandwagon New Yorkers had for seeming health conscious and enlightened? I always said I was a skeptic.

Last month, I attended a 3WCircle Chat about food entrepreneurs and I was shocked to see Daphne as a panelist. I knew she was a chef and from Chicago, but I did not know the full story. It was then that I heard about the genesis of Suite ThreeOhSix and Daphne’s journey. I was dumbfounded, inspired, and immediately knew that I had to interview Daphne. She went from being an anorexic pre-teen to becoming a vegan chef. Buckle your seat belt. After the chat, I approached Daphne, “You being a chef is like a recovery alcoholic owning a liquor store. How did you do it?” She just smiled and said she would be happy to talk to me.

Ronda-isms (RL): You did not always have a healthy relationship with food. At 12, what made you think you were overweight? Did someone say something to you?

Daphne Cheng (DC): It started in 6th grade. I was only slightly chubby – had a bit of a belly. My mom made comments and I distinctly remember a “friend” calling me a “pregnant pineapple,” so I started dieting.  It quickly got out of control, like an addiction, wanting to see how far the scale could go down. I was a perfectionist at the time, a straight A student who now saw thinness as a new challenge to perfect.


RL: At 12, were you overweight or obese?
DC: I was about 15 lbs overweight.

RL: Did your parents or friends notice? What was their response?
DC: I suppose no one really noticed until 8th grade. I would often skip lunch, claiming that I forgot my lunch or lunch money. I guess it happened often enough to the point where people noticed I was not eating. My best friend said something to a guidance counselor in junior high school, who spoke to me but that did not change my behavior. The summer after 8thgrade, my family took a cruise to the Bahamas. My dad offered me $100 to gain 10 lbs in a misguided attempt to help me. I gained the weight, got the money, then lost it all again and then some. It was a parental struggle.

RL: How long did you battle with anorexia before you received help?
DC: About 2-3 years. At my lowest I was 86 lbs and the same height I am today, 5’5’’. I now weigh about 115 lbs, so that’s a 30 lb difference.

RL: What made you want to get help?
DC: I saw a picture of myself from that cruise and it woke me up. My face was sunken, hollow, and looked aged. I was skin and bones with bruises covering my body. In my disorder, I had always looked at my body every day in the mirror, but it was always a distorted image where I focused on a body part I thought needed to be skinnier. This time, I finally saw what I really looked like. I also ran into websites featuring “thinspiration” by fellow disordered eaters and rather than inspiring me to be even thinner like their intention, they scared me out of it. I did not seek professional help and somehow got better on my own. During the anorexia, I kept a journal of everything I ate, noting the caloric content of each food throughout the day. So when I wanted to get healthy, I continued to keep a food journal, but this time used it to gain weight. I started cooking my own food, and discovered I really enjoyed it. I was eventually able to stop counting calories altogether. Cooking was my therapy.

RL: What was the moment or thing that caused you to go from seeing food as your enemy to wanting to be a chef?
DC: I cut out meat when my anorexia started. Making my own food made eating enjoyable. During my recovery process, I read the “China Study” and became vegan to be healthy. It took away the fear of eating something bad that would trigger bad habits.

Chef Daphne Cheng

RL: When we last met, I commented that you being a chef was almost like a recovering AA member owning a liquor store. Do you think my analogy was correct?
DC: It’s a fair analogy and not offensive as I feel so far removed from where I was ten years ago.

RL: To clarify for myself and the readers, what is the difference between vegetarian and vegan cuisine?
DC: Vegetarians still eat dairy and eggs. Vegans eat no animal products.

RL: What is Suite ThreeOhSix? How did it come to be?
DC: I had a catering company for two and a half years, but eventually tired of constantly moving equipment and food for each event. I wanted to find a permanent space to call home. I had hosted smaller dinner parties in my East Village backyard and really enjoyed them. Suite ThreeOhSix evolved with the finding of the loft itself. I also wanted to be able to provide a resource for startups, nonprofits, and other low budget ventures to produce interesting and meaningful events, knowing the struggle of finding affordable space in Manhattan.

RL: When you went to culinary school, did you know then that you wanted to have your own space like Suite ThreeOhSix?
DC: I didn’t have this idea straight away, it evolved with me as I worked in catering and recognized a need for something like it.

RL: What made you become a food entrepreneur? How did your journey transpire?
DC: I don’t think of myself as an entrepreneur. I did not start out to become one. I simply do what I love to do and create services that I would like to exist and reflect my own personal values.

RL: I find it very hard to eat healthy even though I know it’s good for me. How do we start to have a healthy relationship with food whether or not we have an eating disorder?
DC: Go to the grocery store and head straight to the produce section. Load up on fruits and vegetable, especially ones you’ve never cooked or seen before. Don’t be afraid if you don’t know what it is, you can Google it later. Approach food like a game, be willing to experiment and try new things.

1. Start slowly by simply incorporating more veggies and fruit. Don’t go in with the mindset that you have to eliminate certain foods.

2. The simply action of eating more produce will mean that by default, you will have less room in your stomach for anything else. And you can still eat the other stuff of your plate.

3. Don’t feel guilty after eating anything, whether it’s your favorite “fattening” dessert or that extra piece of bread. If it is good for your soul, it is good for you!

RL: I think about that dessert you served – bosc pear muffins. I had three servings. They did not taste like healthy food, but I mean that in a good way.
DC: Healthy food doesn’t have to be boring. Those muffins happened to be gluten free and made with buckwheat flour. I will provide the recipe for your readers.

RL: What has your food journey taught you?
DC: I learn something new every day. Don’t be afraid of or feel guilty about food. Incorporate more veggies and fruit without eliminating anything so you don’t feel guilty or deprived. If it’s good for your soul, it’s good for you.

Readers, if you are suffering from an eating disorder or want to develop a healthy relationship with food, talk to your doctor and seek the advice of a nutritionist. Unlike Daphne’s incredible journey to wellness, not everyone can do it on their own. Don’t be afraid to seek help from professional counselors.

Pear Muffins by Chef Daphne Cheng
3 cups buckwheat flour
2 cups sugar
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
1 cup canola oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
4.25 cups bosc pear puree (approximately 8 pears) pureed in a blender until smooth

Preheat oven to 350°

Line muffin pan with paper muffin cups.

In large bowl, mix buckwheat flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, salt. In separate bowl, mix canola oil, vanilla, and pear puree. Add liquid ingredients to dry ingredients and mix with a whisk until blended. Fill muffin cups approximately 2/3 full.

Bake for 25-30 minutes.

Vegan Chili by Chef Daphne Cheng

Ronda Lee
Founder, Editor-in-Chief
Ronda is an attorney, writer, and entrepreneur. She is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Originally from Chicago, she has lived in Los Angeles and New York. She loves to travel and is passionate about education equity, especially for first generation college students.