Celebrity Chef Shannon Kring Incorporates Indigenous Cultures at the Table
There are chefs who travel the world to bring exotic recipes to our kitchens, and then there are chefs whose pursuit of quality ingredients turn them into global advocates for sustainable farming practices and the rights of indigenous people who till the land. Shannon Kring is one such person, a stand out among culinary professionals. Shannon’s passions have taken her out of the kitchen and into the fire. As a humanitarian and documentary filmmaker, she works in some of the world’s deadliest regions. Like those she serves, Shannon has been faced with her own life and death struggles. Because of her myriad of ventures, hers often play out in the public eye. Even her personal battle with cancer and other health issues have become topics of discussion. Although it may sound paradoxical at first, Shannon’s quest for her own healing is as fierce as her willingness to forsake her own well-being for the betterment of others. It seems nothing will stand in the way of her bringing light and hope to the voiceless. She’s devoted to sharing their stories with the world.
TELL US ABOUT HOW YOU CREATED A CULINARY EMPIRE.
A year out of college, I got an Amex card with a 300 dollar line of credit. I figured that was enough to become my own boss. I left my job in broadcast sales and copywriting to start my own marketing and PR company. My clients included some of the biggest sporting bodies in the world, and while I enjoyed this work, I quickly realized I was taking up space in someone else’s dream. I began taking on projects within health promotion and hospitality. I got to work in dozens of countries and nearly every U.S. state. After helping so many clients open their own restaurants, hotels, and shops, I thought I could do it for myself. Three years later, I had an Emmy-winning, national PBS cooking series; my own cookware line sold at Macy’s and on QVC; restaurants; culinary schools for home and professional chefs; and an international culinary tour company. I also had contracts with three different publishers, and my first cookbook was named Cookbook of the Year.
WHAT DID YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A TV CHEF PERSONALITY?
I loved being able to work alongside some of the greatest chefs in the world, and for my food to play a small role in some of the most important events in the lives of others—weddings, anniversaries, proposals, birthdays, memorials.
HOW HAS TRAVELING THE WORLD FOR YOUR DOCUMENTARY SERIES “SACRED FOODS” CHANGED YOU?
Travel sometimes makes me feel like I do when looking up at the night sky: I am but one tiny, rather insignificant point of light in an infinite field of heavenly bodies. And yet I am part of an interconnected whole. Travel gives me perspective.
WHAT INTERESTS YOU ABOUT INDIGENOUS CULINARY PRACTICES?
Long ago, food was grown with awareness, cooked with intention, and eaten with mindfulness. In the modern Western world, we have forgotten this. Indigenous cultures have largely preserved the recipes and rituals of their ancestors. When we change the way we shop, cook, and eat, we invariably change the way we think of our own bodies.
HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED ANY “AH-HA” MOMENTS WHEN LEARNING FROM INDIGENOUS PEOPLE ABOUT THEIR RELATIONSHIPS WITH FOOD?
While filming the pilot for my documentary series “Sacred Foods,” I was reminded that some cultures have a tradition of preparing feasts or plates of food for their ancestors. It is an offering and an honoring. Even in the Native American tradition, the first serving of food is for loved ones in spirit. As one of the women in my pilot says, “Just because people in your culture don’t believe that ancestors are still with you doesn’t mean they’re not there. You just don’t listen to them. Preparing the foods they loved in their life is a way to thank them for their guidance.” I think this is a beautiful sentiment.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO CREATE A DOCUMENTARY FILM ABOUT STANDING ROCK’S FIGHT AGAINST THE DAKOTA ACCESS OIL PIPELINE?
“Is this really your problem?” This sentiment from top Hollywood executives is something I’ve heard plenty over the past two years. One could argue that the ongoing oppression of indigenous peoples is more my problem than anyone. I was born white in the United States of America, and therefore with privileges unfathomable to those I document. Through years of systematic racial, economic, gender, geographic, and religious oppression, my subjects have been left vulnerable and voiceless. Their fight played out on the world stage, but the women of Standing Rock have a story that is both timeless and universal. Through them, we bear witness to the agony and triumph inherent in the struggle for identity. I cannot atone for what people who look like me have done to indigenous lands and civilizations the world over. No one can. But I have a voice. Lending it to the women of Standing Rock has been one of my life’s greatest honors.
WHAT DID THE WOMEN OF STANDING ROCK TEACH YOU?
They exemplify what it means to be an authentically empowered woman in the matrilineal way of being.
WHY IS HONDURAS SPECIAL TO YOU?
I will never forget the moment in 2007 when I stepped off the airplane in Honduras for the first time. I felt an immediate and profound connection. My eyes filled with tears, and I felt an opening in my chest. Honduras felt like home, but no home I had ever known. My heart still swells every time I land there, and inhale its unmistakable scent. I call Honduras the “heart center” of the Americas. I believe that the world needs more heart, and if you heal the heart, you can heal the world.
WHAT IS THE SCOPE OF YOUR WORK THERE?
For the past 12 years, I have worked fearlessly and independently to protect the heritage and people of Honduras. Like elsewhere in the world, in Honduras, I serve as a voice for the country’s forbidden and forgotten: indigenous peoples, addicts, gang members, survivors of abuse and human trafficking, people with disabilities, and other marginalized members of society. I have shot four productions in Honduras—most recently in July 2019. It is my way of giving back to the people and places that have given me so much over the years. Because of my ongoing work with the government of Honduras and with its Department of Tourism, I became Honduras’ Goodwill Ambassador and also its United Nations World Tourism Organization Liaison in 2015.
WHAT IS YOUR ROLE AS HONDURAS’ GOODWILL AMBASSADOR?
In this capacity, I bring forward global projects that help promote safe and sustainable tourism, elevate women and other marginalized members of society, and eradicate poverty. I am grateful for the support of the UNWTO on behalf of this country.
THROUGH YOUR WORK, HOW DO YOU ADVOCATE FOR INDIGENOUS PEOPLE?
I used to do my work completely under the radar, but a leading global political analyst pointed out to me what happens when leaders or marginalized members of society appear in the media with me. I was shocked to learn that my name and likeness generated social media clicks and likes. It is a sad fact that otherwise invisible people and projects sometimes need bolstering from an outsider or celebrity. I have learned to use my presence for the advantage of the causes I support.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE BEST ABOUT BEING ABLE TO MAKE YOUR OWN TELEVISION SHOWS AND FILMS?
I love working on my own schedule and the ability to tackle only those projects that captivate me. I know that every production requires a several-year commitment, and so I have to be ultra passionate about the stories on which I turn my cameras.
HOW DO YOU TAKE CARE OF YOUR WELL-BEING WHEN TRAVELING THE WORLD?
I have genetic health conditions that require me to be extremely careful about exposure to bacteria, viruses, and insect-borne diseases. I also get so immersed in my work that I sometimes have to be reminded to eat or rest. My crew is great about that, and I am learning to be more diligent myself. A simple change I have made because of my strict diet is to always carry packages of almonds or another small, nutrient-dense snack. Travel makes me hangry, and I never want to approach a set with anything but a positive attitude. Because my work takes me to some of the most dangerous cities in the world, and because colleagues of mine have been murdered in recent years, I am now taking my safety more seriously, too.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR CANCER DIAGNOSIS IN 2017?
In the early days of filming “End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock” on the Great Plains, I got a sunburn despite my SPF 50 and wide-billed hat. Months later, my nose was still red and peeling. Sometimes it even bled. I went to a dermatologist, who said it was either the early stage of skin cancer or the last stage of actinic keratosis. Either way, the recommended treatment was the same: topical chemotherapy.
WHAT DID YOU UNDERGO TO FIGHT YOUR CANCER?
At first, I questioned what I did wrong. The dermatologist assured me that for someone as fair as I, no amount of sunscreen would have been enough to protect against years of living in Honduras and Los Angeles. For the first couple of months post-diagnosis, I continued to try natural remedies, but they failed. I caved in and started the chemo my doctor prescribed. It set off my various autoimmune issues, and I ended up in a terrible cycle of musculoskeletal issues, viruses, and infections. I stopped the treatment after 12 weeks. The negative effects of chemo lasted far longer than the slight improvement it made to my skin. I continue to look for natural remedies because the problem hasn’t completely gone away.
SIMILARLY, HOW DID YOU SUPPORT YOUR MOTHER WHEN SHE WAS DIAGNOSED WITH OVARIAN CANCER?
I was living in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, when my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Much of my support, therefore, came from afar. From the beginning, Mom was positive and determined to kick her cancer. Her trademark sense of humor almost never left her side. I knew she was scared, but I also knew she was strong. Looking back to the many emails we exchanged during that time, I recognized that I did what I do with my many dear friends who have had cancer: I listened. I feel it is important to let the person with cancer take the lead. If they want to talk about their cancer or mortality, let them. If they don’t, don’t. That said, I always asked her how she was feeling. I was less concerned with her physical state than her emotional one. I didn’t doubt for a moment that she would overcome the cancer. I told her this every time we spoke, in many different ways.
HOW DID HER CANCER DIAGNOSIS AFFECT YOU AND THE WORK YOU DO?
I was working on major socio-political projects in Honduras and Spain at that time and wished I could have been alongside my mother in more than thoughts and prayers during her treatment. Though I knew she would eventually be fine, I felt horrible for her. She had just endured a year of full-time caretaking for my father, who miraculously survived a near-fatal accident while working in the woods. Just after recovering from her complete hysterectomy, Mom had to have emergency gallbladder surgery the same month I suffered a miscarriage in the second trimester. Our already close family became even closer during that time, and all that followed.
AS UNITED NATIONS WORLD TOURISM ORGANIZATION LIAISON, WHAT ARE YOUR TIPS FOR BEING A CONSCIENTIOUS TOURIST?
Being conscientious begins before you even board your flight. Research your destination. Learn local customs, traditions, taboos, and national laws and regulations. Learning a few words in the local language goes far. Use common sense after your arrival. How many of us would be comfortable with a stranger taking photos or videos of our families in our yards, or live streaming from our religious ceremonies? This happens all the time in popular tourist destinations like Asia or the Caribbean. Ask permission before snapping a photo of a person or his/her property. Be respectful regardless of their response. Some of the worst behavior I see occurs while
tourists shop. Buy locally made crafts and products. Respect the livelihood of local vendors and artisans by paying a fair price. After all, you wouldn’t haggle at Whole Foods or a local museum gift shop.
By Eva Barrows