Illustrator Lila Volkas has a love affair with kombucha.
Illustrator Lila Volkas has a love affair with kombucha.

Q&A: Why Berkeley culinary illustrator Lila Volkas loves kombucha

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Lila Volkas, 26, is a Berkeley-based nutrition educator, culinary illustrator and workshop leader. She is a proponent of kombucha, the fermented sweet tea with purported health benefits, and in her illustrations, described as “whimsical,” she likes to anthropomorphize vegetables.

J.: Your website talks about how your journey with food has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Can you explain?

Lila Volkas: I had always been interested in health. After college, I had a health crisis where my whole body exploded into these unexplained rashes. I got to being a nutritional consultant from my own journey in figuring out how to heal myself, as I found that my body began rebuilding itself after I changed my diet, like cutting out all processed food. I also don’t eat dairy, grains, legumes, nightshades and nuts. It’s basically the AIP diet, or paleo autoimmune protocol diet.

My “healthy dessert” workshop became a thing because I love dessert and think everyone should enjoy it. Dessert can use whole foods and no refined sugar and doesn’t have to be something you feel bad about or physically sick after. It can be a sweet treat that also makes you feel good.

Lila Volkas
Lila Volkas

J.: In another interview, you talked about the challenges in sharing meals with others because you have so many food sensitivities. What has that been like for you?

LV: It’s been both isolating but also a deeply connecting thing to work with people who have a lot of food sensitivities. I had been isolating myself because I couldn’t eat out or share food with people, and have to bring my own food to parties and potlucks, and that felt really sad. Last year a chef friend and I co-created something called “The Intentional Vegetable Feast” so we could eat in community and share the way we eat. I’ve also found a few restaurants where I can find dishes that I consider Lila-friendly.

J.: Do you think food sensitivities are more pervasive among Jews?

LV: We definitely have stuff around food, but so does everybody. When I visited Auschwitz with my father, I was thinking about the unimaginable scarcity and torture that my ancestors experienced around food. My grandparents met at Auschwitz, so I’m sure there’s some transgenerational trauma that I’m working out through food. They didn’t get the privilege of being healthy or choosing what they got to eat; I get to do that for them.

J.: You’re a big fan of kombucha. Can you explain what’s healthy about it, and why you’re so connected to it?

LV: Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage that contains a lot of probiotics, which are really essential for gut health. Kombucha was my gateway to making things myself. Once I learned how to make it, it became this entry point into talking to people about food and discussing how the food you eat makes you feel.

Last spring I went to Lithuania to connect with the place my ancestors came from. My dad had taught a workshop there and I went along and met these really sweet women around my age and they became my tour guides. They took me to this vegan café in Kaunas, and in looking around, I saw they had kombucha from the Czech Republic. The owner shared with me that her grandmother used to make it. Our conversation piqued the interest of everyone else in the café, with my friends translating for me and everyone sharing their experiences. It was one of the most synchronistic, heartwarming kombucha experiences I could have ever dreamed of.

I’m really into this thing, not just because I like food and I’m a nutrition consultant, but because this is part of my ancestry, and the people living there had been making it for hundreds of years. What if one of my family members that I never got to meet made it? It reaffirmed that there’s a reason behind everything we do. It shed a light on the depth of my connection to kombucha and food. My dream is to go back and teach a workshop.

a smiling cartoon liver with a banner that says "Thank you, liver!"
Illustration of a happy liver by Lila Volkas

J.: Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about your illustrations. How did you come to art?

LV: I was definitely always artistic as a kid, and I got my bachelor’s degree in visual art and geography, but studying art in university felt elitist. Thinking about how to make these daunting nutrition and health topics more accessible was how my food illustrations were born. I definitely draw other things, but when I think of a hamburger, it has a certain personality in a way. I like to draw anthropomorphized fruits and vegetables and I love making infographics, to explain things in a visual way. For example, I illustrated an article about compost for Edible East Bay. No one wants to look at pictures of compost, but if you make it with a smiling face with weird teeth and apple core and worms sticking out of it, maybe someone would be more interested in reading about it.

J.: Your mom also does some food writing. Did any of your career interests come from her influence?

LV: My mom is one of my greatest supporters, and I really owe a lot of my career to her for helping me get in the door. I started out illustrating her articles, but then later was able to write my own and illustrate them. She remains my No. 1 favorite person to talk about food writing with.

J.: You’ve been followed by press in Japan. How did that happen?

LV: I get contacted a lot because of my kombucha workshops. A Japanese TV show reached out to me because they were doing a feature on kombucha, and they staged me teaching a workshop to some of my friends. Then I found out the show was about following a Japanese woman’s journey in search of kombucha in America. In Japan it’s a seaweed tea made out of kombu, but she comes here and finds this whole other beverage. No one in their crew spoke any English except for one person. I never got to see the show, which is all in Japanese.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."