Founder Profile: Hawnuh Lee, Founder of Closed Loop Cooking - Portland
Hi Hawnuh! Tell us a little bit about yourself .
Hi! I’m Hawnuh Lee, founder of Closed-Loop Cooking–a sustainably focused food media platform helping folx reduce food waste and single use items. I also write / illustrate / design / photograph / research / cook / teach / host events and own the multi-slash persona.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
Currently, I support Closed-Loop Cooking running Hawnuh Lee Studio–my design / illustration / animation studio. Before all of this beautiful chaos though, was my restaurant life. Through high school, college, and post graduation I spent about 10 years in the restaurant industry supporting myself and learning how to really connect with people over a meal. My time in the industry built some of my closest friendships, inspired me to work harder, and channel crazy anxiety into task-oriented routines. All the while drawing and designing my way through the world.
My senior year of college I started an ongoing personal project, Pattern Per Diem. An iterative, process-oriented illustration / animation practice to explore my compulsive obsession with patterns. What started as a 365 day endeavor has since become more than 900 unique pattern designs in a variety of mediums. This ongoing project is a small reminder that your work may never be finished, it may never be perfect, but share it anyways. (The internet is ephemeral and reflective of our own growth in ways we can’t always discern. Your time spent making is never wasted!)
It was from this project that I was recruited into Nike as a color / print + pattern designer. (With some agency experience, a design residency in Iceland, and a fin-tech start-up stint along the way.) At Nike I realized the scale at which my designs could impact an entire global market. With that, I learned the importance of a democratic design process–I was responsible for creating meaning in these products. I made it my mission to understand the market (as a self-appointed consumer researcher, ha) and to create beautiful narratives to embolden others in their own forms of self-expression.
All of these experiences contributed to Closed-Loop Cooking becoming a real platform. It never looked like it at the time but these wild paths all eventually came together for me to create the thing.
What is Closed Loop Cooking and what inspired its creation?
Closed-Loop Cooking is a food media platform at the intersection of sustainability x food x storytelling. We aim to help people reduce food waste and single use items through recipes, how-to’s, interviews, and stories. A lot of low-impact / zero-waste practices are not perceived as sexy and we want to elevate these resources to show that unconventional cooking practices are fine as hell! We want to make a low-impact lifestyle accessible for anyone who eats.
This all started because after about 2 years at Nike, I was burnt o-u-t. I was working non-stop under wild deadlines with no light at the end of the tunnel. My body was trying to manage my spiraling stress and anxiety–my hair was falling out, I was anaemic, severe acne was in it to win it, I was exhausted. I had all the signs of adrenal fatigue and ignored them. I was so uncomfortable with my contribution to disposable fast-fashion and upset with the lack of opportunity for women to move up in this male-dominated field that I had to give my notice.
As incredible a job as it was, it was just a job. I had to know what I could do for myself, for the world, if I put as much energy and dedication into the thing I believed in as I did at Nike. I’d been cooking for myself and my sister during my time there. It was a reprieve at the end of the day, a small chance to nourish myself and the people close to me. The idea of combining food and design education kept floating around and eventually pushed me to start a food blog. Once I had left Nike, I was able to take some time to recover and use the blog to learn and share sustainable practices around healing food. As Closed-Loop Cooking has grown (and will continue to grow) I realize this work comes from a lifetime of managing stress and has been the platform for me to continue to heal and help others through mindful practices.
What is a closed-loop system and what steps should people take in order to make that happen?
A closed-loop system (in the terms of Closed-Loop Cooking) is a circular feedback loop in which little to no waste is created from gathering, preparing, or cooking food. All single-use items have been replaced with reusable items and shopping / cooking habits make use of as much of the food as possible. All excess / unusable food pieces are composted and given back to the Earth (ideally through regenerative farming practices.)
Closed-loop food systems are outside the conventional capitalist norm. They decrease our dependence as consumers on single-use packaged items and encourage us to buy less. There’s so much to unlearn in this process that most people feel completely overwhelmed at the idea. Shifting into a low-impact lifestyle takes time–I would encourage folx to bring in one new habit every few weeks or so to make sure it sticks. It could be as simple as not using plastic produce bags for your fruits and veggies (just wash them!) to as complex as making your own bread once a week from scratch (sourdough for life.) It’s about making manageable, long-term changes that reduce your environmental impact. A general PSA: bananas don’t need to be put in a plastic bag, they are literally their own container, please people I beg you.
Get started on Closed-Loop Cooking with a few simple recipes or how-to’s and don’t be afraid to mess up. Making the effort is the first step, you’ve got this.
With previous restaurant experience, what were you witnessing in terms of food waste? What should people know about the waste produced in that industry?
A lot of scrappy restaurants know what’s up. If you want to survive as a restaurant you have to know how to cut costs and use product efficiently. I was lucky enough to work in several places that prepped / served / stored food efficiently and made sure you put your orders in correctly. Waste not, want not. I think folx at home have a lot to learn from more industrialized practices. Buying in bulk is not only cost effective, but reduces plastic waste. Properly washing and storing produce will help it last longer and encourages you to actually eat it. Keeping a clean kitchen with multi-functional tools keeps you organized and efficient. Learn to repurpose any leftover ingredients into another meal, specifically learn a few important cooking techniques so you can throw just about anything together.
Your platform includes interviews, recipes, illustrations, and events. What does your creative process look like to make all of this happen?
Ha, great question. Does a handful of cooked noodles look like anything? To be honest it’s a work in progress. We’re very much figuring it out as we go. I dedicate time everyday to working on the platform and working off of an editorial calendar helps us stay on track. I use this awesome project planner to break tasks down as well as an itemized action planner spreadsheet developed by my incredibly talented friend, Paige Walker of Walker Works. She’s been helping us with business development and pushing towards those next big goals.
Having a very set morning routine helps to bring some order and keep me balanced as we try to build. I think the genuine excitement of working with people on a subject we care about energizes the team and keeps us moving forward.
In addition to yourself, you have 2 other women working with you on Closed Loop Cooking. What steps did you take to add people to your team?
Maia Welbel and I met at a Cherry Bombe Jubilee conference last year and were equally excited about what the other was doing in food + sustainability. It’s been amazing collaborating with Maia and having her insight and talent on the team. I’m so appreciative of what she brings to the table and feel lucky to watch her grow as a journalist.
Kaitlyn Chock and I met at our all female co-working space / business coven and it was literal friendship magic. I had been concepting this idea of a quarterly zero-waste pop-up dinner (Scrap Supper) and she was immediately on board. Kaitlyn is such a talented chef / recipe developer / event planner, I’m in awe of her skills and positive attitude all the time. Our Scrap Suppers couldn’t happen without her.
I’ve known from the beginning that Closed-Loop Cooking needed a team. I love the work I can do for this platform but it’s enriched and brought to life by having as many voices at the table as possible. I put myself in places where I knew I would find motivated, thoughtful, creative women and made it a point to talk about what I was doing. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for but forming relationships was very intentional. Maia and Kaitlyn bring so much to this team, their support and brilliance is how we keep making progress. It’s awesome to watch them progress and learn as we move forward and bring new ideas to life. I want to set a precedence for the kind of culture and community we build at Closed-Loop Cooking–a willingness to learn, explore, and support. It makes all the difference.
Could you tell us more about Scrap Supper?
Scrap Supper is our quarterly pop-up dinner event series through Closed-Loop Cooking. It is an intimate evening of plant-based eats that highlights unconventional ingredients and generates no landfill waste. We make use of all edible parts of our produce and encourage attendees to look at food waste from a new angle. Most people have probably never eaten cauliflower leaves but is it something they may prepare at home after trying them in a cabbage + kohlrabi + cauliflower leaf core slaw with apple scrap vinegar and a turmeric / carrot / ginger kraut? We hope so.
Each dinner is seasonal, showcasing local produce at its peak. Our ingredients are gathered at the local farmer’s market, often in compost-bound bins (most vendors are more than happy to give you their excess carrot tops) and at the bulk section of the grocery store. We use reusable and make it work! These events are a learning experience for all of us and such a fun time recipe testing and menu planning. The best part really is bringing everyone together around the table to eat. Building community is integral to Closed-Loop Cooking and I’m so excited to continue having more folx at the table.
We recently put on a Scrap Seder! A zero-waste Passover seder bringing plant-based seasonal fare and scrap cooking to the table. My sister, Thursday Bram, just compiled this incredible, progressive Haggadah of Our Own that everyone should use at their seders next year, and we were able to showcase her work with all of our attendees. I loved that intersection of inclusivity and food.
How can people be using their scraps? Do you have a favorite scrap use/recipe?
Y’all, so many ways! I’m learning more about scrap cooking everyday and continue to be surprised. If you want to feel like a damn kitchen wizard try repurposing your excess almond / nut pulp after making your almond / nut mylk into these favorite vegan almond pulp cookies. The goodness is real. Or DIY some homemade apple scrap vinegar. I use it for just about everything and have one fermenting constantly. It’s the best beginner fermentation project (just remember to stir daily.) Even a vegetable scrap stock will make magic for ya! Keep checking back for more resources.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
How could you tell? Food has always been one of my love languages. I’ve made it my job to feed people from a young age and use it as a bridge to connect to others. Food is a universal. My love of design / illustration has always been at the intersection of tools and storytelling. This idea of elevated design education to create sustainable behavioral change is at the heart of this Closed-Loop Cooking. If someone can connect to my work through the story and make a positive behavior shift because of it, that’s amazing! Significant change through significant work.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face?
Uncertainty is a tough one. The ability to check-in with yourself everyday and say, this is a good idea. People will care. And if they don’t, still making the work because I know it’s valuable, even if it’s just for me. I’ve been lucky in having a supportive community in Portland, OR. Our first few Scrap Suppers have sold out each time and we continue to get support from awesome platforms like The Glossary.
The entire process of building a food media platform is overwhelming. Figuring out how to break tasks down in *bite-size* pieces without making too many food puns is always at the forefront. We keep moving forward though because of this support and learn to shift when needed. We are nothing if not resourceful.
What are your short/long term goals?
Short-term, we want to keep putting out compelling, relevant content. We want to create accessibility in our recipes, how-to’s, interviews, and features. We’re launching a low-impact kitchen shop soon to help readers replace single-use items as well. It’s important to us to inspire everyday change in small ways.
Long-term, well, I want to change the way the United States eats. I want to dismantle systemic food injustices and empower everyone in the kitchen to try something new and uncomfortable. I want to create a reliable resource index that is inspirational rather than aspirational. I want to do my part to reverse climate change and keep people fed along the way. I want to give you a reason to stop taking out the trash! And I want to do it together.
Oh, and I want to turn Closed-Loop Cooking into an animated TV series. Just a small thing :D
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
WOMEN SUPPORT OTHER WOMEN. For the people in the back! Women succeed when we help and support each other. We’ve been conditioned that true success occurs when we go it alone, don’t ask for help, and be ruthless in achieving success. Closed-Loop Cooking continues to grow because other women gave me their unquestioning support. They loved me unconditionally. They believed in me, especially when I could not do that for myself. Go farther, together.
We have a series called Purchase from Women - what women owned businesses are you encouraging with your dollars?
Yes! Made Trade! My wildly talented friend Cayley Pater runs this ethical marketplace. It’s beautifully curated with a diverse range of sustainable products. If you’re putting your dollars anywhere right now, it should be here.
Do you have any creative, business, or female-centered resources that have been helpful to you that we should know of?
If you are in Portland, OR join The Perlene (female owned, all female co-working space.) This space changed my life for the better and I am eternally grateful. Wherever you are, find a community for yourself, people you can make yourself accountable to, and show up for them.
Equity at the Table is a powerful resource for women in the food industry. It’s a diverse directory for sourcing work-for-hire / finding inspiration to help ensure everyone gets a seat at the table.
Women Who Draw is another women centric directory for gals in the illustration world. Illustration idols Wendy MacNaughton of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and Julia Rothman of Food Anatomy are its co-founders.
You Are a Badass at Making Money by Jen Sincero. Everyone, read this. Today. Make it your mantra, get your financial house in order.
What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
Aside from learning to run a business, I’m learning more about food photography / styling and loving the process. It’s so technical, with restrained creativity. It’s a very interesting new format for me. I’m also learning more figurative animation (so much I don’t know here!) and slowly teaching myself Icelandic. I live to learn.
What are some of your favorite places in Portland?
Tendue is beautiful event space here in Portland. They’ve been incredibly supportive as we grow our Scrap Supper series. Highly highly recommend to anyone wanting to rent space or put on their own event.
The Portland Farmer’s Market Saturdays from 8am - 2pm at PSU. Favorite spot for fresh produce. (Ask for carrot tops.)
Güero is in our weekly rotation. I love tequila, I love spicy, I love the cart bowl. Get there.
Noraneko Ramen has my favorite (spicy) ramen and killer sides. 80’s salad y’all.
Aviv has wonderful Israeli plant-based meals. Delish.
And, my porch in the spring / summer with the dogs. If you’re in the neighborhood, swing by, I’ll feed ya. <3