How traveling the world helped me find my calling to connect people through food
by Kayla Ferguson
I still remember the moment I decided I was going to drop everything and travel the world. I was sitting at work, at a talent agency in Hollywood, listening to the assistant next to me get berated for the lackluster appearance of the sandwich she had picked up for her boss for lunch. Numb to this unique form of torture at the time, I was casually browsing through my Facebook feed, glad I wasn’t the one getting yelled at. As I sat there, mindlessly scrolling, some pictures popped up of a high school acquaintance in Turkey, and an extraordinary longing to be doing something similar took over. Looking back, I consider it divine intervention; I made a decision there, in that moment, that in six months time I was going to be traveling the world, with no strings drawing me back to my assistant seat in Hollywood.
Fast forward six months and I’m sitting at Los Angeles International Airport waiting for a flight to Tokyo, filled with excitement for this new life chapter. It’s important to note that Hollywood hadn’t been easy for me; $10/hr pay, ‘Devil Wears Prada’-esque working conditions, a strong penchant for hindsight instead of foresight, and an affinity for escaping my reality with various substances that ultimately landed me in jail for a night. All of this added up to a life I felt I desperately needed to escape.
My trip around the world was that escape.
I started in Japan and over the course of the next 363 days added 26 stamps to my passport book, passing through Thailand where I fell bedridden for two weeks thanks to Dengue Fever, India where I had emergency surgery following a motorbike accident, a wide range of Eastern and Western European countries where I fell in and out of love with traveling companions, and a good portion of South America where I spent too much time thinking about what I was going to do when I ran out of money and the trip would be over.
In May of 2016 my meager, hard-earned pennies eventually ran out and I found myself living in my parents’ basement in Denver, clueless about my next steps. The next two years would prove to be a challenging transition into a life that I hadn’t put any intentionality into, a life that was filled with part-time work, little money, getting hired and fired from a number of meaningless jobs, getting married and divorced, and ultimately landing in a pile of self-pity and lots of debt. I could write numerous books about traveling and the events that transpired after; that’s not what this story is about though.
Fast forward once again to December of 2018 and that is where the real roots of this story and my newly created life are planted.
In December 2018 my boyfriend and I were sitting at an Indian restaurant in Denver called, Yak and Yeti when the idea struck: “I don’t have the time or financial resources to travel the world right now like I would like to, but here I am, enjoying another culture, through food, for less than $20 and two hours worth of time. Why don’t I just spend this year traveling locally, and explore different cultures around Denver (my current home-base) through food?” I look back at this experience as another seemingly divine intervention.
Over the next couple of days I made a list of all the different types of local food/cultures I wanted to discover and try. The next month I posted a casual invite to friends on Facebook for a dinner at The Ethiopian Restaurant in Denver. I had nine people join me for that first meal. By March 2019, I had 30 people join together at Yanni’s Greek Restaurant in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Over the next nine months, the idea grew from a casual monthly cultural dinner with friends to a full-fledged business opportunity; I set up a blog to talk about the food connection that happens through cultural dining experiences and this ultimately led me to launching a cultural food startup. I decided to call my new endeavor, The Same Plate.
I’m often asked where the name The Same Plate comes from, and I really enjoy this question. During the first community dinner I hosted at The Ethiopian Restaurant, I observed one couple manage the entirety of the restaurant. Following that dinner, I had the opportunity to interview the daughter of the couple who owns the restaurant and at the end of our interview she told me this: “Our food is really reflective of our people. We all eat off of the same plate when we are together.” With that line, The Same Plate was created.
With The Same Plate, my intention was to highlight the cultural vibrancy of cities around the world, starting with Denver. I was prompted to consider the stories of the people behind the restaurants I was visiting. More broadly, I thought about those “hidden gem” restaurants that exist in every city, yet are often out of the spotlight and less well-known compared to the trendy places where securing a reservation can take weeks, if not months. It is often these “off-the beaten path”-type places that paint a vibrant cultural tapestry across cities and it bothered me that these restaurants frequently go unnoticed. I thought, ‘why is that?’ and then it dawned on me that you don’t have to travel to Korea to have an authentic Korean meal; such experiences have, all along, been closer than I ever would have thought. I now wanted to introduce others to the possibility of an entire cultural ethos that exists within their own backyards.
I began curating in-home and pop-up events that gave people a taste of something unique and an opportunity to learn about the culture and food they were eating. In the Fall of 2019 I secured a spot as an exhibitor at TedX Mile High, connecting people through food and in early 2020, I will be organizing a crowd-funding campaign to film a docu-series about the Chef Entrepreneurship Program at Sun Valley Kitchen, a community space in Denver that provides children and families unique and multi-cultural experiences linked to food.
Growing from something casual into an intentional business has been and continues to be a roller-coaster of learning experiences. Conversations about the “why” behind the business have been crucial to maintaining the mission and integrity of The Same Plate. While the “why” takes on numerous different forms, it ultimately stems back and finds its roots in my 2017 divorce; an experience that was unfortunately characterized by manipulation, abuse and isolation. Living inside of a relationship that was void of connection illuminated how important community and human connection are to me. Admittedly, when I was starting The Same Plate, it wasn’t my divorce that was driving my desire—it was more-so my passion for travel and immersion in different cultures—but looking back, it is easy to see how the lack of connection during my brief marriage made me crave it, guiding me toward a commitment to developing connection for myself and for others. This brings me full circle to where I am today and what I have created with The Same Plate—for when each person eats from “the same plate”, it is a symbol of community and connection.
Kayla Ferguson is a self-described “nerd” when it comes to the global foodie scene. She loves bringing people together by creating experiences that allow for travel and connection through new and unique experiences linked to food. For more information about Kayla and The Same Plate, click here.
Kayla Ferguson, founder of The Same Plate. Photo courtesy of Ms. Ferguson.