Travel northeast from Downtown LA and you’ll soon find yourself in Highland Park, an ethnic and socio-economically diverse neighborhood in the San Rafael hills dotted with Craftsman-style homes, antique stores and record labels, hipster-worthy bowling lanes, and a collection of globally-inspired cafes, from Moroccan to Vietnamese to Mexican.
But a stone’s throw from the buzz on Figueroa, on an unassuming block of 64th Avenue, you’ll find Amara Kitchen on a sunny, mural-emblazoned corner. Here, owner and head chef Paola Guasp serves up superfood-rich recipes all day long, inspired by her own self-taught education in using food as medicine.
“I grew up ’90’s healthy,” laughs the Chilean-American Los Angeles native. “Like, my mom didn’t let us have soda, but we still had apple juice and Total cereal.”
Guasp was comfortable in the kitchen from a young age, often cooking for herself and her sister while her mom worked late — but she says her real culinary interest wasn’t spurred until her 20’s, when she starting experiencing hormonal health issues, like chronic yeast infections and hair loss.
“The doctor told me it was my birth control, and was like, ‘You’re fine, just keep taking it,’” she remembers. “But I knew I wasn’t fine.”
Borrowing a book that her mom had bought on an infomercial (something along the lines of Natural Cures They Don’t Want You to Know About), Guasp started to do some digging and was surprised by the simple, yet perspective-shifting things she found.
“I realized that the food I was eating was going to affect me more than any pills I was taking, so I started to change my diet, and starting cooking for myself more,” she explains.
Initially experimenting with small changes, Guasp started noticing major transformations. She cut out processed sugar, substituting coconut sugar or honey when necessary. Soon, her hair was growing back, and her yeast infections were less and less frequent.
“At first I found that the easiest thing to do was replacing instead of eliminating,” she recalls of the transition. “If I really wanted ice cream, I made sure it was honey-sweetened or made with coconut milk. It’s no fun when you feel like you’re missing out on something — I think if we feel like we’re depriving ourselves, it’s really harsh.”
She even helped her boyfriend at the time, who suffered from severe acid reflux, see the light. “It was so bad, he had to call an ambulance one time, because he thought he was having a heart attack,” says the chef. “He was given a prescription, but after starting to drink apple cider vinegar every morning, he was able to stop taking it — that really proved to me what a difference our diets can make to our bodies.”
As she continued to expand her nutritional understanding through researching and experimenting at home, Guasp was presented with an unexpected culinary opportunity. While working as a nanny in Los Angeles, she realized her dietary habits aligned closely with those of the family, and offered to step in and share her cooking talents. The new responsibility came with a generous grocery budget, allowing her to find and try ingredients that would have been too much of a splurge on her own.
“A good majority of my superfood knowledge came from having access during that time to pricier ingredients I wouldn’t have otherwise tried, like hemp seeds, or expensive exotic fruits like cherimoya, which makes the best ice creams and smoothies,” says Guasp. “Cooking for them everyday also gave me the confidence to try new recipes and see that other people liked them, too.”
Rather than viewing dietary restrictions as an obstacle, she embraced the challenge of cooking in a way that satisfied cravings while remaining whole and healthy.
“I can use butter, sugar, and flour and make anything taste good,” insists Guasp, who still works as a private chef. “I recently made a traditional apple pie for a client who requested it, and I thought ‘Of course it tastes good, it’s so easy!’ But I’ve found it’s so much more fun to have a challenge when cooking — when I can be creative and experiment and learn through the process.”
While continuing to expand her culinary skills, she began hosting dinner parties for friends who encouraged her to write a cookbook. Instead, in 2013, she and a friend found a vacant and affordable spot on 64th Ave, and the rest is history.
“If you told me seven years ago that I’d have my own restaurant, I would have said, ‘Yeah right!’ I always thought you had to go to culinary school or meet certain prerequisites to do something like that,” she says with a smile.
Amara got off to a slow but steady start, first as a catering business serving local events and fashion photo shoots (for brands like Nike and Vogue, no less). A handful of months later, the cafe officially opened, and the duo found themselves hustling to operate both on-and-offsite. Though Guasp had previously worked as a waitress, and her former business partner as a private chef, she says the first few months of running a restaurant “were like stabbing in the dark.”
“When we first opened, we were doing everything ourselves — like going to Whole Foods and local farmers markets to source ingredients, and we had no recipes written down,” she laughs. “It was like the Wild Wild West.”
But it wasn’t long before they caught the beat and started garnering attention for their healthfully indulgent daytime menu (read: pumpkin buckwheat pancakes, sweet potato quesadillas, and nourishing quinoa bowls), accessible to every diner, whether they be paleo, vegan, or neither. Go for brunch on a Saturday, and you’ll witness a crowd of matcha-crazed 20-somethings and fresh-faced locals chatting gleefully over plates of pesto-poached eggs, phylum husk tortilla breakfast burritos, and Chilean-inspired corn, kale, and chickpea humitas post-yoga.
Five years into the biz, Guasp bought out her business partner this fall, and is busy juggling not only the success of the restaurant, but a demanding catering schedule, serving events like dreamy farm dinners at Saddlerock Ranch, along with working occasionally as a private chef.
As she looks to the future for Amara, she anticipates a few recipe edits and additions, perhaps tagging on more seasonal salads, an “impossible burger,” and a CBD-infused elixir to the menu. There’s even talk of getting her super popular, highly addictive grain-free, gluten-free almond-milk cookies into grocery stores, and opening the restaurant in a second location.
At home, as always, she continues playing with ingredients for her own personal menu: whether satisfying cravings with vegan mac’n’cheese (made with a potato-and-cashew “cheese”) or exploring adaptogens like the energy-enhancing and immune-boosting chaga powder. Over the years, the home-chef-turned-restaurateur has learned restrictions don’t have to be limiting.
“I try to find something for everyone,” she explains matter-of-factly. “If there’s something you love, or something you can’t eat, there’s a way to meet you where you are with the best thing for you.”
Illustration by: Juliet Romano.