If you live in Somerville and haven’t heard of Herbstalk then you haven’t had your head up. There are flyers and postcards everywhere, and the Somerville Scout just put Steph Zabel on its May/June cover. This Examiner has known two of Steph’s best buds for years now, and so with the fourth annual event coming up next week (June 6-7), she wanted to get to know the visionary behind Boston’s local herbalist movement.
This interview is part of the ’10 questions for a food entrepreneur’ series for Examiner.
Q: What was the seed for what is now Herbstalk?
A: It was a point in my life where I was still looking for my community, and I had this little idea to create an herbal gathering in Boston. There are lots of herbal conferences at the national level, but they are expensive, geared toward professionals, and tend to be hosted in rural places, which is great for plant people but not all that accessible to the urban public. I was inspired by Union Square Farmers Market and thought, ‘Why can’t we have something like that for herbalists?’ I mulled it over with friends until one of them finally said, ‘Why don’t you just do it, Steph?’ So I did.
Q: What was the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome?
A: My own fears of being more prominent in the community. I tend to be more on the shy side and so I don’t feel comfortable necessarily being up front and center. I remember the moment, five years ago, when I sent a mass email to a bunch of people with my idea. That was terrifying – to put it out there. I never expected so much energy and attention. I want to make everyone happy and inspired, so criticism is hard, but I need to be true to the vision and not be held back by what other people think.
Q: How do you define success?
A: It’s changed over time but now success is feeling inspired every day, satisfied with what I do, being able to put myself wholeheartedly into my work, and knowing that I’ve touched other people’s lives. It’s that feeling of being able to express myself through my work for the good of others.
Q: How do you manage failure?
A: I think the feeling of failure is the feeling of disappointing others. But honestly, I don’t often feel that I’ve failed. I definitely make a ton of mistakes, but it’s about accepting them as a learning experience. I really love to experiment with things. This whole event was an experiment in trying something and putting my whole self into it and knowing that if it doesn’t take, that’s okay… Failure would be if I hadn’t tried at all. So most of the time, I just try to go for it.
Q: How do you cope with pressure? (Any secret recipes for taking care of yourself?)
A: I like to focus on lots of different things at the same time and so under pressure I jump from thing to thing pretty quickly and that actually helps me to cope. But I know when I’ve reached my limit and then I just stop. I have this little garden in our backyard and I love being out there to see how things are growing and to garden a bit. Or I’ll start cooking dinner. Physical activities really help—and chocolate.
Q: What are you going to do next?
A: Develop more of my teaching in how to use herbs at home and connect with the plants growing around us. So more classes and retreats… And I do want to have a real herb garden someday where I can grow the plants that I’m using with people.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in the past year?
A: A lot of my wisdom comes from my mom who reminds me to relax, take breaks, and not be so serious about things all the time.
Q: Give us your advice for aspiring herbalists/food entrepreneurs… in 10 words or less.
A: Clarify your vision and follow it every day.
Q: You win the Oscar-equivalent for your industry. On stage, who will you thank and for what?
A: There would be a ton of people to thank! I would thank my parents and grandparents for instilling in me a love of plants from the very beginning and exposing me to gardens and wild places. Mostly I would thank my husband Henry who is the most important person in my life and believes in what I’m doing 100%. He came up with the name ‘Herbstalk’ actually. I couldn’t do it without him, honestly. He was so supportive of my being a self-employed herbalist when I made the leap last year. And, I would thank all of my professors and herbal teachers and all the wonderful herbalists in this community who shared their knowledge and love with me so that I could pass it on to others.
Q: What about Herbstalk most feeds your soul?
A: I love when the event actually happens. The energy and happiness that I feel and see on other people’s faces is so rewarding. People come together wanting to share and connect with one another. It’s just really joyful.
Herbstalk is next Saturday and Sunday, June 6 and 7, at the Armory on Highland. Discounted tickets are on sale through Sunday, May 31. Options include a day pass, weekend pass, or intensive (advanced) class pass and, if you’re not sure of your plans, the marketplace is free and open to all for eater exploration.