Chef Elizabeth Johnson, owner of Pharm Table, has an abiding interest in people, especially Pre-Columbian cultures, that stems from her childhood in Central America. “I spent the first years of my life living in Honduras… I think that every book report I did had something to do with Mexico, Central America, or the Maya: that was just fascinating to me.”
“I think it's the anthropology and the interest in anthropology that lead me in an indirect way to food.”
When her parents brought her back to their native San Antonio, her interest in Pre-Columbian culture, which overlapped with her interest in healthy and natural food, continued. “I think it's the anthropology and the interest in anthropology that lead me in an indirect way to food.” After living in places all around the world, from Buenos Aires to Santa Fe, Elizabeth committed to attending culinary school. She earned a Masters in Pre-Columbian cuisine and eventually became the Latin Cuisines Instructor of The Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus located Downtown. “I got to work with incredibly talented people and I got to travel a lot; they sent me all throughout Latin America.” But Chef Elizabeth’s ‘entrepreneurial clock’ was ticking. After several years with the Institute, it was time to go out on her own. “They say that if you're a true entrepreneur it's just undeniable.”
Pharm Table dining room adorned with sketches by Venezuelan artist Astolfo Mata-Betancourt. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
In 2014, she launched her Pharm Table concept in the Radius Building. The restaurant was a natural partner for the building’s artistic space. “The foundation's larger mission is supporting the arts, so the members of the Radius board saw Pharm table as a culinary manifestation of the arts.” Chef Elizabeth pointed out the pieces currently featured in the restaurant’s space, illustrations of insects by artist Astolfo Mata-Betancourt. “He's a very famous illustrator and scientist from Venezuela. He has a series of birds that he does as well that are actually on the [Venezuelan] currency.” Aside from the more obvious art lining the walls, there is another artistic process that goes into the food at Pharm Table.
'Pharm to Table Tacos.' Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
“It's all about how you combine those ingredients with other foods. So there's an element of food combining as well as the whole issue of ‘sprouting’ which makes everything more nutritious… and easy to digest.” There’s an apparent artistry to the menu. For Chef Elizabeth, it goes even deeper. Her menu is based off a wellness philosophy called ‘Ayuverda’, which stresses the importance of bringing the body into balance to achieve ideal health. “It's thought that when the body’s in balance then you prevent disease.” She explains. That’s part of the reason she started Pharm Table. In fact the name ‘Pharm Table’ itself is a synonym for ‘Food as Medicine.’ As the Chef says, “Using the next chapter of my life to heal people with food was my goal.”
Staff member behind the counter. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
She certainly isn’t going it alone. Elizabeth says she has assembled an incredible team that very much believes in the mission. “My staff are big part of that…They are Pharm Table.” Her business philosophy embraces the contributions of the team. “In order for me to be a good leader I need to listen to their comments and suggestions.”
With support from her team, Chef Elizabeth’s mission is gaining traction. Pharm Table was named in the ‘Top Ten New Restaurants in San Antonio’ in 2015. The next year, it was honored with ‘2016 Best Restaurant for Special Diets’ and the ‘Healthiest Organic Food Restaurant in San Antonio’ by USA Today. The future looks promising as well. She hinted at a line of wholesale products for local businesses, as well as a continuing relationship (or as the Chef says, “being a good neighbor”) with the non-profits, businesses, and residences of the Radius ‘campus.’
Chef Elizabeth talking with customers. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
Though the restaurant attracts many tourists, it presents a huge draw for locals, specifically working people Downtown. “Business people who work in the downtown area need something that's going to fuel them through the rest of their day and give them that nourishment they need, that extra boost.”
"...for me the downtown area is oozing with history. Every corner tells a story, every building has significance and a story behind it."
It seems Pharm Table will be nourishing hungry business people, tourists and anyone interested in their food philosophy for the foreseeable future. “I feel like we're getting our legs, establishing ourselves and growing our roots into this location.” Elizabeth enjoys the feel of Downtown immensely, reveling in the architecture and natural aspects. “I'm an architecture and river ‘aficionado’ and so for me the downtown area is oozing with history. Every corner tells a story, every building has significance and a story behind it. So just excavating all of that; to me it's just really fascinating.”
For Pharm Table, the advantage of operating Downtown is not only reveling in the story of the city, but becoming a part of it.