Anna Thomas was born in Stuttgart, Germany, to a Polish family, and came to the United States as an infant immigrant. She grew up in Michigan and California, learned to speak English and eat white bread, and in the late sixties decided to go to film school.
Away at college, she taught herself to cook: "In self defense! I needed to eat, and who could afford to go out? At the same time, I was gradually becoming a vegetarian..." She rediscovered black bread, drifted away from kielbasa, and evolved her own culinary style.
Anna wrote her first cookbook, The Vegetarian Epicure (Knopf, 1972) while she was a graduate student in film at The University of California at Los Angeles. It became a phenomenal success and remains a classic, universally acknowledged as the book that brought pleasure to vegetarian cooking.
A few years later, having expanded her culinary horizons through travel and the tasting of new foods, she completed The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two, which was published by Knopf in 1978. Both books have been translated into several languages, have sold in the millions in their various editions, and have remained continually in print.
While cooking and food writing remained an avocation, Anna continued her film work. In 1973, she worked with fellow film student Gregory Nava on a thesis project, a dramatic feature set in the middle ages. It was the beginning of a writing collaboration that spanned more than two decades, and in 1975 Anna Thomas and Gregory Nava were married.
In 1977 Anna wrote, produced and directed her own ambitious dramatic feature debut, titled The Haunting of M. The turn of the century ghost story was shot in Scotland - and financed with the advance money from The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two. It played to critical acclaim at festivals and art houses.
In 1983, after several years of development, Anna co-wrote and produced the independent feature El Norte, with Nava directing. "People sometimes envy me for the way I came into the publishing world," she says. "I just sent off my first cookbook manuscript, it was immediately accepted by the best publisher - and the rest, as they say, is history. But I paid my dues in the film business. El Norte was turned down by everyone in the industry. We heard "no" five hundred times before we were finally able to make it -- on a shoestring."
El Norte was released in 1984 and became an instant critical and commercial success. Thomas and Nava were nominated for an Academy Award, the film collected numerous honors worldwide, and in 1995 it was elected to the National Film Archive in the Library of Congress.
Anna worked as a producer and a writer while she raised two sons. Christopher was born in 1984, one day after the New York premiere of El Norte, and Teddy was born in 1985. She produced A Time of Destiny for Columbia in 1986, and did a number of studio writing jobs. In the midst of her pressured work in filmmaking, Anna kept cooking - for friends, for parties, and for her children (who frequently refused to eat their vegetables, just like yours).
She returned to the independent film world in 1995 with My Family, Mi Familia, a multi-generational family story set in East L.A., which she co-wrote and produced. It was while preparing that film that Anna decided to write another cookbook. "I had become a very different kind of cook," she says. "I was cooking lighter food, and my style had become both more sophisticated and - at home with my kids - more simple.” In 1996, The New Vegetarian Epicure was published, a menu-based cookbook with an entirely new collection of recipes "for the way we live now."
Anna continues to pursue her work in both film and food. She worked as a screenwriter on the academy award winning film Frida, and as a producer she ventured into the world of documentary film with Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner, directed by Murray Grigor. Since 2001 she has served on the faculty of the American Film Institute, where she teaches an advanced screenwriting workshop.
Recently, her children grown and gone off to college, Anna downsized her household and entertaining style – in the extreme. She moved from a giant, rambling house on a ranch to a one-room converted artist’s studio, where she camped out for three years while re-building a modernist house on the same property. Working in a temporary kitchen that measured 81 inches from wall to wall, she began a passionate relationship with soups – “The food that saved me” – and a series of delicious new recipes evolved into the book Love Soup (W.W. Norton, 2009).
Today Anna cooks and entertains in a spacious kitchen in Ojai, writes screenplays, and teaches her workshop in Los Angeles.