A Conversation with Preeti Mistry
Talking to the chef about the future of food.
We discussed how they ended up a chef and closing their really well-received Oakland restaurant Juhu Beach Club, being on Top Chef, launching their podcast as an antidote to the whiteness of food media, and more.
Alicia: Hi, thanks so much for being here.
Preeti: Thanks for having me.
Alicia: I think it's wild that this is the first time I'm interviewing you, because I feel like we've been following each other on Twitter for a long time. [Laughter.]
Preeti: I know! I was thinking that. I was like, ‘I don't think we've actually had a conversation that wasn't in 140 characters or DMs.’ [Laughs.]
Alicia: Right. [Laughs.]
Well, I'm excited to finally have that conversation. So can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Preeti: Well, I was born in London, and then we moved to the U.S. when I was five. I mean, I pretty much just ate Gujarati vegetarian food, traditional Gujarati vegetarian food, which is like dar, bhat, rotli, shaak, which basically means dar is dal. Bhat is rice. Rotli is whole-wheat flatbread, and shaak is just whatever vegetables are in season or that my mom cooks in various different ways, from things that are super saucy and spicy to things that are more of like a dry stir-fry. Could be okra and potatoes, which I was not a fan of as a kid. I liked the potatoes, not the okra. Or spinach, or eggplant, or cauliflower. You name it.
And then, I really craved everything that wasn't that. I was super curious about what my family calls ‘outside food.’ And I always wanted outside food. I was just curious. I just wanted to know what other things, you know? You watch TV, and you're like, ‘What is Ponderosa? What happens at a steakhouse? I need to know. Red Lobster.’
I mean, especially the meats and seafood and stuff that I never experienced at home, or at anybody else's home. And my parents were not about to take me there. At least I mean, you don't know. But my parents were not going to take me to those places. I mean, mainly because we didn't have enough money to go to Red Lobster and my mom would just never even step foot inside. She’d just freak out. She's a very staunch vegetarian. My dad eats chicken and lamb and some other random things. I helped him try a scallop once. He was pretty excited about it. He enjoyed it.
But yeah, I mean, so then it was like McDonald's, Taco Bell, that kind of stuff when it wasn't traditional Gujarati Indian food. And we would go out to Indian restaurants, which was the first time I tried all these things that people think that somehow Indian people eat at home, like chicken tikka masala and naan. Newsflash, my mom doesn't have a tandoor.
And just yeah, Mexican, Italian. I don't know if you've heard that before. But generally speaking, most Gujarati Indians that moved to the U.S., the two foods that they generally gravitate towards when not eating Indian food are Mexican and Italian, mainly because they can be made vegetarian relatively easy. And also because they tend to use spices. Obviously, Mexican more so with the heat. And then, my mom is just like, ‘Make me a pasta, put vegetables in it, add chili flakes. I'm happy.’ [Laughter.]
And then for us, it was like, ‘Oh, we could order other stuff.’ So it was, ‘I want to try the chicken fajitas or shrimp cocktail,’ or just all kinds of things that we had never tried before. So, pretty classic Midwestern fast food with a mix of everything from scratch vegetarian Gujarati Indian cuisine most nights.
Alicia: Well, how did you go about getting a culinary education beyond the staples of what you grew up with?
Preeti: I didn't learn. I didn't really have an interest in cooking. I just saw it as another chore and women's work, and I didn't necessarily see myself in my mother. I didn't look at her and think, like, ‘I'm going to be like that one day.’ And so, I wasn't really interested in cooking as much as curious about food.
So it wasn't until I left home. And Ann and I, my wife, we moved to San Francisco. And then I just started getting really bored of outside food. [Laughter.] And so, I started cooking. And that's all how it all started. I just started cooking. I would go to the now famous Bi—Rite grocery store in the Mission and look at what the vegetables were and what was in season, and they had really great fresh pasta, so I'd buy some of that. And I was starting meat, because I was vegetarian for a period of time in my late teens and early 20s. So it was the gateways. It was ahi tuna, salmon.
So I would get out of things and experiment with cooking them. A lot of Williams Sonoma, Deborah Madison, Mollie Katzen kind of cookbooks. And all my friends were just like, ‘Holy shit. You're good at this.’ And it wasn't cool then in the late ’90s. Twentysomethings were not having dinner parties and cooking. Just not at all what people were doing. So we were kind of an anomaly that we would have fancy dinner parties and tell people what wine to bring, and that they needed to dress nice and do the decor and everything.
And so I mean, eventually, enough people were like, ‘You should pursue this.’ I wanted to be a filmmaker. Since I was a teenager, I wanted to make films. And I was working in film at a film arts nonprofit. So I really was like, ‘I don't know what the hell I'm doing.’ And then it just was like, ‘Ok, I'm gonna try this.’ I don't think I ever thought growing up that cooking for a living was a career, that was an option, or something that people did at all. Again, it was the late ’90s. Food Network was just starting out. There wasn't the level of celebrity chef culture that we have today. And so, I just was kind of like, ‘Ok, well, I like this. It seems to come naturally to me, makes people happy. I guess I'll give it a try.’
So it was just, coincided. I made a five-minute film, and it was in film festivals. And then my wife got this opportunity to work in London. And it was just a perfect break for me to try something new. And I talked to people at the British Film Institute and stuff like that. And they were like, ‘We'll take you as an intern, but you're not gonna get a job.’ I'd graduated from college. I had a couple years of experience of working. I was an assistant. Yeah, it was the perfect moment to be like, ‘Ok, I'm going to do this different thing and see how that goes in London.’ And then, whatever. I can always come back to working in film in San Francisco if I want.
So yeah, I went to Cordon Bleu. It was weird. Mostly a lot of Americans and Japanese. I met the most wealthy people in my life. And yeah, it was just a total 180 from the world I'd been living in. I'd been living in this gay bubble of college-educated critique people, people were into activism and queer politics. And all of a sudden, I was in the basement of a five-star hotel peeling ten cases of artichokes with these kids who are five years younger than me, but have been cooking for four years.
Yeah. Changed it all.
Alicia: And so from there, did you start—you started working in kitchens?
I worked in kitchens in London. It was really hard. I had a really hard time finding a place. And I mean, it's really not until the last four years I feel, since #MeToo, that I've actually connected with the fact that some of the failures that I had weren't necessarily my fault.
But yeah, I had a tough time finding a place that I would fit in. Here's a funny story. I don't know if I've ever shared this on a podcast. It'll be an Alicia Kennedy exclusive. I really wanted to work at the River Cafe in London, because I thought of it as the Chez Panisse of London. And so I, as you do in the year—this was like 2002, I think, 2002 or ’03, before the internet and things like Poached. You take your cover letter and résumé and you go to the restaurant between lunch and dinner service, and you ask for the chef. And they come out if they want to talk to you, and they might put you to work right away, etc.
And so, I went and did that. And April Bloomfield was the sous chef at the time. And so April came out and talked to me and was rather impressed with my letter, with all this flowery stuff about wild rosemary and Meyer lemons growing in California and how I was so excited about working on all this stuff. And she was like, ‘Right on.’ And like, ‘Cool. Someone will call you in a couple days.’
Nobody ever called me. [Laughs.] And I just think it was just one of those things. I called whoever Chef Ruth’s—I called her assistant once a week for two months. And then I was like, ‘This isn't happening.’ [Laughs.] And then, I found out later they just don't hire anyone right out of culinary school. Every single person, station is somebody who's has a level of experience and ability. So, for what it's worth, they don't hire very unskilled labor, which is what I was. I was educated but unskilled. [Laughs.]
Yeah. But eventually I found my place. I found a place called the Sugar Club. I was the only woman in the kitchen. They called me hermana. There were no British guys. It was Kiwis, Japanese, Venezuelan, and all the prep guys and dish porters were Ecuadorian. Yeah, but the main sous chef, who’s still my friend, Julio Flames. He lives in Spain, he’s Venezuelan, and his buddy—I call them the fabulous Venezuelan twins—Raoul is still in London. And he's actually a famous graffiti artist now. So, we are all doing ok, the three of us. [Laughs.]
Alicia: Yeah, yeah, yeah. [Laughs.]
Well, how did you end up on Top Chef, then, in 2009?
Preeti: So we moved back to San Francisco in 2004. And I again struggled to find a place. My chef wrote me this glowing letter and was like, ‘Shoot for the top.’ And so, I went to all the fancy places. Again, at that time, it was like you—I looked at Zagat, and what were the top ten restaurants. [Laughs.]
And I ended up at Aqua, which was horrible. It was just awful. It was just mean, scary chefs screaming expletives at you 24/7 for absolutely no reason. I mean, I just felt unsafe. And I have the words to say that now. I didn't have the words then. I just failed.
Anyway, I ended up at Bon Appétit Management Company, which is a great company that does food service for a lot of corporates. But I was at the museum. So I was the executive chef of the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor, which was super fun. I loved it, again, to prove the theory of when you're fully seen and supported, you could actually do really well. I did really well there. I was the catering chef. Within seven months, I took over as the executive chef of the whole operation and quickly became the CEO’s favorite. I catered a couple weddings for him.
Then we lost the account, because—it was all contractual stuff between the museum and Bon Appétit. And so, they were trying to find places for us to be. And they didn't have an executive chef job for me at the time. This is a very long way to tell you how I ended up on Top Chef, but I swear it's relevant. [Laughs.]
Alicia: I think it's great. [Laughs.]
Preeti: I mean, essentially, I was super busy. And I was running two museums and a catering business for two museums. I had no time at all. I never would have been able to leave.
And so, they put me as Executive Sous Chef at the ballpark, the steakhouse at the ballpark, which was also under Bon Appétit Management. The consulting chef who—she showed up for management meetings every couple of weeks—was Traci Des Jardins. And then the executive chef was Thom Fox, and he needed help. And baseball season was starting. And so in the words of the CEO, Fedele, said, ‘So I'm going to park ya here. [Laughter.] And then, we'll see what we can do.’ And I was like, ‘Ok.’
And they were amazing. I mean, it was great. And so basically, it was like I was the number two. And so, there was a way for me to be able to leave for five weeks, and not be a huge hindrance to the business or just an impossibility.
So I went. And it was horrible. [Laughter.]
Alicia: Well, I mean, yeah. So how did that change? I mean, it seems it was a life-changing thing. But was it, really? ’Cause I mean, everyone knows how things look from the outside is never how they actually are.
Preeti: I mean, I think that the thing that was life changing about it is that a lot of people all of a sudden knew who I was. And after I got through the embarrassment and agony of doing really shitty, and having a lot of media outlets say really shitty things about you when they don't even know you. Let's remember, Eater was super fucking snarky back then. They were not the lovable, amazing, ‘we get the industry,’ supportive people that they are right now. They were just mean. [Laughs.] They were just super mean.
Yeah. I mean, once I got over all that, I was just like, ‘Ok, well, the one thing I have is that everybody knows who I am.’ And so, even though in my opinion, there's—chefs around the city could cook circles around me. Regular people don't know who the fuck they are. The industry does. But the average American has no idea. But now they all know who I am. Yeah. And so I thought, ‘Ok, well, I'll just—’
And honestly, it was really hard to find a job. I left Google because I hated it. And they were just making my life hell, and they weren't supportive. They were just embarrassed and like, ‘Oh, you made us look bad.’ So I was like, ‘This sucks.’ Yeah, it was really hard. I was kind of blackballed for the first time. And that's when I started the pop up in the liquor store across the street from my house. I was just like, ‘I'm just gonna do something. And hopefully, people come. And hopefully, they like it. And we'll see what happens.’
Alicia: Yeah, yeah.
Well, when did you have the vision for what you wanted to do to express your own self as a chef?
Preeti: I think it was, it started when I was still at Google. I mean, I always knew I wanted to cook Indian food eventually. I wanted to learn professionally how to cook and work in restaurants and all that stuff. And I mean, obviously, Bon Appétit was great in terms of the management side, of P&Ls and all that.
But I think at that point when I was like, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ I think I kind of felt I had cooked for enough people and other people's food that I was ready to start expressing my own point of view. And I think it was a constant work in progress.
I had no idea. I feel chefs today, that are so much younger than me, they sort of come out of the gate and it's like they know exactly what they're doing. And it seems they have this exact vision of what their cuisine is going to be. I opened the pop-up in a liquor store with three sandwiches, samosas, and a mango lassi. And I was like, ‘Let's see what happens.’ And then when there was some leftover something, I was like, ‘Oh, let's turn it into this,’ and just had the idea in the moment. And sometimes, it became a flop. And sometimes, it became something that became a signature dish that stayed with me for years.
I don't know. I started getting the feedback from my friends outside of the industry that were like, ‘You're cooking your food now. I can see it. I can see what you're doing. And I can see that this is its own authentic expression.’
And fast forward a little. I would say the hardest part was probably 2014, ’cause we opened the restaurant in 2013. So we were open the whole year. We opened in March. I wasn't ready to leave the restaurant to other people. And so, we closed it for two weeks and went to India. My wife and I just co-owned our restaurants.
I mean, I think we both kind of agreed that what people really loved about the restaurant was not what I thought it was going to be at all. As I said, I started with sandwiches and a samosa. And the whole thing was Indian street food. So in my head, I thought, I'm gonna just do this kind of replicable fast-casual model of all these sliders and fries, and just this fun kind of Indian play on Indian street food.
But what we found in the first nine months of running the restaurant is that the community that we were in, in Oakland, they were really stoked that there was an Indian restaurant where there was actually a chef that they could talk to that was connected to the local seasonal ingredients that was inventing new things. And that was the thing that really struck people and our regulars.
And so, what became the pressure point for me, it was kind of basically this moment of like, ‘Yeah, we have to push this more. We have to, for lack of a better word, continue elevating what we're doing.’ I don't love that word. But the concept to me is like, ‘What is there beyond sliders and masala fries?’ And it was daunting, because I hadn't really thought about it.
And then we were in London on our way back from India. And I was looking at the year-end stuff, because it was December, January. And Eater does that thing where they ask people like, ‘Oh, what are your sort of thoughts about next year, and who's up and coming, and what's hot?’ And this and that. And Kerry Diamond said something like, I'm really looking forward to seeing what chef Preeti Mistry does at Juhu. I was simultaneously super stoked and terrified.
You put one foot in front of the other and you start seeing what happens. And then, I think probably by the summer, I looked back in 2014, and was like, ‘Look at what we've created. [Laughs.] This is really something. And we did it. Now we can keep doing it.’ And I think that there's a way in which once you get past that initial holy shit, ‘People are expecting so much more of me than I thought I was prepared to do.’ And once you break past that initial anxiety, it's really like, ‘Wait a minute. This is fun.’ I get to kind of decide and do, and everyone's following along and is like, ‘Ok, yes, we're with you. Go for it.’
So I mean, I think that eventually worked out. But yeah, it was scary for a minute.
Alicia: [Laughs.] I think that that's so interesting, and that that is always a compelling way for something to evolve, is that kind of organic creativity, that spontaneous creativity. I think that that's always a lot more compelling and has a lot more longevity, maybe, than someone who does come out of the gate saying, ‘I know exactly who I am and what I'm doing and exactly what I'm supposed to be.’ And I think that that, I think there's always a bit more excitement in that in the spontaneous and organic way of going about creativity.
But that might be because I don't plan anything. So, [laughter] I have to see virtue in it.
Preeti: I just think there's more beauty in parameters and confines. And I mean, if there's anything that we've learned over decades and decades of—the best art comes out of some amount of struggle. And to me, I feel I do my best work when I'm being chased by a thousand-pound gorilla. All of a sudden, inspiration strikes. [Laughs.]
No, my book has only come together in the last couple of weeks, I think. And it's due next month. So, exactly, yeah. [Laughs.]
Preeti: There you go.
Alicia: Well, I know you closed the restaurant in 2017. And you’ve been interning at a farm. You've launched a podcast, Loading Dock Talks. I wanted to ask if you think that there is maybe more potential for you now to change the way that this industry works, and how accepting it is of people who have historically been marginalized in the industry? Is your role as a facilitator and more of a cultural figure than restaurant chef, is that your future? Do you think you've kind of taken those roles on?
Preeti: I mean, a lot of it has just been really happenstance, you know? I mean, we closed Juhu—it was actually 2018, very beginning of 2018. So we rounded the year and closed in January. Part of that was—we were like, ‘Yeah, we're gonna open another one. We're just gonna open a bigger snazzier one.’ And then, pandemic.
But I think that for me, the biggest thing that's changed is between those two things, so the beginning of 2018 and beginning of 2020, I would say the biggest thing that changed for me is like I really was on this mental thing of like, ‘I need one more run. But look, I want to have one more restaurant or concept or something that I put out into the world where I feel I can really—’
I don't know. I felt I still needed to prove myself or something. And through the pandemic, I just feel I reached this point where I'm like, ‘I don't fucking have to prove. I don't care.’ And then I think, from there, starts to open up your brain in this way where it's like, ‘Well, what is the point? You can't make money at running restaurants. You run yourself ragged.’
I mean, we were trying to finish the deal to sell the place. I remember my wife saying this to the broker, like, ‘This is a life or death situation.’ And the broker kind of laughing, and then my wife was just like, ‘She doesn't fucking get it, does she? I'm worried you're gonna end up in the emergency room.’ And I was just like, ‘Yeah.’
I mean, it was rough. I was working nonstop. And that thing that you're really transparent, and you're like, ‘Hey, everybody, we're going to sell the restaurant, but not right now. But please, stay with us. [Laughs.] Don’t leave me.’ It's a tough tightrope there where it's sort of like, ‘What are you gonna do? Fire me.’ So yeah, I was working more and more and more.
But now I just look back. And I'm like, ‘So you don't make any money. You work your ass off. Why?’ I don't need to make food solely for being like, ‘Hey, look at me. Look at what I can do.’ And having people be like, ‘Oh, wow. Ohh ahh.’ I need it, whatever I do, to have more meaning than that. Whether that's the creative meaning, which I feel also in that realm, and we can talk a little bit about this more if you want.
But I'm sort of definitely departing in a lot of ways from what I, the food I've been cooking for the last decade. And a lot of that is just again evolution. And I look back and I'm like, ‘Yeah, in 2011, when I started the pop up, people were like, ‘The fuck is this? [Laughs.] It was just like, ‘What?’ And when I opened the restaurant in 2013, I'd say myself and maybe Mirawa and Chai Pani. There were very few people that were doing anything different, outside of the-
I’d just search the Internet to see what other people are doing, not out of a competitive way, of just, ‘Who else is doing something interesting?’ And it would be like, oh, you see some cool inventive thing. And then it'd be like, ‘It's pretty much just chicken tikka masala inside paneer. They just gave it some different bells and whistles. It's just still the same thing. They're not really doing something different.’
But now I feel there's a lot of people all over the country and the world that sort of have a different understanding of what is possible with Indian food. And it can be in a lot of different lanes. And you can have a butter chicken calzone and Indian tomato achar on avocado toast or whatever. And those kinds of things were just really bizarre a decade ago. And so, now I also just feel like, ‘Well, why should I just keep making that same stuff? I'm ready to do something different.’
What are you ready to do?
Preeti: I'm kind of getting really into just traditional Gujarati food. It's coming from a few different places.
One is something I think you probably might remember, I've been very—and probably—know I've been very critical as a view of Daniel Humm, Eleven Madison Park and what's going on with a lot of the fine dining and plant-based food. And I said something on Twitter a while back where I was like, ‘10 courses. Daniel Humm against my mom. She would destroy him.’ And then I was telling my wife later that night over happy hour. And then I was like, ‘Wait a minute! I could do that.’ I mean, I'm not gonna have some fancy restaurant in New York with an abused beet on the menu. But, I mean, that's one of the inspirations.
Another one is the farming and just getting—I'm not volunteering anymore at the farm. But I've just gotten a lot more involved with farms in general, because we've stayed here in Sonoma County. We're actually moving. We're moving in a week and a half, because we're staying. So we're moving to a slightly bigger house and yard and also just a little more convenient, because right now we're in the woods, so everything's 30 minutes away. So we're just moving a little bit closer to civilization. But staying in Sonoma County in a very—it's a country house. It's cute. It's very exciting. I feel so grown up.
So yeah, I mean, I think that's part of it, too. Seasonal Gujarati cuisine is something that, again, which is something else I've been about for a while, is sort of people don't think about Indian food when they think farm to table. I remember having this experience with guests. Oakland's, all these cute hippies would come in and be these cute old white people. And they loved everything we were doing and would be like, ‘Oh, well, you don't do anything with rhubarb, do you? I mean, that's not really an Indian vegetable.’ And I'd be like, ‘Actually, I made a strawberry rhubarb chutney. You want to try it?’ Because I like rhubarb. And I live in California. And it's what's at the farmers’ market.
So I think that, for me, probably focusing more on slightly more serious Gujarati vegetarian food. Maybe some meat, but I've done a lot of meat cooking with Indian cuisine.
And then the last desire is really getting to this point of realizing that, without sounding too morbid, at some point, the people who have the keys to the kingdom have all these recipes in my family won't be with us anymore. And who is going to make sure that we keep those recipes? I sort of look around all my cousins and siblings, and I'm like, ‘I'm pretty sure it's me.’ [Laughter.]
Yeah. So, yeah. I've been working with a lot of wineries, doing wine pairing, but also really just focusing more on—
At Juhu at one point, I was like—when I say getting a bigger snazzier space, it's, I wanted to do more. And we had so many limitations. We just had such a small space. The kitchen was tiny. We had no walk-ins; it was all reach-ins. And we were doing like 120 covers a night. So it was really like, ‘Crank it out!’ It was like, ‘Yeah, more manchurian cauliflower, manchurian cauliflower for days. We can't make enough. We will sell out every night.’
But it was like, ‘’Crank it out! Get that cauliflower in the deep fryer and toss it with the sweet and sour sauce.’ I mean, and all the food is delicious, but I just—I longed to have the opportunity to do things that take a little bit more time and care and nuance in their plating, in their technique of how they're prepared, etc. And that was just not really possible with the type of staff I, that I had, who were all, aside for maybe one or two people, pretty green to the kitchen, etc. It was just not possible. I've been wanting to do something more focused.
And I'm not against fine dining as a whole concept. There's just so much bullshit I see and read and experience. I have ideas for dishes that are more complicated than deep-fried cauliflower all the time. I just don't necessarily realize them in the current environment that I'm in. And so I think, figuring out and finding-
There's one project. I can't tell you who—I am working with a rather large winery on a guest chef series that will be me and two other chefs. And we're basically doing a five-course wine pairing menu. And it's basically the—everything that I've been talking about in terms of one, people thinking of both wine pairing and farm to table as the Super European thing. Doing five courses that are all Indian, or and then the other two chefs will also be from non-European cuisines.
And some different projects like that, where it's really just getting to, I don't know, getting to create something beautiful without breaking your back. I hate to say it. I was joking with a friend who's in fine dining the other day, ’cause I do have some friends in fine dining. Not everyone in fine dining hates me. And I was like, ‘I might do something that's a little more fine dining.’ And they were like, ‘It’s not that bad.’
And I was like, ‘I just want to get paid well and make nice things.’ And if I can figure out how to keep that somewhat accessible, so that it's not totally something that's only accessible to the one percent. And also, again, just the original passion, motivation for me behind Juhu was, There's all this food that people have no idea about. All they know is naan and curry. And that was a whole thing, was wanting to bring different, cool, interesting, fun things to people. And I feel this is the same thing.
I mean, my mother harassed the hell out of me last Thanksgiving like 20 times with questions about a carrot ginger soup, where I'm like, ‘I don't understand this. You have like a cookbook’s worth of recipes just in your brain. You can literally make like 7 to 10 different types of breads. And you can cook all these vegetables and make all these dals and all these different snacks and steamed fermented cakes and fries and stuff. But you're confounded by this, because it's all just in your brain.’
It's second nature to her. She doesn't even have to think about it. And the moment she actually has to think about something because it's outside of her wheelhouse, it's like, ‘Oh, I don't know what to do.’ But when I think about that wheelhouse, I'm just like, ‘It's just such a vast, you know, sort of chasm of knowledge. There's so much there.’ I mean, knowing me, as my mother would say, ‘You and your creative ideas.’ Of course, they probably will not be exactly her food. But there's just so much more—
I know some of the chefs on the East Coast in New York and stuff have been really understanding Indian cuisine beyond tikka masala, through Dhamaka, and Surbhi just opened Tagmo. And those guys also opened a South Indian place, which looks amazing. And I feel like people are starting to understand different Indian cuisines.
My theory always has been one of the reasons that Indian cuisine never gets the glow-up is because hierarchically in terms of class, the higher class you go, or caste, the more vegetarian people are. And the West doesn't understand how to value food that's vegetarian. The goat brains and stuff that are on some of those menus at Adda and those places in India, that's considered some low class, low caste food. It's looked down upon.
So, yeah, I mean, I think it's kind of a weird mindfuck of how people understand Indian cuisine. And I don't really care. I mean, I like goat brains. And I like vegetarian food. I'll eat it all. So for me, I'm just—I want to see the food of my culture specifically—which is very vegetarian, almost vegan, aside from yogurt and ghee—be appreciated and seen for what it is, because it's beautiful. It's delicious.
I mean, there's so many chefs, Indian chefs I know from other parts of the country. Like Asha Gomez. She's from Kerala. She grew up eating beef and fish and all this seafood and, but she's like, ‘Oh my god. I love Gujarati food. It's so, you know?’ And I'm like, ‘Yeah, I know. It's great.’ I didn't even realize when I was a kid. I was like, ‘I hate this.’ And now I look back, and I'm like, ‘Holy shit, there's so much interesting, good stuff that people just don't—the Western world doesn't really, totally connect with.’
Alicia: Right, right.
No, it's interesting because I’m looking so much at the way foods are assimilated and erased in ‘American cuisine’ and the ways in which things are valued if they are adapted into that kind of middle-class white pantry. And that's the only way that they obtain value in the United States in the cuisine. And so it's interesting to hear about the idea that Gujarati food can't be, it hasn't had its due because of the vegetarianess of it, because Americans, basically, and most of the West can't absorb the significance of vegetables anyway. So if you make something that translates into the American palate, it has to be very, very specific. That becomes some sort of marker of its worth and greatness, is such a—is everything I think a lot of people are working against at this point. [Laughs.]
I mean, I'm working on it. I got some ideas. I'm excited about January, ’cause I'm also getting—through this move, I get a bigger kitchen. So I'm excited to start playing around with all these ideas that right now are just in an Excel spreadsheet.
Alicia: Right, right.
Well, I wanted to ask, too, because you talked to KQED out there in the Bay Area about starting your podcast specifically to create space in the very white world of food podcasting. So there's also been all this conversation in the last year and a half: is food media becoming more inclusive? Is it not?
And so, in general, though, power and capital are still concentrated in the same hands. Gatekeepers are basically the same at the end of the day. What would a more kind of inclusive food media look like to you? What would it be, basically?
Preeti: Yeah. It's hard.
I think one of the big things that I have experienced is just this annoying, trendy, popularity contest. And I've been on both sides. And I think I'm somewhere in the middle. I don't know. I'd like to think that maybe I've transcended it, that ‘hot or not’ thing. I just hover above it all. I mean, mainly, because I'm just not going to do anything just for popularity or whatever.
Yeah, I mean, when you have the same gatekeepers in place, I think what the problem is that this sort of like, ‘Oh, this person's the person. Now, this person is the person.’ And one of the things that I see—and this is not just true for food media. I think this is true for all media. And it's also true for just any type of business or organization that's trying to keep the same gatekeepers in place, but still trying to be more inclusive.
And that is that they'll oftentimes pick the young, trendy, hippest hottest person to put on a pedestal and give all of this power to when that person, first of all, just got here. Two, has no historical context. And therefore, it does a disservice to a lot of different things. First of all, the disservice it does to that person is it kind of sets them up to fail, and it sets them up as a shooting star that's gonna burn out. Yeah.
It also sets them up in a way where because they don't have the larger historical context of food media, or whatever it is, they're apt to say yes to things and be manipulated in a way that somebody who has been doing this for a while, that also would be of that identity, wouldn't. And I feel like that part is intentional. I think it's very intentional. I mean, this thing that has become a mantra of mine, because it comes up so often, of ‘difficult to work with’ means ‘difficult to manipulate’ is that it's really easy to take that 26-year-old that's the hip cool thing.
And they might be awesome people. They might be totally rad people who have great politics and are super talented, but they probably haven't had enough experience to make the right decisions all the time. And when you're getting that type of attention, and all of this sort of thrown at you, it's also really easy to say yes. Because it's really hard to not accept when people are trying to give you opportunities or feature you, or what have you. And you might not realize that what you're doing is not necessarily the right decision.
And then on the other hand, of course, there's the thing of—yeah, whether it's folks—I'm just a bitter old person—folks like me, and many of my colleagues who've been at it for a long time, or who actually are about it, as opposed to the big thing. I think that's frustrating is also within food media is like, ‘Oh, we need to—someone who fits this identity.’ So they find somebody who fits that identity who that's it. They're not about anything else. They just happen to be brown and queer, and from some cool country that is trending. They might not actually have any real politics, necessarily. And so giving them the mic gives you this really milquetoast version that then just makes all of the gatekeepers pat themselves on the back and feel really great. And like, ‘Ok, check. We've done it.’
I mean, first and foremost, I think what needs to change is there needs to be change in gatekeeping. Period. I mean, I just told you this opportunity that I have, and the first thing I'm doing is bringing on two more BIPOC women colleagues. I mean, that was the whole point of my podcast. Yeah, let's talk to a whole bunch of people that—some people that I interviewed are people that millions of people know, like Your Korean Dad. And then there's other people that not as many folks know, or they haven't had an opportunity to really share their story and their point of view. So for me, that's the first thing.
And then secondly, I think it's really important that publications really look at who's been doing this for a long time. Who has a real point of view beyond just like, ‘Yep, I check the boxes.’ Because I think you're gonna get a lot more out of whatever you do if you actually give people the power.
I mean, jeez, the two times I've been in really large national publications would be because Ava DuVernay really likes me. And we became friends. Both Time magazine, I got to write something. And last year, I was in Harper's Bazaar. It's because those magazines gave someone like her the gatekeeping that a different group of people were allowed to be honored and featured.
I mean, that's really what it comes down to, is you have the white male gatekeepers. And they're like, ‘Ok, maybe you guys shouldn't be picking the ten people of color. Maybe hire somebody as that guest editor or if you're not ready to give up your job and let them do it full time, at least do a guest editor thing. Do an editor residence, and give them the opportunity.’
And then the other side of that is—because I've been doing a lot of consulting up here in trying to help folks be more inclusive. And the other thing that you run into is media needs to take a chance. they're so afraid of taking chances and going beyond the sort of prescribed lane that they're given that—
One of the things I've run into is I've been recruiting chefs for some events up here. And then these people hire me. They're all like, ‘Yeah, we don't want it to be a bunch of old white guys. We're so excited to have you on board.’ And I'm like, ‘Ok, here's this list.’ And then they're like, ‘Mmm, that person is not really a big enough star.’ And I'm like, ‘How are they ever gonna be a big enough star if you never give them the opportunity?’ It's gonna be the same.
I find myself in this thing. And I'm like, ‘Oh, all the people of color are men and all the women are white. And that's safe.’ Yeah, or those people have got the—they got the, broke through. It's this mediagenic thing, too. It's like, ‘Oh, that person's model gorgeous.’ And some of these people are my friends. And I think that they're fantastic. And I'm glad that they're getting all these opportunities. And I also can see why.
Alicia: Yeah, yeah.
No, it's really interesting to me, because I've always wanted to be a writer and work in magazines. And then when I got to magazines, I was like, ‘Oh, wait, we don't care about building up new people. We just care about giving attention to people who've already gotten attention.’ And if you're a new person who gets attention, it has to be fitting in a very specific box in order to get—
It was always really shocking to me, when I would pitch stories about people who were not famous yet, and it would just be like, ‘Well, they're not famous.’ Well, how do I get the opportunity to talk about their work then ever? And you have to just wait. You have to wait it out. And then it's like, ‘Well, what are we doing here all the time?’
There's so many hurdles to get and in your—in front of anyone's face, or get your food in anyone's mouth when, despite the the constant chatter about like, ‘Oh, I want to know what the next big thing is. I want to know.’ And it's like, ‘No, you actually don't, though, because you don't want to put in the work of challenging yourself in any sort of way. You don't want to put in the effort that's going to be needed to find the new people to support them to get—’ It's really maddening.
But it works. It's in both places. It's in media. It's in restaurants. It's everywhere. Yeah, it is a struggle. [Laughs.]
Well, I was on a panel with Reem Assil recently, and she was saying that the media attention also doesn't translate necessarily to material change. And that's a real problem. And I think that that comes with a lack of self-interrogation in the industry, too, of media, where it's like, we're not looking at what the effects of what we do are. We're just kind of doing it and checking boxes. And wherever the chips fall, that's where they fall. And it doesn't matter whether we really affect a restaurant space in a good way with our attention, or a bad way. We never ask those questions. And it's a lot.
But I did want to ask you how you, what you're hoping for in 2022. I think you kind of told us a little bit, but maybe there's more.
Preeti: I'm hopeful for, I mean, for myself personally, which has been challenging for the last couple years, because the pandemic really slowed it down. Which is, I'm so tired. I'm a person who talks a lot. I always have since I was a child, but—my mantra lately is like, ‘I'm so fucking sick of talking about shit. And I'm so ready to just be doing something.’ And I think that that part has been frustrating for me, which just goes back to the whole thing of having a business and access to capital and who gets those opportunities, and who investors line up for etc, etc.
So I think that, first and foremost, I think, yeah, I'm looking forward to doing more cooking. And I will be doing some more farming, both personally, because I now have a yard with fruit trees. And also, professionally, activating a lot of different spaces with different folks I’m working with to be growing stuff, to be creating new dishes, to be also adding to the conversation.
I think that's the biggest thing is like, ‘I want to be able to add to the conversation with a thing, instead of just the constant criticism.’ I get frustrated where I'm like, ‘Do I seem like one of those people that just talks a bunch of shit about other people, but never does a goddamn thing? But that's not true. You know, I did this podcast thing. I got some spices. [Laughs.]’
But yeah, I mean, I'm looking forward to just doing. I'm looking forward to cooking and moving the conversation through action and not just words. Which in addition to all the things I just talked about in terms of access and networks, it's also just the pandemic. So we've just been in this place where it's—Ok, it hasn't necessarily been safe unless you're already in that space, and how safe—whatever. Everybody's different in what feels safe for them. So that part has been also challenging, is just feeling like, ‘Oh, I just want to like, do things.’
So I feel, definitely, doing more collaborations. I see a lot of that sort of work with other chefs, hopefully more events and dinners and things on farms. I mean, there's just a lot of cool stuff happening up here in Sonoma County in terms of BIPOC folks starting to kind of take up a very small amount of space. So and the only thing that's really fun about that is that when there’s so few of us, we’re all like, ‘Hey, hey, hey, we need to do this together. Let's hang out. yay, you're here. Yay.’ So there's that kind of thing that's kind of interesting up here.
I mean, I hope that people continue to have this vision that I feel started last year that has continued of a certain amount of folks have become disillusioned with the Michelin star, kind of BS attitude and just smoke and mirrors, pomp and circumstance BS. So I hope that that continues.
I hope that more people get leadership roles that actually know what they're doing. But I'm not super hopeful. Honestly, I feel if anything, the doing is also I just need to focus on doing my own thing and not even worry about the bigger picture, because it’s just probably going to continue to suck. [Laughter.] But then, it’s just carve out your world, whether that's physical or virtual. Carve out that piece of the world that works for you, and that you can be creative and make some sort of positive impact. We can't all change the world, but we can do our little part and just really put energy into that.
I also want to do products. It's one of my many—what's the word—sort of epiphanies or discoveries through the pandemic has been. So working on farming, growing vegetables and trying to sell them makes less money than running a restaurant and is even harder work. And so, then I started thinking about, ‘Well, who actually makes money at this?’ And obviously, the most obvious example would be wine. But a value-add product, which is a term that I learned in the last year and a half.
And so, that's kind of my big interest right now, is really focusing on, I don't need to grow my own kale and potatoes. We get a CSA box. The farm is great. I love them, all those kinds of staples. So when I think about growing stuff, whether it's professionally with some of the projects I'm working on, or personally, which might turn into something professional, I really want to grow things that are specific in order to create added products, whether that's a beverage or a preserve, or a pickle, or what have you. A spice, a sauce. Because I feel that's really the one area where one can be mildly successful and not kill themselves doing it if they do it.
I did have a line—we had the line of curry sauces in 2005. And it was horrible. My wife was a business person, she has an MBA, and she very—I was like, ‘We just need to sell more.’ And she was like, ‘We lose three cents a jar.’ And I was like, ‘So we just need to sell more.’ And she was like, ‘That means the more we sell, the more we lose.’ I was like, ‘Ohhhh. [Laughter.] That’s why you're the business person.’
Alicia: Well, for you is cooking a political act?
Preeti: Yes. Yeah, I have said that.
Cooking food of my personal cultural heritage is fucking political. Yeah. 100 percent. I mean, I think that from the lunchbox stories to just our conversation earlier about vegetarian cuisine and how it’s seen in the US, and thinking about my mother and all the stuff that she cooks.
And, yeah, it's a political act because it is in danger. It is literally endangered. Even a lot of Gujaratis that I know that are my age—and this isn't a diss. It's just everybody's different. But their moms didn't cook everything from scratch the way my mom did, like this, where I'm like, ‘Yeah, I made this.’ And they're like, ‘My mom never made that. And we always got it frozen.’ And I'm like, ‘Really? I've never seen it frozen.’ The only thing frozen in my mom's are peas and blocks of tamarind. [Laughter.] Which, why are there brown ice cubes? My mom's like, ‘Leave it alone. It’s not important.’
I mean, honestly, just fucking existing and opening my mouth. I feel it's a political act at this point in this world, because we can sit here and feel very safe and a certain set of people. And yet, we know what's going on in our larger world. So it's totally political. Food is political. Whether it's about access or what and who is valued, all of that. [Outro music kicks in. Drums with a chill vibe.] Or who has access to food, which is other stuff that I'm working on here in terms of food insecurity.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time today.
Preeti: Thank you.
Alicia: Thanks so much to everyone for listening to this week's edition of From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy. Read more at aliciakennedy.news/. Or follow me on Instagram, Alicia D. Kennedy, on Twitter @aliciakennedy.