Special Sauce: Nik Sharma on the Stories Told by Seasoning

Special Sauce: Nik Sharma on the Stories Told by Seasoning


Overhead shot of a cast iron pan of freshly baked angel biscuits

[Nik Sharma photograph: Courtesy of Nik Sharma. Biscuit photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Cookbook author (Seasons: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food), blogger (A Brown Table), and newspaper columnist (A Brown Kitchen) Nik Sharma made the perfect Special Sauce guest. Why? He has a great, dramatic story, and he isn’t afraid to tell it like it is (or was).

Sharma grew up in India, and as a man who recognized that he was gay at a young age, he had a tough childhood. “At least back then, it wasn’t talked about. I’m talking about in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when I kind of realized something was different about me. It was difficult, because I had nothing to compare anything to. The only stuff that I heard about in terms of gay life was about Indians who were either getting arrested, or bodily harm, or even being killed. So for me, that was quite terrifying. As a child, then you start—you think there’s something wrong with you.”

Sharma resolved to leave India, initially coming to the US to study to become a medical researcher. But his interest in food eventually drove him to the blogosphere. “I’m really passionate about flavor,” he told me. “I’m really curious to see how people in different parts of the world approach the same ingredient or the same technique. I find it fascinating, because a lot of it is also a reflection of society, the socioeconomics of a country…. I find that fascinating, and I wanted to reflect that in my work. I started reading a lot, and also cooking and experimenting with flavor. That’s what I started to do with the blog and bring that in.”

Though Sharma’s blog brought him enormous pleasure and a devoted following, it also brought him lots of uninvited blowback about his sexuality and the color of his skin. He found himself at a crossroads. “I think one of the things people forget [is] that when you write or you do something and you put it out there, you’re making yourself vulnerable…. Fortunately, I took a step back, just to reevaluate my decisions in life at that point, whether I really wanted to do a blog. I said, ‘Well, you know, this is something that I’m actually enjoying more than I was before. I would be a fool to give it away just because of the opinions of a few. Let me stick to it, do it in my best way that I possibly could.’ So if they had to critique me, they could critique me on the quality of my work, but not on anything else.”

When reading Sharma’s book, I came across a passage that I found particularly beautiful, one that summed up both his relationship with food and what he’s learned from his chosen career thus far. I loved it so much that I asked him to read it on the air, and he graciously obliged:

“Mine is the story of a gay immigrant told through food. It has been a journey of self-discovery I embarked on more than a decade ago. One that taught me to recognize the inherent tension between originality and tradition, and to opt for the former without rejecting the latter. It’s been a journey of acclimatization, adaptation, and acceptance. During times of discomfort, food became my friend and teacher. It taught me to reinterpret conventional techniques and flavors, and apply these reinterpretations to my food that would become a part of my new life in America. Seasoning is more than just a way to achieve flavor in the food we eat. It represents our desire to connect with our past, present, and future. It tells our story.”

To hear more from this eloquent writer, you’re just going to have to listen to the whole episode.

Special Sauce is available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Soundcloud, Player FM, and Stitcher. You can also find the archive of all our episodes here on Serious Eats and on this RSS feed.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and nonfood folks alike.

Nik Sharma: I was unhappy because I was photographing everyone else’s food.

EL: You wanted to photograph your own food, dammit.

NS: Right, right? I was critiqued a lot on my work, which is fine, you should be critiqued, but it wasn’t constructive.

EL: Sure.

NS: I felt demeaned every day. I would go in and they would tell me to make my photos look less attractive, so customers would not be disappointed.

EL: What a concept.

NS: Right?

EL: This week Nik Sharma’s going to hang out with me. Nik is the author of Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food. He has a terrific blog, A Brown Table, and in his non-existent spare time, he also writes a column for The San Francisco Chronicle called A Brown Kitchen. Welcome to Special Sauce, Nik.

NS: Hi, Ed.

EL: It’s so good that you’re here. I have to tell you up front that I hope having you come on Special Sauce will be further enticement to your contributing to the birth mother of Special Sauce, Serious Eats. Maybe not, but we’re going to try. I’m just going to tell you that. This is really just an hour and a half sales call.

NS: Okay. Okay. I’m all for it.

EL: All right. First of all, the book is beautifully written.

NS: Thank you.

EL: It’s quite a compelling story. It was an absolute pleasure to actually read it from cover to cover.

NS: Oh, thank you.

EL: I can’t say I cooked from it cover to cover, but that would take a long time. Tell us about life at the Sharma family table growing up.

NS: Well, disorganized is probably the best way to describe it.

EL: That’s everybody’s family table.

NS: It just seemed much more, a little more intense at mine. I guess, again, that might be everyone’s experience. Yeah, I mean it was fun growing up. I came from a family where my two parents, my dad was from the north of India and he’s Hindu, and my mom’s from the west coast. Her family’s from a former Portuguese called Goa, and she’s Catholic.

EL: So that was a mixed marriage.

NS: Yeah, they had a love marriage, and the influences as you can expect then were quite different.

EL: Who did the cooking?

NS: Initially, my mom did most of the cooking. Then it was I think four years after she had my sister, she felt comfortable to… I think she was also fed up with just staying at home and she wanted to go back to work, and that’s what she did. I was off to school, and my sister spent most of her days during the week with my grandmother who lived close by.

EL: You have publicly said that your mom was not a good cook, which is like my mom. My mom was a terrible cook. I mean, she was proud of it. I don’t know how proud your mom was. Where did you get your love of cooking? If she didn’t love to cook, somebody must’ve loved to cook.

NS: Well, I think that’s the deciding factor, right? If you have someone, and I feel it’s really funny because my mom cooks a couple of things and she cooks them really well. Beyond that, she’s just really not interested, and doesn’t get it why. I think I over-compensate for the lack of that, which is why I went into food.

EL: Your grandmother was a serious cook.

NS: Oh yeah. My grandmother taught my mom to cook. She taught my aunts how to cook. My grandmother was an excellent cook. I think a lot of the stuff that I know now, a lot of the techniques and a lot of the basis for a lot of things are through her.

EL: You talk about cooking and experimenting in the kitchen when you were 12 in the summertime.

NS: Yeah, that probably wasn’t my best moment.

EL: What’s interesting, yes, I’m sure there were lots of disastrous dishes as a result, but the fact that you just dug right in, like you just dove in hands first.

NS: I think that’s the exciting thing though about food or anything that requires you to be creative, is that you have to get in there. It’s not something that you… You can read about cooking, but it’s much more exciting when you actually delve into it and get dirty. I think that’s what I find fascinating about food.

EL: You write in a very poignant part of the book, “I had a fairly normal childhood, but I knew I was different from a very young age. I knew I was gay.” Talk a little bit about what being young and gay in India was like.

NS: It was difficult, to be honest. It was really difficult, because it’s not talked about. At least back then, it wasn’t talked about. I’m talking about in the late ’80s early ’90s, when I kind of realized something was different about me. It was difficult, because I had nothing to compare anything to. The only stuff that I heard about in terms of gay life was about Indians who were either getting arrested, or bodily harm, or even being killed. So for me, that was quite terrifying. As a child then you start, you think there’s something wrong with you.

NS: There’s no role models that have had a positive experience to compare yourself to in your own country. You start to feel out of place. Then the same situation happened in school, where I think a lot of the kids kind of guessed. I went to an all boys school. I was bullied a lot because I was also smaller in physical size. Also because I probably displayed a lot of behaviorisms that people thought I was gay. So I would get teased, bullied a lot. I hated it, and I just wanted to get away from all of that.

EL: School and home are supposed to be places of comfort, and it doesn’t sound like there was a safe space for you growing up.

NS: Right. The other problem was I couldn’t talk to anybody about it, which made it even more compounding, because you’re holding it all in. You don’t know if you could talk to anyone at home. That made it quite difficult.

EL: You must’ve endeavored, how can I get out of here as soon as I can?

NS: I did, yeah. I had a game plan.

EL: You did have a game plan. Tell us about the game plan.

NS: The game plan. Well, besides being gay, I kind of knew when I put two and two together what it was and what my potential outcomes were if I lived in India. Through media, one of the things I think that was good about watching movies and TV shows, it kind of exposed me to the idea that there were people outside India in the west who were living openly as being gay, and they were in a much better situation than I would have been if I stayed on.

EL: You thought that sounded like heaven.

NS: Right, because there were men and women who were living openly at that time in certain parts of the country. It felt freeing. You didn’t have to think twice about it.

EL: You ended up applying to college in the States?

NS: I did. I was studying biochemistry and microbiology in India. I decided I would go into genetics, so I had applied to a bunch of schools in the US for graduate school.

EL: You ended up at the University of Cincinnati?

NS: I did, yeah. I ended up in the PhD program at the College of Medicine over there.

EL: You stayed for four years, you say, studying, cooking and eating a lot of pizza.

NS: Yeah.

EL: I could tell you, as someone who’s written a whole book on pizza, I did not go to Cincinnati for my book.

NS: You didn’t? Oh, no. I think Cincinnati was the only place in the country that I’ve eaten a potato, what is it called, a potato pizza.

EL: Oh, with the thinly sliced potatoes and rosemary or?

NS: No, no, no, it’s mashed potatoes put inside I think it’s a deep crust pizza. Mashed potatoes, and then it’s scallions and sour cream on top.

EL: That must be a Cincinnati specialty.

NS: I feel like you missed out.

EL: The real question is, if you’re eating a lot of pizza, did you have time for your studies? I know when I get into pizza I’m just like in the zone.

NS: I did. It was an interesting experience, because I had now moved into a different form of academia, where research was pretty much you end up being in a closed room. So going out to eat with your friends is kind of a nice way to socialize and get away from just being stuck in the lab. When you’re in the lab, you’re waiting for experiments to run for hours sometimes.

EL: Yeah. You say in the book that, “School and lab potlucks became a new source for my cultural initiation and culinary education.”

NS: What happened was, in the first few months when I was getting ready to come out to my family, I started to… I knew my immunology professor at school was openly gay. So I reached out to him and I said, “Hey, I’m going through something personal, can I talk to you?” He was really supportive. He then introduced me to this medical school potluck that would happen where the MD students, the MD PhD students, and the PhD students at the College of Medicine would get together every month at a professor’s house or someone else’s house and people could kind of connect and talk. That became a sudden initiation in to what American food was, because here were people who had come from all over the country to school, and I was getting to learn in a much more intimate way.

EL: It was at that point, you’re in Cincinnati, and you come out to your friends and family. In your family’s case, that’s long distance, right?

NS: Right.

EL: How was that?

NS: It was difficult at first, because on one hand I set the stage up because I’m analytical and I always plan things out. I set the stage up so I would be independent from my parents, where I wouldn’t be financially dependent on them just in case things didn’t work out. At the same time, you still want everyone’s approval. Even though you’re not looking for approval, I think it’s in basic human nature to still seek it.

EL: Sure, and it’s a very freighted moment in your life.

NS: Right. I had come out to a couple of friends. My sister, I had told her and she was fine. She said she kind of guessed, and a couple of my other cousins also said they kind of always knew, which was great. Then when I had to tell my parents, I couldn’t do it, it was so hard. I sent them an email, and the good thing was I had the excuse of being on a different continent in a different country. I sent them the email, and then they got back to me. My dad was cool with it. My mom struggled a little bit because of her Catholic upbringing. But it worked out.

EL: It took her a little while to come around?

NS: It did, yeah. They didn’t cut me off or anything. She just struggled, and she blamed herself for a lot of it, but we worked through it and we’re fine. I think the cool thing about that was my aunts and uncles were very supportive on her side of the family.

EL: That must have helped.

NS: Yeah. They talked to her and said, “It’s not about you, it’s about him. So we need to work on this.” It really helped that I had everybody’s support.

EL: You end up moving to D.C. to take what sounds like what was a very satisfying job to you as a researcher.

NS: Right.

EL: Getting another degree, a Master’s in Public Policy. Man, you’ve got a lot of degrees for a cook. That’s all I have to say about that.

NS: Yeah.

EL: You wrote, “Still something was missing.” You’d come home exhausted, but then you would miraculously get energized in the kitchen. That must’ve been a sort of seminal moment in your life. My friend Brian Koppelman has a great podcast called The Moment. It’s all about the moment when somebody realizes what they were put on this earth to do.

NS: You know, I’ve talked about this in the book too, where initially as a child I wanted to go and work in culinary school. My mom still works for hotels, and she said, “I don’t think you’re cut out to sit in a cold room peeling onions, because all they do is bleed. You just don’t seem to have that kind of a stamina for it.” Plus, coming from an Indian family, your parents always want you to be in something that’s much more stable financially, and a lot of the classic careers like engineering, medicine, et cetera, fall into that. There was definitely that push. Neither of my parents belonged to those fields, which is also kind of fascinating that they want that for me.

NS: It was when I came to D.C. that I realized that I was so entrenched in academia morning to night. I was having fun, but there was still something that wasn’t making me happy. I think one of the things about that was, A, I was watching the government push a lot of the research funding from the NIH, they were moving that money out into defense. A lot of my professors were losing their labs. It was really disheartening to see people who had really studied so hard, worked so hard, published a lot of papers. Even I had published papers at that point in my career in research. But labs was shutting down, and I couldn’t understand for the life of me why this was a situation.

NS: Highly qualified individuals, it just wasn’t working out. It made me really scared that even after putting so much effort into something, I would not have control over my own life. The second thing that happened was, because in academia and the kind of work that I did was research, I liked the experimentative attitude towards things. You try something, it doesn’t work. If you’re looking for an answer, then you try and attack it a different or multiple ways to come close to the truth. I found cooking to be like that.

EL: You have the Kenji López-Alt gene.

NS: Yeah. I just tested his egg thing, and it worked great. It was the only recipe that worked for me. I tried a bunch of different hard boiled egg peeling recipes. Kenji’s was solid.

EL: That’s awesome. You started A Brown Table, which in the book you call an online photo journal, but I assume it was really a blog.

NS: Yeah. I didn’t know what I was getting into, and I had no idea what blogs were. Based on a couple of what my friends had told me, “You should start a food blog. This is what people are doing.” Then I looked at food blogs, and I said, “Wow, this is actually something fun.” I started spending a lot of time during my incubation periods at work during running experiments, I would just scroll through blogs and say, “Wow, these are beautiful. I’m getting to see parts of the world I wouldn’t, learning about new things and this is fun. Maybe I could do something.” I didn’t know what I was getting into, or what I had to tell people.

EL: Welcome to my world there, Nik.

NS: Right?

EL: What do you think was going on with Serious Eats?

NS: I love Serious Eats.

EL: You start it not to make a living, but just as an outlet for creative expression.

NS: Right. I mean, to be honest, I didn’t know anything about blogging. Like I said, I didn’t know what I had to tell people, and I also didn’t have anything really to say about cooking. I just wanted to have some fun.

EL: Yeah, and then it took over your life in a wonderful way.

NS: Yes. It’s the beast that keeps needing to be fed.

EL: Yes, we know that for sure. You met your husband, Michael, in D.C., who was from the south and that opened up a whole new set of cooking vistas for you. You say in the book, you started making biscuits with ghee instead of lard. I love that. How are those?

NS: You can actually get a really good texture, and I find it better than the texture I get with pure butter.

EL: You say that Michael’s parents, who had a farm, were extremely supportive of both your cooking and you cook with your mother-in-law. And that it was really one of the seminal moments in your cooking life.

NS: Yeah. What had happened until then, I had experiences with American families before from my friends. This was a little more intimate, because I was also trying to fit into with his family and making a much more conscious effort.

EL: Right. It’s the old in-law thing, man, it’s rough. It’s rough. It’s rough.

NS: Yeah. One of the things before I met his family, Michael told me that both his mom and I have a lot… I guess you always marry someone like your parents. He told me that his mom and I had a lot of interesting similar features. We both like to garden, we both like to cook a lot. We both like to read. Oh, and we have a thing for old objects, according to him, which what he meant by was old vintage books or antiques. He had decided the best way to introduce us would be via email to our love for food.

NS: We started talking over email, and they invited me down to the farm. I went to the farm, and she definitely wanted me to cook for her. The thing that I said, knowing Michael, he likes meat and potatoes. He’s from the south. I’m guessing everyone else in the family, it will be safe to kind of play with that a little bit. I picked every meat and potato dish I knew of and I could cook well, and made that for them and it was fantastic.

EL: That’s great. You guys got hitched, you moved to San Francisco. Then like a fool like me, you quit your job to pursue your dream of working in food. How the hell did you think you would support yourself?

NS: It’s a good thing I was married by then.

EL: Your husband had a gig.

NS: Right. I’m very honest about that. I don’t think it would have been possible. I did toy with the idea before I married him. The problem was, first I was on a student visa and then I was on a work visa. You can’t change your type of employment. If you’re in science, you have to stay in science. Of course when I got married, things changed. I got a green card, became a citizen. I had now the freedom of not being in that job lock situation. So I said, “Well, my time has come.”

EL: Free at last.

NS: I spoke to him about it, and he had… Michael was in defense. He had done his time his in the Air Force, done his service, and then became a defense consultant, and was sick of it, needed a break. He said, “I want to change. I want to leave D.C. and get away from all of that. Let’s consider moving to California.” He wanted a job change, which he did. I said, “Well, we moved here now for you.” I had taken a part-time job as a researcher for a small pharmaceutical company. I said, “I kind of want to have a change too. I can do it. Let me see what the possibilities are.” I wanted to be a pastry cook, because that felt very analytical.

EL: And you have a sweet tooth.

NS: I do, I have a terrible sweet tooth. I reached out to, I think it was 15 or 21 bakeries and patisseries in the neighborhood, looked into going to culinary school at the ICC.

EL: ICC is the International Culinary Center. It used to be the FCI, right?

NS: Yeah. They had this program that I could have attended, but I was going to use Michael’s, his leftover money from his school loans. The problem was he didn’t leave, but what is the right it, he’s a vet. He did his time, but he left before that rule came in that the money could be transferred to your spouse, so we wouldn’t qualify then. I remember reading a post David Lebovitz’s blog about should you go to culinary school or should you work in a restaurant, like what are the pros and cons? I said, “David’s kind of right. I don’t know what I’m getting into. Then investing all this money into something which is a high risk career might not pay off, right? So what do I do?”

NS: I took his advice, called up a bunch of bakeries and patisseries. One lady called me back and said, “Are you really sure you want to do this? Come in and stage.” I staged for two weeks, and then she made me an offer. She said, “Are you sure you want to do this, because I will not be able to pay you the money you’re getting at your pharmaceutical place.” I said, “You know, I think we can do this. I spoke to my husband at home. He said, ‘Fine, I’m going to support you on this. Go do it because you’re really enthusiastic, and you’re going to chew my head off.'” So I did it, with his support.

EL: That’s so great.

NS: Yeah.

EL: That’s the same thing what happened with my wife with Serious Eats, so I know exactly what you’re talking about. You start blogging. I mean you’re still blogging, you’re working at the bakery, and then you begin taking the photography on your blog more seriously. Which is weird because your dad was a commercial photographer.

NS: Yeah, yeah.

EL: We haven’t really gotten into the nuts and bolts of what people found and still find on A Brown Table.

NS: I didn’t grow up in a family that was very traditional. We ate a lot of different things at the table, and that was kind of the way I started to eat even when I moved to America. I started to experience new things, and I started to bring that into the kitchen in terms of flavors, techniques, and of course the actual dishes. I wanted to reflect that in my blog, because it made no sense to me to write about classic Indian cooking, which is often what is expected of me, because it’s already been done. Unless I’m contributing something new to that equation, it doesn’t make sense for me to just harp on the same topic again and again. If I can make like a naan better, and I think it’s better and I think it’s going to make it easy for you, then yes, I’ll work on it. I’ll want to tell the story about that. Otherwise, there’s no point in me just saying the same old thing. That’s what I wanted to do with the blog.

EL: It was really a matter of combining your love and understanding of Indian food with an exploration into the food that you found in America, and then using your geeky scientific self to explore that stuff.

NS: That’s the way I approach it. I thought that was the best thing for me to do, because that’s what I’m familiar with and I’m really passionate about flavor. I’m really curious to see how people in different parts of the world approach the same ingredient or the same technique. I find it fascinating, because a lot of it is also a reflection of society, the socioeconomics of a country or at the time point in life. I find that fascinating, and I wanted to reflect that in my work. I started reading a lot, and also cooking and experimenting with flavor. That’s what I started to do with the blog and bring that in.

EL: Got it. In the beginning, it seems like the photography, which must have been its own interesting part of the process because your dad was a commercial photographer, you were doing a lot of process shots, right? There weren’t many pictures of you.

NS: Right.

EL: The moment you began photographing yourself, you started to get some blow-back about the color of your skin, your sexuality.

NS: Right.

EL: You wrote something very, very beautiful in the book, which is that “Sometimes during moments of vulnerability you can find your strength and voice.” What did you mean by that?

NS: One of the things with getting into the blog world, I didn’t realize how many opinions come out.

EL: There’s nothing but opinions.

NS: Right? The simplest thing can be misconstrued in many different ways, intentionally or unintentionally. That was the thing with, I had come from a world where the only thing you were critiqued on was the quality of your work. I’m used to that. Being critiqued on something that I had no control over was very confusing at first. I started getting a lot of pushback against the color of my skin being burned or dark or whatever. Also on my sexuality, because I didn’t think that was also something I had to hide. I kind of assumed that it was obvious in many ways, but it’s part and parcel of the nature of the game as I’ve learned now.

EL: Oh, yes.

NS: You’ve got to take it with a bit of salt. Initially, obviously because I was uninitiated into the online digital space, I was a little uncomfortable and obviously a little even frightened. You get that sinking feeling in your gut every time you read a negative comment.

EL: Oh, yes. I’ve had my life threatened online many times.

NS: Oh, god. It also was something that’s not that important to me. I mean what I do I feel is important to me, but people getting even more emotional about it is bizarre.

EL: Yeah. I don’t mean to equate what happened to me. Although, the Asian people who worked at Serious Eats were subject to, and also there’s a lot of antisemitic stuff. Again, I don’t want to equate it with what you went through, but this shit is hard out there, man.

NS: It is. It is. Yeah. I think one of the things people forget that when you write or you do something and you put it out there, you’re making yourself vulnerable. I think people who read that forget that. I think there needs to be some level of compassion. Fortunately, I took a step back just to reevaluate my decisions in life at that point, whether I really wanted to do a blog. I said, “Well, you know, this is something that I’m actually enjoying more than I was before. I would be a fool to give it away just because of the opinions of a few. Let me stick to it, do it in my best way that I possibly could. So if they had to critique me, they could critique me on the quality of my work, but not on anything else.”

EL: Yes. You say, “At that moment there’s two options. You either stop blogging or continue to do what I loved.” You obviously chose the latter, which is really awesome. The blog leads to the Brown Kitchen column in the San Francisco Chronicle. How did that come about, and how does that differ from your blog?

NS: Yeah, so that was actually a very fortunate thing that happened. We had decided to move from… We were living in South Bay in Sunnyvale, and we decided to move from Sunnyvale to Oakland. What happened at the time was actually… Sorry, Santa Clara, I was working in Sunnyvale, but we decided to move from Santa Clara to Oakland. When I came to Oakland, I needed to look for jobs. I had to quit the pastry shop. Started looking for jobs, I applied at a digital company that was looking to enter the food space, and disrupt it like they all do. They hired me to be their food photographer where I would take photographs, style the food, take photographs for the food that would then be sold on the app. During that period, I was unhappy because I was photographing everyone else’s food.

EL: You wanted to photograph your own food, dammit.

NS: Right, right. I was also doing a lot of stuff that I didn’t expect to do, like data analysis on photographs. Which is great, it’s a good skill to have, but I really didn’t need to know about the engineering aspects of it. I should just come in photograph, style and leave. I was unhappy because I had no creative control over anything. I was also told that, I was critiqued a lot on my work, which is fine, you should be critiqued. But it wasn’t constructive. I felt demeaned every day. I would go in, and they would tell me to make my photos look less attractive so customers would not be disappointed with what they read.

EL: What a concept.

NS: They also had this thing where they wanted to win a James Beard award for an app. It was just very bizarre. I was constantly being told to perform less than what I could. As a creative person, that sucks. I started looking for freelance options, and I reached out to a friend of mine, a writer named John Birdsall, who also wrote the forward to my book.

EL: Terrific writer.

NS: Yes. John’s been a really supportive mentor and friend in my life. He lives in Oakland. I reached out to John, and I said, “Hey John, I’m really stressed out. I need to get out of the situation I’m in. Do you know anyone who would be looking for a photographer?” I thought that was my skill. So I reached out via John to my editor, Paolo Lucchesi at the Chronicle who was not my editor back then. I met up with Paolo, and I sent him my work. I said, “This is what I’ve done.” He said, “Okay, let me talk to my team.”

NS: Then he came back I think after two weeks and said, “Hey, so we’re thinking you shouldn’t be a freelance photographer with us.” I said, “Oh shit.” He goes, “Would you be interested in writing a food column for us, a recipe based column, because we think that’s your strength.” I said, “Oh, really? Okay, I don’t know what this is about, but it sounds fun. I’ll do it.” It turned out to be one of the most important defining moments in my life. When you’re on a major platform, like a newspaper, people start to take you much more seriously.

EL: Yes. You must have been like, can I really do this? Then you’re like, wait a minute, I can do this. I write my blog, I take the photographs.

NS: Right. It taught me a lot, because not only was I able to talk about food, I’ve also been given the opportunity to write about food culture.

EL: Yeah, which is great.

NS: Yeah. It’s also a different audience, and so it helps me kind of expand the horizon on what Indian food is known as in America, but also what people can appreciate it for.

EL: You wrote this amazing paragraph on page 20 in the book. Rather than have me butcher it, I would like you to read it. It’s the one that starts with, “Mine is the story.”

NS: Yeah, of course. “Mine is the story of a gay immigrant told through food. It has been a journey of self-discovery I embarked on more than a decade ago. One that taught me to recognize the inherent tension between originality and tradition, and to opt for the former without rejecting the latter. It’s been a journey of acclimatization, adaptation, and acceptance. During times of discomfort, food became my friend and teacher. It taught me to reinterpret conventional techniques and flavors, and apply these reinterpretations to my food that would become a part of my new life in America. Seasoning is more than just a way to achieve flavor in the food we eat. It represents our desire to connect with our past, present, and future. It tells our story.”

EL: That’s an awesome paragraph. I wish I had written it. In fact, I may take credit for it and plagiarize, and please don’t sue me.

NS: I won’t sue you.

EL: Nik, we’re out of time for this episode of Special Sauce. What you just read is a perfect segue to talk about Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food. We will get to that topic during your next episode of Special Sauce. Thanks, Nik Sharma, for starting us off right.

NS: Thanks for having me, Ed.

EL: We’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.

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