In his blog and in print, Nik Sharma writes about growing up in the United States and India, and what he loves to cook and bake. He also writes about his diverse identities: life as an immigrant and married gay man. He does it all with grace and style, as though this was what we’ve done in food writing all along. When in fact, it’s rare.
A freelance food writer and award-winning photographer, Nik writes a recipe-based food column for the San Francisco Chronicle called A Brown Kitchen and blogs at A Brown Table. His first cookbook, Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food, comes out in October, 2018.
We first met when I gave him a lift from a potluck in San Francisco to his home in Oakland, where I live as well. I’ve since admired his honesty and creativity as a writer and photographer.
Here’s Nik’s take about diverse identities, showing himself in photos, and how to get more points of view into food writing:
Q. In your work, you identify yourself in three categories aside from food writer and photographer: Queer, immigrant, and person of color. Are all these diverse identities critical to your writing and career?
A. If I still lived in India, the queer part would be most important to me, because that’s not always accepted. But it’s much better here. I have rights that I would not have had before. I can speak up for what I believe in.
Q. Do you think we are in a different time in food writing, where these diverse identifies are more acceptable to write about?
A. Globalization and the Internet have made these topics much more open now. It’s acceptable to pitch stories like that, which are vulnerable and emotional.
When I met Madhur Jaffrey at IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) I told her I wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle for the last two years. I write about the intersection of Californian and Indian foods. She was shocked. She said in her day, “we” would never be able to do a regular column like that.
Q. How did your San Francisco Chronicle column and its name, A Brown Kitchen, come about?
A. The name was my idea. We wanted to connect it to my blog, A Brown Table.
I was working as a food photographer and reached out to Food Editor Paolo Lucchesi, looking for freelance photography work. We met for coffee and did not discuss the column at all.
But later he offered me a column and said I could write about whatever I wanted. It’s been one of the best transitions for me. Except for working in a kitchen as pastry cook, I didn’t have any professional experience cooking or writing.
Q. That’s incredible, to get an offer like that. What I noticed when I started reading the column was your hands. Was it critical to show your hands in the photos?
A. That happened with the blog. I wanted to make the photos meaningful. When I worked in a commercial restaurant kitchen, my mentor was Mexican, the head chef was half Japanese and half white, and there were a few Persians. Then I noticed that in restaurants, I would not see many people of color working in the front. I decided that in my own way, I could bring that story out.
I started photographing my hands. I wanted to represent and give a voice to these people who were hidden. I also wanted to portray the beauty of working in food, in a more evocative and emotional way. It was only natural that that style would migrate to the column.
Q. Why is it important to share your story of diverse identies, not just to write recipes?
A. The past couple of years I’ve been drawn more to books and articles where there’s some connection I can identify with. I want to be accepted for who I am. In food writing, there’s some emotional component that has influenced my style of cooking. Cooking with one’s grandmother, for example, is a common theme. Or when a dish provided comfort when I was feeling down.
It’s important to connect with people. I try to come from an emotional standpoint, unless I’m writing something educational, such as the piece on rice I did for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Q. Has being gay, a person of color and an immigrant influenced the recipes you choose?
A. Yes. With photography, I’m more of a minimalist. I’m thinking of feminine forms and geometry. But with food, there are certain influences that have shaped my style of cooking, based on my heritage, my culture, and coming to this country.
I’m not trying to be more American or more Indian. I share what’s important to me, and what I’m proud of. My husband is from the South so I’m influenced by what his family cooks too.
I really don’t want to tie myself down to traditional Indian food. I want to show the diversity of the culture I grew up with and how I’ve assimilated it in the culture I am in now. I want to show the versatility, and how people can explore Indian flavors and techniques in the kitchen.
Q. Is it a level playing field in food writing now, where anyone can get published on these subjects?
A. It’s getting much better. Based on the frequency of people of color getting published, there’s more diverse editorial content. In the Chronicle, for example, there’s a diverse group of food writers in the section. Tunde Wey, who is such a powerful writer, makes you think and look at racial disparity in food and media from a unique lens.
Q. Why do you think editors, who are the gatekeepers of what gets tradtionally published, are taking so long to embrace writers with diverse identities?
A. The editors I’ve worked with are pretty open. But cookbooks are 95 percent white. Successful food people on social media are white. People who are white identify with people who are white, so that’s a hard one to change.
The cookbooks I read are really old or from other countries. I understand and explore the world through their eyes.
Q. What do you think needs to happen for gay, immigrant and/or people of color to get a place at the food-writing table?
A. People who have a position of power and privilege must make space, and I don’t mean for just one person. That would make someone feel like a token. We need diverse identities for a diverse and broader conversation. Mentorship and alliances on every level are valuable tools that would beneficial to so many deserving people.
For people of color like me, we have to keep knocking at the door. Persistence and not giving up are really important.
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