Indian-American chef, LQBTQ+ representative and guest in Michelle Obama's show, Waffles + Mochi, the multifaceted Preeti Mistry sits down with us for a chat
Two time James Beard nominee, Preeti Mistry talks about life in the post-pandemic world as a farmer, the importance of representation in the kitchen and why the coming together of the queer community and F&B leaders is the need of the hour
As inclusivity becomes a domineering conversation, one of the voices that is making an impact in the F&B industry globally is Preeti Mistry. Best known as the chef-owner of Juhu Beach Club and two time best chef of the West nominee by the James Beard Foundation, Mistry is also a cookbook author, speaker, and podcaster. Most recently, Mistry was one of the guest chefs on Michelle Obama's Netflix special, Waffles + Mochi, where they featured on an episode that focused on herbs and spices, and whipped up homemade pani puri.
Mistry's candour, in terms of speaking up about their experiences as an Indian-American queer chef, is not unknown. The now 43-year-old ventured into F&B in their early 20s, when they moved away from home and quickly got bored of eating take-out frequently. Like most young adults, Mistry too lived on a budget and soon, started cooking to save up. It's when they began learning the basics, from risotto and dal bhaat to Gujarati urad dal. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Mistry talks about life in the post-pandemic world as a farmer, the importance of representation in the kitchen and why the coming together of the queer community and F&B leaders is the need of the hour.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
In the past year, we know you've taken on a new role as a farmer. What inspired you?
I wouldn't say farmer, more like a farmer's assistant. I got involved in agriculture in Sonoma County, California and moved to the countryside, because I've always wanted to explore it as a chef. I am constantly seeking out small and local farms, women-owned farms and farms owned by people of colour. I think it is really important to support new farmers as they are the future. One of the reasons, I decided to volunteer last March was because I was worried about the food system with the pandemic [threatening] the conventional chain of food supply. For instance, some people go to supermarkets and others support small farmers. But what if, all of a sudden, there's no cauliflower on the shelf at the supermarket? Those people are going to start looking for other places. So, it was important to help as the demand grew. I also wanted to help in whatever way I could during COVID-19.
Has the pandemic been hard for F&B and harder for the LGBTQIA+ community within
In terms of the LGBTQAI+ community, I don't know that anyone has had it any harder. But for people in the kitchen, I think that was one of the hardest things. For me at the beginning, I heard friends and colleagues just literally saying, they're having the worst day of their life and that this has been the worst thing that's ever happened to their business because they had to lay all these people off. Plus, it's not like small businesses and restaurants had been doing so great before.
So, it was really heartbreaking to watch and feel like there's nothing I could do, aside from like, give money to the #GoFundMe campaigns for all their employees and I did that. But it's so challenging because it wasn't like a fire, where you just grab buckets of water and do something. The nature of COVID-19 is such that we couldn't gather and it was very hard to not lend the kind of support that I'm used to giving.
What drives you to fight for representation in the kitchen?
In the beginning of my career, I was the only woman [till 2016, Mistry identified as a woman and used the pronouns she/her] in most kitchens in London. I was also a person of colour, queer, non-binary and gender non-conforming. But I couldn't hide who I am and I felt like there weren't enough restaurants and kitchens where I would be fully embraced, or be my whole self. For instance, when I heard about Raji Jallepalli, I felt amazing. She isn't queer, but the fact that she was an Indian woman chef here in the US in the early '90s was great. The point is to feel safe and be accepted. It's so unfortunate because there are so many opportunities for people that might really be interested in learning more about cooking or farming regardless of their sexuality. And I guess, that's why representation is so important to me.
How do you feel about issues around representation and inclusivity for the LGBTQIA+
community being treated as topics worth our attention only during the pride month?
Hell yeah! I'm not only queer in the month of June alone. I'm here all year round. However, I think that's true for everything. For me, the idea of something being niche is so bizarre. All of us watch TV and movies and it is dominated by white men and their lives. Shouldn't that be a niche for me? That's not my experience, it's totally different from my upbringing and lifestyle. However, we all watch it and find some relatability in our own lives, even though it is very different. So, why can't some straight white guy watch a story about me, and my experience and learn something about themselves? They might also find that it resonates with them personally. I mean, relationships are relationships.
How do you use your experience to mentor the new generation of chefs?
I got a lot of them—what should I call them—little homies! Especially since I started Juhu Beach Club in 2013, my staff, other young chefs, younger women of colour, young men and some white men, have become like my family. And I didn't realise it, until I closed my restaurants. You start to feel really isolated from the rest of the industry because when you're going to the farmer's market, you meet all these people. And I'm a very social person. But then, all of a sudden, you're no longer the host of this party you had been having for five or six days a week. So, I started reaching out to a lot of my colleagues again. I want to be there for them because I never felt like I had any role models. I did have some awesome people who've helped me along the way, but not a mentor to go to for advice or concerns, in the classical sense. It's important to have that camaraderie in the industry, especially among women, women of colour and the LGBTQIA+ community. When you tell somebody who has had a different identity, and you talk to them about your experience and they resonate with you, you feel a sense of belonging and comfort in knowing that you're not alone.