Nik Sharma is a writer, photographer, recipe developer, and the man behind the beloved food blog, A Brown Table, and the San Francisco Chronicle column, A Brown Kitchen. He is also the author of the Indian cookbook, Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food. As a gay immigrant telling the food stories from that particular lens, Nik’s stories are person, departing from away from familiar Indian flavors, to express the complexity of his life journey. Growing up in Bombay, he always sensed tension within his identity - whether it be between the two cultures of his parents - his dad is North Indian, and his mother is Goa Catholic - or what it was like to begin to wrestle with his sexuality in a country that did not accept him. Nik started his professional life as a student at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine to pursue a degree in genetics, and has also lived a life in public policy and professional baking, before developing his own unique style in photography, cooking, and writing.
Fondest food memory: Baking cookies during Christmas with my maternal side. We would sit down at a large, wooden table in Bombay during the first or second week of December when things would start to die down in school, we would get together and start cutting out cookies for Christmas. The smell of vanilla, the little sprinkle that went on top of the cookies, playing with cutters, making a mess, that’s probably my fondest experience.
Pei-Ru Ko: So to start, the response to your cookbook has been phenomenal- Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food has been featured in the New York Times, Bon Appétit, and publications all around the world, even topping Best Cookbook of the Year lists in many places, including the SF Chronicle. And I just wanted to start off and talk about this, and ask you, how your life has changed and how it may have stayed the same over the last few months.
Nik Sharma: I’ve been busy, that’s one thing. It’s been fun! It’s been fun because I’ve been very fortunate to have this experience and I’ve been meeting people from all over the world who have connected with the book, cooked from the book, and shared the recipes. That’s been the most rewarding aspect - just connecting with people and hearing their stories and seeing them cook from the book.
PK: In the past, you shared with us a story about the negative responses you got regarding the color of your skin when you started your blog. Now, you have worked long and hard to overcome that. So since publishing your book, what have been some of the most surprising responses?
NS: Most surprising responses? That’s a difficult question. The biggest surprise to me was ‘wow, people actually want to buy this book!’ That was really exciting, and just having people connect with the book, and being able to see a lot of themselves, being represented in a way. Because a lot of people who are like me, who brown, or gay or immigrants, we do not get a chance to kind of share our stories. I was introducing myself to the world and wanted to be honest about who I was, and explain why I cook the way I cook, because I’ve always told my stories through food and photos - that is my medium for communication with people. And the fact that I was now reaching a wider audience with the book and people all over the world were connecting with it made me really happy. I think just to see the response back home in India, was extra special to me because that’s where I grew up, that was the country that I was born in, and that’s the country I left because I was gay. I was uncomfortable with being gay there - I didn’t know what kind of a future I would have. But two years later, seeing that book being written about in some of the top newspapers in India was very special to me. Because my parents still live there, and they were coming across these articles in the newspapers, and I knew then - it was extra special and that’s what made it special to me.
PK: I’m guessing, looking back, it probably makes sense that you’d quit your pharmaceutical job, even though it took years to achieve, and take a minimum wage job at a bakery. But I’m sure at the time, it was much more of a struggle. So, can you look back a little bit and talk about that decision, and in the time since then, did you ever feel like you were making a mistake? And any advice to anyone who might be feeling the same way, that might want to risk everything and follow their dreams?
NS: I think I was scared, no, I know I was definitely scared, making that decision. I had heard a lot of stories of people who had gone to culinary school or worked as chefs and had not had happy outcomes. And the other thing about the restaurant business is that it’s a high risk business. Also, having written for a couple of journals and different media outlets, I knew that the pay wasn’t the best. So it was definitely a scary decision to make. But I will say this, I was so fortunate to have a husband who was emotionally supporting during that time, and I think that was a huge deal for me. Because you need that - you need some sort of backing when you take a leap of faith like that. But you also need to be passionate about if you want to do it. And that I knew, if I hadn’t [changed careers], I knew I would be unhappy in life. Even if I failed, I at least I knew I tried, and that was a very important thing for me to do.
PK: You also talked about having a total lack of gay role models growing up, and I specifically remembering you talking about looking at Elton John, and Freddie Mercury and thinking that gay people could only go into music or fashion. At the time, that sounded both endearing and humorous, but also heartbreaking. And I know things have changed since then with the LGBTQ community, it’s more representative now, more than ever.. So what do you think is the next necessary breakthrough for youth today to be able to live their truths and to go after their passions?
NS: A few things, and this is speaking from a more personal point of view, because I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, I’ve been gifted a platform. But at the same time, representation shouldn’t just be for the sake of representing, right? I want to see people who are talented from the LGBTQ community, or are from the immigrant community, people who are POCs, women of color, I want to see them represented because they are talented and have things to share with the world. I think that’s really critical because there is a lot of talent otherwise that gets overlooked. And I think that this will make the world a better place, a richer story, that the conversation gets much more interesting because representation shouldn’t exist for the sake of representation. It should also be representation with some level of power - so people who then come into power are these people, you know? So they also get a say in what decisions are made, which then helps to bring them a much more broader perspective, and a much more diverse story that’s being shared with them with these people. And that’s what I want to see in the future.
PK: And echoing that, I know you’ve talked about not wanting to be boxed in or defined by any specific label - a chef of color, a gay cook, an immigrant food blogger - and wanting to exist in your intersectionality of it all. What are some ways that you’ve struggled with other’s inevitable perceptions and assumptions of you and how have you broken through them?
NS: One of the things that I constantly have to struggle with is whether people want to see me as a cook, a food blogger or as a photographer. I’ve been doing all three things for the longest time now, ever since I got into it. I started out as a food blogger, I had to learn all three things, and I don’t want to really separate any of them, I don’t want to choose. So again, I do not want to fit into any box or any definition of what people create for me, I’d rather make my own, and stay in that and work! I want to work, and write more about food, I want to photograph more food, I want to cook more food! I want people to enjoy the food that I write about and cook for them. So, that’s what’s important to me, I don’t want to fit into anyone’s stereotypical, definition of what is Indian food, and what Indian food should be defined as. I just want to have fun and experiment and explore.
PK: What are some of the ways you have done that?
NS: Well, for me, the most obvious way to do that is through food. If I’m invited to someone’s house and it’s a potluck, and people ask me to bring something, I always try to bring something that brings a new point of view, especially if they’re unfamiliar with India or another culture.
PK: Do you think to see food as truly something beyond food but rather, as a means of communication?
NS: Definitely. And I think that for different people, it’s a different medium, because for artists, it might be a painting, for a photographer it will be a photo, and for me, it’s food. And photos. And my words when I write. So those are the things that come naturally when I try to share a perspective of my own, and also to help people connect. For me, it’s always been those three things.
PK: You talk about your friends being a big part of your chosen family, or the people who are important to you. I also want to ask about your love for your cats and dogs, who you often feature on your instagram! What are their names and who do they play a role in your life and work?
NS: I have a dog who’s now 8 ½ who’s name is Snoopy, who moved with us when we moved from DC to California, we got a cat two years ago named Vesper Lynx. And now we rescued a little kitten who showed up at our door, who isn’t so little anymore. I think he’s about six months now, or four to six months, and his name is Drogy Ficus. Who’s actually turning out to be quite energetic. I always describe him as the cross-fit gym trainer that the other two never had, because he keeps them constantly exhausted.
PK: So, looking to the future, what are some of your hopes and dreams for your different projects? Where are you heading?
NS: I think the biggest thing for me now, is to continue to write about food and share it with people. I want to write more books, so that’s hopefully where I’m headed. That makes me happy. It makes me happy to write a book. It makes me happy to share a recipe. It makes me happy to share a recipe with people that will enjoy cooking it and learn something new about something they perhaps knew of, but now see in a different light. I think that that makes it really exciting for me.
PK: RFRS is a place where eaters connect with their local food community - is there anything that we can do to participate in what you’re building and join The Brown Table/Kitchen movement?
NS: Yeah! Of course. I share mostly what’s happening on Twitter or on Instagram. You can also go to my blog, A Brown Table where all the updates, my newspaper and other columns that I write are all listed.
PK: And you probably love it when people cook your recipe and let you know how it went.
NS: Yeah! I love when people send me a note. I think the funnest part of the book process is seeing photo on Twitter or on Instagram where people share what they’re cooking and tag me. So to see what’s going on, how it looks, whether they like the recipe, what they liked about it, is special to me. So that’s the most rewarding bit of this whole experience.
PK: Wonderful. Thank you Nik!
NS: This was great, thanks Pei-Ru!