Thank You, Fatima

Chef Fatima Ali became my icon by honoring her roots.

Fatima Ali, photographed in April 2017. Photo: Mark Tom Photography
Fatima Ali, photographed in April 2017. Photo: Mark Tom Photography
Fatima Ali, photographed in April 2017. Photo: Mark Tom Photography

My friend likes to tell me about the warm summer day she met a young sous-chef from Café Centro. They were in Kips Bay, at a mutual friend’s apartment, and the chef was from Karachi, in southwestern Pakistan. She was cross-legged on the floor, intently focused on a steaming potful of nihari set before her. The chef dunked chunks of naan into the stew, devouring the tender beef. This chef was, my friend says, utterly consumed with the dish, and the entire apartment smelled of cardamom and cinnamon. “This is so good,” the chef said. “Everyone should be eating this!”

The sous-chef was Fatima Ali, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, the first Pakistani chef to win Chopped, a veteran of the New York restaurant scene (with a résumé long enough to impress any gruff desi dad who might think cooking is something that women do only to feed their families), and a contestant on the 15th season of Top Chef. She didn’t win that season, but she nevertheless became its star, and was among the most relatable and popular chefs the show has ever featured. And to me, and other young women from the subcontinent, she was an icon.

My husband and I are Top Chef superfans: we have binged (and re-binged) every season, we are spooked by the Birthday Curse, and we make a point of visiting each of the contestants’ restaurants. I am not a chef, and Fati and I were not friends, but the first time I saw her on the show, I felt like she and I had known each other forever. When I heard her first voice-over, announcing that she was from Karachi and that she cooked Pakistani street food, I spilled my wine in excitement. Finally! Someone I could relate to on this show! She was one of my people. I am from India, and Fati’s background was instantly familiar: She got off the same boat that I did, right around the same time.

I was an immediate fan. In her season premiere, Fatima paid homage to her heritage with a deconstructed samosa: tender and spicy braised chicken, masala peas, and potatoes on a crunchy chip of fried chicken skin. This is what we wanted to see: someone who cooked our food with pride and gusto. She didn’t reinterpret this traditional cooking because she fetishized it, but because she revered it. Fatima represented us and the America that we inhabit. We’re the desis who appreciate coq au vin as much as chicken tikka. We celebrate our Amreeki homes with Fourth of July BBQs where we drink saisons and eat corn on the cob that’s slathered with chili powder, cumin, and lime. Fatima represented the brown ladies who came here to live our own American dreams, in a world that often feels tailor-made for white men.

In a quest to assimilate in America, I have disavowed my own heritage more than I would like admit. Immigrant women of color like me often go through periods of grappling with our identities. We want to be proud of where we’ve come from and of who we will become. Sometimes the two are at odds, and we find ourselves on fraught ground, trying to reconcile our cultural backgrounds with our modern selves. Guilt, shame, and insecurity arrive. We mangle the names our mothers gave us, adopting versions that will be more palatable to American maître d’s. We replace words like “capsicum” and “brinjal” with “peppers” and “eggplant.” We have few figures in pop culture to look to, not to mention ones who can embody the stories of a new wave of immigrants. So we draw inspiration from our peers, who show us what an inclusive, harmonized identity looks like. We learn to be easy on ourselves for rolling our r’s more in conversation. Grilled cheese — masala’d up with green chilis and cilantro, of course — becomes food that’s almost as comforting as daal chawal. We cheer passionately for the Knicks, while we find bars that screen the Cricket World Cup. We become accustomed to living in two worlds at once.

When I told a friend that I wanted to write about how Fati inspired me, my friend assumed that she had won Top Chef. But her success in the show’s competition isn’t what made her a role model. When I think of what I admire about Fati, I think of the challenge in which the contestants had to camp on mountainous, icy slopes in Estes Park. Endearingly, rather than promoting her own successful dish crafted in harsh conditions, Fati heaped praise on a co-competitor’s ingenious method for baking a cake. “She built an oven out of the snow!” Fati exclaimed rapturously. “Who does that!?” I was struck by this. Here was a talented woman who seemed self-aware, and who had pride, but not hubris. She was successful and ambitious, but not ruthlessly so. It was confidence without arrogance, which is so rare to see on television (especially reality television).

Fatima’s humility and self-assuredness masked how unlikely and difficult her path really was, dreaming of becoming a female chef at a time when — and in a country where — they were as rare as hen’s teeth. Her passport prevented her from staging at kitchens in Europe. She did have a supportive family who appreciated her talent and grit, and — in the tradition of South Asian parents worldwide — recognized the importance of a good education. So Fati left Pakistan to train at the Culinary Institute of America.

When I watched her on television, I saw someone with balance to emulate, instead of an unrealistic projection of absolute perfection. She was a millennial immigrant who defied the odds. All the while, she seemed comfortable in her own brown skin, and so relatable that I thought, “Maybe I can do it, too.”

The comfort that she took while finding her own style as a chef — on national television, no less — was exactly what so many of us needed to see. At her Smorgasburg stand, and on Top Chef, she reimagined Pakistani classics using the European and American techniques she had learned, finding a chance for self-expression in dishes like moongre with tempura batter, rasmalai topped with peanut brittle and salted caramel, and cheeseburger chaat, with which she integrated something uniquely American into dishes that also honored her roots.

Fatima’s food gave me an image of a possible new identity. She died of Ewing’s sarcoma last month, before her 30th birthday. In her too-short life, Fatima pioneered the way for so many young Pakistani women, and was a beacon for immigrants like me. She was a role model who didn’t colonize the space she had carved out for herself; instead, she paved the way to it. In a letter to her past self, Fati wrote that her cancer made her famous. I want to politely refute that, and say: Fati, you are what makes you famous. Your food is important. Your story is so important. Thank you for sharing yourself with us. Shukriya, Fatima.

A former human rights lawyer, Madhuri Sastry writes on feminism, South Asia, and pop culture. She has no time for “chai tea” or “naan bread.” Find her on instagram @supportedfish.

Thank you, Fatima Ali