As Pride month draws to a close, we wanted to honor one of the most visible, influential queer voices in the food and lifestyle community. Nik Sharma, a Food52 contributor who’s introduced our audience to countless authentic recipes from his Indian homeland, is a Bay Area-based writer, photographer, and recipe developer who doesn’t shy away from using his platform to shed light on LGBTQ issues. He's amassed more than 40.3k followers on his Instagram, where he features parts of his gorgeous portfolio. You can also bookmark his rich and tantalizing recipes on both his blog, A Brown Table, and his weekly column in the San Francisco Chronicle. His debut cookbook, Season, will be out in fall 2018.
HANA ASBRINK: How has living in the Bay Area impacted the way you cook and entertain at home?
NIK SHARMA: It sounds a tad bit cliché but one of the advantages of living in the Bay Area is farmers' markets year-round and access to fresh produce. There’s a lot more variety in terms of vegetables and fruits than what I was used to on the East Coast, and so I’ve become a bit spoiled. The other great part about living here is the immigrant populations, and you can easily find a lot of Asian and Indian ingredients that I usually found harder to access when I lived in Washington, D.C.
HA: Can you draw any parallels between Indian and American, specifically Northern Californian, food cultures?
NS: People usually think of curries and naan when it comes to Indian food and when it comes to California cuisine, salads and avocados are the first thing that comes to mind. Both of these cuisines are so much more than these parts and they represent but a tiny fraction of what they are made up of and have potential to be. Both Northern Californian and Indian cuisines are influenced by immigration and what the land has to offer. Predominantly, Asian and Mexican food are huge in the Bay Area because of immigrants and the same is true in India, like the Indo-Chinese cuisine created by the Chinese immigrants or the Parsi cuisine which has strong ties to Persian culture (now a mix of Indian and Persian influences) that moved to the country. There are similarities between how people adapt and acclimate wherever you look.
HA: Who currently inspires you in the home and design space?
NS: I’m thinking about remodeling my kitchen later this summer so I’ve been perusing every possible Instagram account for ideas. Some of my favorites include: West Elm, Lonny Magazine, The Spaces, Design Milk, Dwell Magazine, and The Modern House.
HA: What are your favorite kitchen tools?
HA: What books do you turn to again and again for inspiration?
NS: The science nerd in me loves all of Harold McGee’s books, especially On Food and Cooking. I think I own all of Diana Henry’s books, but Salt, Sugar and Smoke is a book that constantly inspires me to experiment in technique and flavor. Nigel Slater’s poetic writing, but Ripe is a kitchen treasure. Julia Turshen’s Small Victories is a must-keep for any home cook, she makes everything easy and tasty! For California cuisine, I love Travis Lett’s Gjelina, the Chez Panisse books by Alice Waters, and The California Cook Book by Genevieve Callahan (a queer writer and editor at Sunset Magazine). And all of these books that explore the intersection between Indian and Western culture through food: Asha Gomez's My Two Souths, Niloufer Ichaporia King's My Bombay Kitchen, Floyd Cardoz’s Flavorwalla, and Mr Todiwala’s Bombay by Cyrus Todiwala.
HA: Do you find yourself writing to your Chronicle audience any differently than you would for your blog audience?
NS: I’ve been extremely fortunate in having an editor (Paolo Lucchesi) who lets me go wild with my recipes at the SF Chronicle. My column will now celebrate its first birthday and the entire experience has been phenomenal. I respond to questions from readers who not only cook the food, but ask me questions on technique and spices. When I write for my column, I make sure that the information I share is useful to a home cook but I also try to connect the dots between my experiences as a person of color and gay immigrant because they have ultimately influenced my thinking when it comes to recipe creation. I’ve been a bit more open in the newspaper and written about coming out, but I think it is partly because I’ve matured and grown up since I started my blog.
HA: How does being a queer person of color in food and design inform the way you write and talk about food, photography, and culture?
NS: As any food writer and photographer, my work is primarily driven subconsciously by my experiences. Growing up in India and then living in America for most of my life has shaped the way in which I respond to taste and aromas; my brain has acclimated and created a flavor repertoire that I like and dislike. But there are certain things to which I’m drawn to. If you look at my photographs, I’m drawn to the sensuality of curves and low-lights. A little tease here and there with a subtle nudge of what the food is about. A lot of my styling and composition is driven by drama and motion, and often I look to ballet dancers both male and female when I compose a shot. It might sound a bit odd but I usually imagine my food as a dance, how it would look if it were dancing singularly where nothing else in its world mattered.
HA: What is your biggest challenge working as a queer immigrant of color today?
NS: I’ve been fortunate and blessed to be able to do what I do and have the support of people that like to read what I write and cook what I share. But I also know that the color of my skin limits opportunities that would otherwise be available to me. The playing field isn’t even and I’ve had people openly reject my work early on for reasons related to my being a person of color, gay, and an immigrant. I once reached out to a book agent about three years ago to inquire about writing a book and what it would entail. She wrote back saying that “my kind of work didn’t deserve a book” (as luck would have it, my wonderful agent Maria Ribas reached out to me a year ago and I’m now working on my first book with Chronicle Books, Season, out in Fall 2018). The thing is, stuff happens and my challenge, one that I will constantly have to face throughout my life, is to convert the negative experiences into positive ones. They make me work harder.
HA: I loved your quote to Jarry Mag, “Though we’re all different in many ways… our differences also bring us together at the table.” Can you please elaborate on this, as well as any specific instances where this rang particularly true?
NS: I love Jarry! They’ve done such a wonderful job to connect so many queer writers and cooks in the food world. I think diversity is an extremely important part of life, in any facet. if you think about it, life would be very boring if there were no differences. A photograph becomes interesting in composition when something unexpected shows up and breaks the uniformity; a recipe can taste phenomenal when an unexpected new ingredient, spice, or technique is used. Similarly, sitting at a dining table with people from various socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, and countries brings such a vibrant and colorful palette that can satisfy our most basic human instinct, the desire to learn. And while you don’t have to agree or like everything, you can still learn to appreciate what people do differently from the norm.
HA: What does Pride month mean to you in 2017? What are your hopes for the LGBTQ community as it relates to food and home coverage in the future?
NS: I think the word “Pride” translates and means different things to different queer people based on their experiences. To me, it is important that people of color (POC) and immigrants have equal representation, and their voices are heard and seen. Being a minority is hard enough, but being a minority within a minority is challenging at times. My hope is that as we go forward we discuss more about what folks want and what their needs are as it pertains to the community. Any discussion on rights and privileges is incomplete without considering the voices of POC or immigrants who make up the fabric of this community. I think there needs to be more LGTBQ food writers sharing their experiences so the next generation can benefit from their words.
HA: Do you feel any pressure to be a model for the queer community, especially with your increased exposure and ensuing popularity? How do you balance all of this attention with maintaining a private life?
NS: As for maintaining a balance, I'm pretty open about my life but I usually try to restrict how much time I spend on social media, sure it is important to what I do but it is nice to also not be on it constantly.
Ha, I don't know if I'm the poster child for anyone, but I do believe that it is important for me to speak about my experiences, be it as an immigrant, or a person of color, or gay because when I went through the whole ordeal of coming out, I would have benefited from reading experiences from other LGBTQ people that I had some shared connection with. Food is important to me and all I want to do is create and share the food I love but simultaneously remind myself that the recipes, photographs, and writing are essentially forged by my experiences in life and it is important for me to speak about these things no matter how uncomfortable it might be, with the hope that it gets the conversation started. I've been blessed with a platform and a voice to speak, so why not use it to help people and talk about issues that matter to me.
Check out more of Nik Sharma's work on A Brown Table.