This week, celebrity Chef Fatima Ali walks us around the kitchen Cosa Nostra- Kitchens which will be her home for the next few weeks. She’s bringing to life a terrific new concept coming to Lahore this February. As she prepares a dish for us, she works with intensity and precision, and delves into childhood memories, her culinary school edification, competing againsat professional chefs on “Chopped” and what’s brought her back him- for a while.
“When I was six years old I was constantly in the kitchen with my grandmother”. Fatima’s mother was a single working mum, so keeping little ‘Fati’- as she’s known to friends and family- in the kitchen was her grandmother’s way of “keeping an eye on me and doing what she loved”.
One of her first and favorite memories is that of making ‘a bread bear’. “I still remember making a teddy bear with bread- I loved kneading the dough,l using kaali mirch for the eyes, and long for buttons; egg-washing it to make it glisten-y and adding sugar to sweeten it. I was enamored by the fact that this was something that I had created… and that you could actually eat it! I started making bread bears for birthday gifts- convinced that this was the best gift anyone could ever receive”.
A few years later, fifteen year old Fatima, inspired by the creativity and technique of professional chefs on BBC food (which she spend every possible waking moment glued to) went up to her mother and , with innate resolve, declared “I want to be a professional chef”.
Young Fatima felt she could get to a point, like those BBC chefs, at which she too would be able to inspire others. Her mother presented her with one condition: Fatima had to be the best. “I said okay”.
She applied to one of the foremost culinary institutes in the world- the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde park, NY. It was the only one which offered a comprehensive bachelor’s degree. With her typical intrepidity, it was the only place she applied to because “ she knew that was it”.
“It was a completely different world. Looking back… its beyond valuable- the chefs and professors there- I am where I am because of what I was taught there.
“ After graduating, Fatima was thrown very much into the thick of the real world. True to form, she decided to stick it out in what is arguably the toughest food scene in the world- New York City. She applied to Indian restaurant ‘Vermilion’ and was chosen to do a tasking with Maneet Chauhan. Being in front of Chauhan, who was also one of the judges on ‘Chopped’, was extremely intimidating but I stuck to my guts. I made roasted cauliflower soup with cashews, cumin and roasted coriander seeds, and a roasted peer and paneer salad, accompanied by two other dishes. They loved it… I didn’t think they would! I started working and it was insane- a seven day work week, minimum wage- 9 AM to 3 AM” she recalls. “But I learnt. I learnt what I’m made of, I learnt of resolve. I learnt food was so special to me because of what all I was willing to go through for it.”
She wasn’t the only one who recognized that resolve… Maneet Chauhan evidently saw the mettle in Fatima and encouraged her to apply to be in ‘Chopped.’ “I got accepted and the pressure was on. I was the youngest ever on the show, competing against professional chefs – it was absolutely crazy. There was lots of pressure to perform because I had a reputation to create. I knew if I didn’t perform that it would follow me for the rest of my career in NY and it just so happened that I won. I look back and I’m surprised but the judges enjoyed my food and understood me.”
Since then Fatima has had different opportunities to explore her craft and has also been able to, via the media, share that journey with the public. She’s temporarily returned to Pakistan to further develop her theory of “who I am as a chef – of what it means to me and people who eat my food.” She’s looking to study the different dimensions offered by Pakistani cuisine and produce – and she’ll do this by holding “Pop up Pakistan” – a special event at an existing restaurant, coming next month.
The pop up holds the following in store: prix fixe, six course dinner and the menu is developed based on completely locally sourced ingredients, indigenous to Punjab. That means juicy organic carrots, bright green beans, fragrant citrus and the best leafy greens, to name a few – “we grow so many things here that I didn’t even know about. The variety and quality is incredible – our fruits and vegetables are the best I’ve ever worked with.”
Her aim with the pop up is to “encourage locals to use what’s in their own backyards. When I was in culinary school one of my chefs used to say “what grows together goes together” and that’s the motto of my pop up.” Chef Fatima will be using produce, which grows in and is raised in Punjab, to put together on one plate to highlight creativity and technique.
And there won’t be any box to it – the dishes won’t have a name. “I don’t want people having any preconceived notions – I’ll only be listing the ingredients. For example the menu will just state that the first course will have white radish, onions, tomatoes, and raw milk cheese. You won’t know what I’ll do with these things – it’s up to me to surpass expectations. It’s not about the name of the dish but what’s in the dish.”
Pop up Pakistan will be held at Cosa Nostra, Lahore. When asked why that particular space she says “I admire Cosa because it’s one of the first restaurants in Pakistan to introduce and perfect a cuisine not previously available to public. The family which started it had invaluable advice to impart about hospitality. Plus, Cosa is a homegrown restaurant with a good vibe which complements my craft and cuisine.”
#Popuppakistan will be held on the 13th, 14th and 15th of February, and is open for bookings – you may call Cosa Nostra Gulberg on +92-42-35757038 or visit H-Block, Gulberg II, Lahore to make a reservation. Follow Fatima on Instagram @cheffati.