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Keep Calm And Create Art: Shayma O. Saadat

In the spirit of creativity and self-care, S/ presents Keep Calm and Create Art, a series exploring the meditative, rewarding, and soothing practice of making art during uncertain times. 

For the fifth installment, Toronto-based cook, food stylist, and photographer Shayma O. Saadat—whose work has been featured in New York Times, Globe and Mail, and Toronto Star—shares her inspiring food journey, the art and rewarding practice of plating, and what steps the culinary world needs to take to make the industry a more inclusive space for BIPOC creatives.

What sparked your interest and love for food?

“The novelist Nadeem Aslam once said, ‘I was made in Pakistan, but assembled abroad’—as the daughter of an international banker, I have led a nomadic life, periodically moving from one country to another. I was born in the beautiful city of Lahore, Pakistan, to a Pakistani-Afghan father with Irani lineage, and a Pakistani mother. Inspired by my heritage, I have always drawn on the matrilineal recipes in my family, to conjure up aromas and tastes in my kitchen.

“Food is a part of my culture and identity; it gives me a way to say: ‘Hi, I was here. This is who I am. This is my story. What’s yours?'”

You have a very effortless approach when you’re doing your Instagram live tutorials. How do you stay focused and stress-free in the kitchen?

“Thank you so much. I never went to culinary school, I am a home cook, who has learnt and picked up skills along the way. One of my gracious BIPOC mentors, Chef Martin Raymond taught me the art of setting up a perfect mise en place, and how it makes your life that much easier in the kitchen.

“Whether it’s for Instagram Live, a home meal, or my Silk Route Workshops, I always ensure I have set my mise en place. Once that’s done, I can concentrate on the people on the other side of the screen; I am a people person, and I love nothing more in the world than interacting with others!”

You’ve been very generous and vocal about your journey as a BIPOC chef and food stylist and the challenges you’ve faced (and continue to face.) What inspired you to share your experience?

“I have always advocated for more inclusion through my food-related writing and work. My quiet activism began with my food journey, back in 2009, when I started my blog, The Spice Spoon. It was driven by a desire to show another side to my culture and identity, and my part of the world—a region that can often bear negative connotations. Through food, I have been able to tell stories which have helped restore some of the pride, colour and romance to an often maligned region’s traditions of food and family.

“The issues in the food world have always been there for us BIPOCs, but in the past, I have been reluctant to share my experiences. I feared I would be penalized, that I would not get gigs, and my livelihood would be affected. I feel somewhat confident in my career now, and believe I must speak up; it’s not a choice. As a WoC with privilege, if I don’t speak up and share my experience and support my BIPOC friends and colleagues, then my silence would mean I am complicit. I want to use my voice and even the little power that I have, to make a change, and if not now, then when?”

What are some steps the food industry can take to be more inclusive and respectful of BIPOCs in the culinary world?

“The problem is the gatekeepers. I feel the onus, therefore, is on those with privilege, to ensure that BIPOC voices are heard and space is made for us, our food, and our stories. If you have power, use your voice, use your position to promote BIPOC food writers, stylists, photographers, and cooks.

“Try to look beyond your sorority or your fraternity. Other BIPOCs, like myself, who came to this country with no connections, let us in, make room for us. We are willing to work, put in the time, and share our intellect and skills. Look around you at the lunch table during a magazine photoshoot, how many visible minorities do you see? Change that.

“Don’t hire that food stylist or recipe developer just because you went to summer camp together. I know it sounds rather simplistic to say everything should be merit-based, but next time you hire someone based on personal relationships, ask yourself the following questions revolving around equity, fairness and inclusion:

“‘Did I do my homework?’, ‘Did I go out and look for the most talented person?’, ‘Did I work hard to find a BIPOC who is a perfect fit for this role?’.

“When we start to feel uncomfortable and question our decisions and our choices, we have already started to advocate for change.”

With all the challenges you’ve faced, how do you stay grounded and motivated to continue your food journey?

“I have worked as an economist for most of my career (in fact I worked in food security at the UN in Rome, before moving to Canada) so I have been on the other side, where the grass is a different shade. I am now firmly and happily entrenched on this side of the fence. And I am here to stay. I believe that food allows us to tell stories—stories about a people, place, and culture which is often misunderstood. I will continue to seek space to tell my stories—and make space for the stories of my fellow BIPOCs. I see many BIPOCs around me speaking up, feeling passionate about changing things. I am excited to be a part of this change. I will march with them down that path.”

Switching gears, for the latest intallment of Keep Calm and Create Art, you worked with edible flowers and displayed the art of plating. What do you like about using edible flowers?

“I like to cook with the seasons and edible flowers are in full bloom right now—from nasturtiums to pansies to calendula. As a food stylist, I feel that a little bit goes a long way. A frittata with a few neon-orange nasturtium petals, or a mast-o-khiar with a delicate scattering of violet-hued cornflowers and burnt orange calendula petals is not only visually gorgeous, but an ambrosial delight as well. I feel I give a dish more thought as I am conceiving ideas on how to adorn it with edible flowers. It’s about being more mindful. It helps me slow down. In turn, that means you will get to taste a dish which is infused with love and thoughtfulness.”

What are some pro-tips to keep in mind when incorporating edible flowers in home-cooked meals?

“I’d like to start by saying that it is important to do your research when it comes to edible flowers. For example, rose petals are edible, but not the roses you would find at a florist. You want organic; those that are not sprayed with pesticide. Also, not all parts of a flower are edible, so do your research.  For me, personally, the more simple the dish, the more you can play around with edible flowers. My shiro plum and strawberry dish that I created for the Keep Calm and Create Art series is a nod to my cookery philosophy: there is beauty in simplicity.”

Why is plating important, even when cooking at home?

“I find there is something very beautiful about taking care to mindfully and elegantly plate your food. It isn’t about using elusive ingredients like Alba truffles or edible gold leaf. It is about respecting the food, no matter how simple and humble. Whether you are dining alone or with family or friends, it takes a few extra minutes to decant the cumin-fragranced dal into a serving bowl and embellishing it with caramelized onions, fresh coriander leaves and a scattering of Aleppo pepper. Insert your favourite brass serving spoon into that platter of summer tomato salad, and place it on your kitchen counter, grab a salad plate and fork, and pull up a stool to enjoy it, solo. Earlier this year, when we were in complete lockdown, there was a meditative quality to plating the dinner I made for my family every day, with care, love and attention. It was a way to say, we are grateful to have food on our table.”

What’s next for you?

“Since we cannot meet in person these days, I am missing all of you and am in the process of transitioning my Cooking Along the Silk Route workshops to an online format. Keep an eye out for more online workshop news from me, soon. Tahdig will most certainly feature in the first session!”