Interview: Preeti Mistry (Chef, Author & Speaker)

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Chef Sonoma County

Preeti Mistry paired food, wine and social justice by collaborating with J Vineyards & Winery on “Shifting the Lens.”


JL: At this point, considering you have other interests and other things to do in your career, can you imagine opening another restaurant? What would that even look like?

PM: I don’t want to open another restaurant of my own. That’s for sure. I don’t really think it’s a very sustainable lifestyle and life. As a sole proprietor environment, do you know what I mean? I learned a lot… We put up all the money ourselves with a little help from my parents and the rest just Ann and I. There was no investor and it was very bootstrapped… Then I had male chefs, like white male chefs, brag to me about how they never spent one cent of their own money on their three restaurants. I’m like, “Oh, my God. What? That’s how you do it? I had no idea.” You pay yourself that big salary from the very beginning? Like this was built-in? Wow!” Yeah, I think about those kinds of things. Also, when I say unsustainable, what I mean is to be a totally independent operator is still impossible. I mean, it was impossible before the pandemic.

JL: Also, you were even going into the restaurant on your days off. It sounds like you may not have had any days off during the run of your restaurants.

PM: I mean, I definitely had time. I had opportunities to travel and do different things. I definitely built a team that I could leave and they could manage things and I found times to have days off, but you know, in the restaurant industry, it’s never always that way. Especially as a sole proprietor, independent restaurant, like it’s not like one day you’re like, “Oh, now I just graduated to the next level or the next level.” There’s always something that will pull you back. They’ll always be like wax and wane in your staffing or other things,

More than anything, I just am not interested in opening a restaurant unless it has a deeper purpose. If I’m gonna put all of that time and effort into one place, then it needs to be more than just, “Hey, look at me and the great food I can make.” I don’t really think I have anything to prove in that regard. I used to think I did, but I don’t really. I think people generally know I can cook well. I mean, I think the hardest part for me of not having a restaurant is just the desire to want to cook for people. And to put yourself out there. And when people are like, “Where can I eat your food?” And being like, “Oh, these two weeks at J Vineyards in August.” Or, you know, “I’m going to be at this event or that event.”

After the restaurants I traveled a lot in 2018 and 2019. Cooking all over the place. I was in New York a bunch of times, Asheville, Atlanta. I think that as we start traveling more, there are opportunities like that that I’ll probably want to take more advantage of, getting around the country, cooking with friends and things like that. But I don’t want to open another restaurant, with all that stress, unless it has some other meaning, kind of what I’m doing already with J.

There was an article that Eater put out at the beginning of the pandemic. I was volunteering on a local farm. I feel like what we’re doing at J is sort of a version of this vision that I have sort of long term. And that is to have some sort of farm vineyard restaurant with different chefs rotating. I had been rather critical publicly of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, essentially stating the truth, which is that it is super expensive and inaccessible, and that it centers like European cuisine, which is true. And I have this vision, “Why isn’t there a BIPOC Stone Barns? That’s kind of my point, like “Shifting the Lens,” there are some elements of this in the program.

I always had this dream of having a restaurant on a farm. And in my head, it was this Indian, sort of Rajasthani, glamping tents and all this stuff. Then I had this other thought, and this was all like 2019, what about not centering myself and just my cuisine, but actually making it a space that could be for many people. And that I could be part of running it. But I would invite different chefs of different backgrounds to come and cook because the one thing I realized, the more I talked to different chefs about this, of all backgrounds, having a restaurant on a farm is pretty much every chef’s dream, no matter what your background is, what kind of food you cook. So I thought, it shouldn’t be just me. It should be all these other people. And that would make it so much more exciting.

Since “Top Chef,” I don’t do competitions. I get probably a DM or email from a casting agent at least every three to six months. And I’m just like, “No, thank you. I don’t do competitions, I only do collaborations.” I find that so much more rewarding. One long term vision I have would be something that would be open to the public and also making an impact, whether that’s about regenerative agriculture, or centering different BIPOC chefs or winemakers or farmers and creating a space because the thing I discovered – it’s funny, it actually started through a Twitter rant, which is funny because Twitter’s in the current death spiral. I’ve been watching all day – it all kind of started with this thread where I kind of dissed on Dan Barber and everything they do there because they sort of pat themselves on the back and I’m like, “You make fancy food for rich people.” There’s a famous quote, I can’t remember who said it, but it was something some activists that said like, “Farming without politics is just gardening.” You can do all this stuff about climate change and other stuff, yet my experience is that this is an experience that’s only accessible to very few people. And the food is super European.

It’s not even about that and having to compare yourself. There’s this disconnect in our world around what the term farm to table means. I was on Twitter, and so many people, even people of color, were like, “Wow, I can’t believe it. I never thought about it like this before. When somebody says farm to table, you immediately think of American food or European influenced food. You think of California cuisine, but you don’t think about Indian or Chinese or Jamaican or Nigerian or Thai. Yet we all grow vegetables and raise animals on farms. And cook that food and put it on the table. I, in fact, have been doing this for so long. One thing that really struck me, I had to fight so hard for people to recognize what we were doing at Juhu. Their assumptions, because it was Indian cuisine, because it was in this more mid range, casual kind of environment and not super fine dining. I remember talking to some Chez Panisse alum chefs who have restaurants in Oakland – because pretty much every other restaurant is a Chez Panisse alum in the East Bay – and they were saying something about how, “Oh, you know, we don’t really put the names of the farms and everything anymore.” Kind of like it’d become passé to do that. And I was like, “Yeah, I feel like I still have to do it.” And they were both white and their food was European influenced, and they both paused and were like, “Yeah, you do.”

JL: Oh, wow.

PM: And that’s the whole thing, to me, is this idea that I have to fight so hard for people to know that I literally go to the farmers market twice a week, two different farmers markets. I work directly with three or four other farmers that deliver directly to my restaurant. I get the freshest produce local produce. I try to support all of these small farmers, and yet, Thomas Keller can put Hormel ham in his croissants, and people just assume it’s the best ham ever from heritage pigs. You know what I mean? The assumptions people make based on perception of a particular cuisine. Specifically, when it comes to non European cuisines… I had a rather famous chef, with a very celebrated restaurant in San Francisco, be at a farm to table farm event. The event is called “Kitchen Table Advisors.” It’s a nonprofit that helps farmers connect with restaurants and chefs and build their businesses. Every year they do this event where they pair a farmer with a chef and it’s their big fundraiser and people get to come and eat fancy food from famous chefs. Paired with a farmer. I am with my farmer and my fairytale eggplant biryani. And he’s at the table next to me and literally asked me this question. You know, we’re tasting, we’re talking. He’s like, “Oh, where’s your restaurant?” “It’s in Oakland.” You know, not offended, it’s a small restaurant, and this was years ago, but he doesn’t know it. I was like, “Hey, you should come check it out sometime” And then he said, “Do you use good proteins? Because I can’t really eat any of that stuff.” Like, this was the question he asked me. In the moment, I didn’t even think. I was just like, “Yeah, of course,” you know, nervous and just being polite. And then the next day I woke up and I was like, “Would he have asked that question if I was cooking French food, and I was white?”

JL: It’s so messed up. The cuisines that people value are so limited. It’s so out of whack.

PM: Yeah, right. So when I think about “Shifting the Lens,” it might seem like not that revolutionary to have a number of different resident chefs pair wine with food in this beautiful environment. Yet it is because, again, if we were to have an actual restaurant on a farm or vineyard that always had rotating chefs from different backgrounds that were not French or Italian, it would be something that has never been done before. Like I was asking in this Twitter thread, “Does anybody know of any place? – I don’t want to assume no one’s ever thought of this – “Is there any restaurant on a farm that cooks non European cuisine?” And I think there were one or two. One person wrote me about a place where it’s a couple and the woman is Mexican and the guy is white. And they have a Mexican restaurant and make Mexican cuisine on the farm. Maybe there was one African-American or Black farmer that had some sort of food service in the South. Aside from that, no. I mean, somebody mentioned Single Thread. And I was like, “Yeah, I mean, a white guy cooking Japanese food, which is like the one food that’s non European that has been elevated to this expensive place, doesn’t really count. Although, yeah, what they do there is amazing. So, I think to me, that’s just amazing how that would actually be so revolutionary. When I was having this whole dialogue on Twitter, and then it became a bigger dialogue when Eater wrote about it. I started talking to a lot of former employees at Blue Hill and Stone Barns, and a lot of people of color, former employees. What I was hearing is two things coexisted. 1) It was a magical place and an amazing experience. 2) There were a lot of times where I felt really uncomfortable or had looks between other people of color employees about what was happening, or something being said that wasn’t right. I’m just trying to imagine what it would be like when I go back to the first part of that statement. Like, it was an amazing place and it made such an impact on their life and their career. What if there could be a space like that that felt like a safe space where you didn’t have to go into this environment where you feel like you have to kind of put your shield up because you don’t know what might come at you. And then also what if that place for the people that come to it, they see themselves reflected in the food, in the staff, and not just the bussers and runners and dishwashers, but in the chefs and the leadership? I think it would be transformative.

JL: You see that as a possibility in terms of a long term goal?

PM: I think it’s a long term goal. You know, I don’t have millions of dollars, but I keep meeting a lot of people who probably do.

JL: I imagine there are people with money who are aligned in your views at this point in the Bay Area, hopefully.

PM: Yeah, I mean, there’s not one person that I’ve ever told this to that said, “I think that’s a terrible idea.”

JL: Right.

PM: I’ve learned a lot since I started spouting off about this two years ago. Like I’ve learned that it’s very hard to get a restaurant built on a farm in Sonoma County, permitting wise, which is why Single Thread is not on its farm. They’re two different locations. The restaurant is in town.

JL: Yeah.

PM: And then this year I’m talking to some folks at some different places about some other events that could kind of be more event based, and location based and not a restaurant that anybody could just make reservations at.

JL: In what ways would the model be different from your previous restaurant experiences based on your current thinking? I feel like you’ve kind of addressed that.

PM: Yeah. One thing I would add is just that, you know, what I’m really into cooking these days is different than what I used to cook in my restaurant. In the sense that the food that I was cooking at the restaurant was a lot more playful street food, things like vindaloo chicken wings and masala fries and dosa waffles. I mean, it was all great. Also, when I started, there were very few, if any, Indian chefs really cooking food like that. Now, there’s a lot. It’s pretty ubiquitous. Restaurants do all these kinds of fun plays on, you know, chicken tikka masala mac and cheese and what have you. When I first started doing that in 2013, people were like, “What the fuck is this?”

JL: I’m sure you paved the way for acceptance of that sort of food, or understanding.

PM: I’m probably one of the chefs that was part of that sort of movement. What really interests me at this point is more fine dining, and traditional Gujarati food, which is where I’m from in India, Gujarat. I now live in Sebastopol, I have an orchard. We’re building a vegetable garden this winter. No chickens yet.

You know, I’m more at a place in my career where I want to learn all of the traditional techniques, dishes and recipes. Honestly, because first and foremost, I’m curious to learn more and more about traditional Gujarati food. There’s so much to learn. And there’s so much I have learned in the last few years that has just been amazing. When I first opened the restaurant, I had a tomato soup, which was my mom’s recipe, and like one dal, which was on the menu all the time. I didn’t really know that much about dals, in terms of cooking them. Now I could just probably whip up 20 different ones with different lentils. I just always keep learning more. So to me, it’s partially about the learning. Also I kind of had a realization over the last couple of years that someone’s got to learn all of this stuff because, at some point, the guardians of these recipes will no longer be with us. As morbid as that sounds. And then, you know, I’m having this rambling conversation with my wife about it. Then I stop and I’m like, “Oh, wait, I think that person is me.” Quick scan of my 12 or 13 cousins, and I’m like, “Oh, it’s me. I’m the one who’s got to do it.”

JL: That’s cool.

PM: Yeah, I think that’s kind of my focus. I’m toying with the idea of trying to maybe get a book around it. Whether it’s a book deal that I get to do this, or it’s just my own personal mission. Either way, I feel like that’s kind of where my brain is at and my motivation in cooking. It’s less about making kind of fun, silly twists on things and more like it’s the farming and seasonal cooking. It’s the simple rustic, traditional cooking I grew up with. And then learning all of these. I mean, there’s just so many things. You know, I once said this, and I still believe it to this day, when Eleven Madison Park went plant-based, I was like, my mom against Daniel Humm, 10 courses, she would destroy him.

JL: I’d prefer to eat that.

PM: Exactly. And my mother is a very good cook. The fruit didn’t fall that far from the tree in that sense. And my aunts as well. And my mother learned from my father’s mother, my grandmother on my father’s side, because she didn’t learn to cook growing up. She went to college. She didn’t want to cook, but she turned out to be pretty good at it. So to me, there’s just such a deep reservoir of recipes. And most people don’t even know most Gujarati cuisine. What most people in America know of Indian cuisine is mostly either North Indian Punjabi food, which is like chicken tikka, and saag paneer, and naan. Then people are starting to learn a little bit more about South Indian cuisine with your dosas and idlis and that sort of stuff.

JL: Yeah. I feel like you’re further along in the Bay Area versus down in L.A., which is where I am.

PM: Yeah, definitely. And I have been wooed before by some people who wanted to open a restaurant in L.A., so I studied the marketplace, and I remember thinking, ”Oh, yeah, no competition.”

JL: Have you spent much time in Gujarat?

PM: Only as a teenager and when I was very young, like four years old, Actually I went to India before I ever came to America.

JL: Well, if you get that book deal, that would be a good excuse to go back.

PM: Oh, absolutely.

JL: You told me about one initiative that’s not cooking related, helping to feed underserved people. Can you tell me more about that program and that effort?

PM: Yeah. Farm to Pantry. I’m on the board. Duskie Estes is a pretty famous chef here in Sonoma County, as well as the executive director. We’re growing massively. I mean, the whole point of the organization, in its originating vision, was to get access for fresh, healthy produce to people of need. But I would say that, what Duskie’s done in the last couple of years and what we’ve all been striving for is a much bigger impact than that. I mean, I love it. I love just going out and gleaning. It’s super fun. I’m excited. There’s a board glean coming up. We do this thing every year with olives, because so many of the vineyards, and folks around here, have olive trees. So, you know, that’s obviously not as easy to give to folks in need.

JL: Right.

PM: One of the companies here lets us use their olive press and we make olive oil. So not only do the recipients get some olive oil, but the olive oil is then available for sale. All of that goes as a donation. I think it’s a $100 donation and you get one bottle. We’ve also done a partnership with Golden State Cider. Similar concept. You know, here in Sonoma County, we have a lot of apples. So we glean all the apples and some of them get turned into applesauce, which goes to food banks. Some get turned into hard cider that people can buy. Then a big portion of the proceeds go back to the organization.

JL: Oh, cool.

PM: Yeah, in fact, now that I have an orchard, we donated. And a very mature orchard, so it’s a high producer. We have about 15 apple trees and three pear trees and one plum tree. We made pies and we pickled and we made salads and we pressed a lot of apple juice. Then we still donated 500 pounds to Farm to Pantry.

JL: At this point, where does being a chef rank for you when you consider your identity?

PM: I think it’s my profession. You know what I mean? There are a lot of different ways to define chef these days. A lot of people that would call themselves a chef that in certain circles, one might also hear people saying, “They’re not a real chef.” And I don’t really like to discriminate or judge people in that way – and I’m sure there’s some people that sometimes have said that about me – but it’s my profession. Like there are people who write recipes and write cookbooks, but they couldn’t expedite service in a 200-cover restaurant on a Saturday night.

JL: Sure.

PM: Or get thrown on the station, or whatever. I’m a multifaceted person. I also know people who are like, “I am just a chef.” They don’t write articles. They hate doing media stuff. They’re like, “I cook.” They’re not even interested in the decor in their own restaurant. Somebody else decided that. There are those people. And I have a lot of interests. Like I said, I made a short film. I still think about writing an actual screenplay. I have always had a lot of different interests, and social justice has always been a big part. When I started making films, it was because I want to tell stories. And make a difference. So to me, cooking is just another medium through which that storytelling is done. Or you’re making an impact in social justice. But ultimately, am I an activist or a farmer or writer or a TV host or personality? Sure. But ultimately, the one thing I always am is a chef. Does that make sense?

JL: It does. In terms of social justice, it sounds like it goes way back. Were you always so outspoken about equity and social justice in the restaurant industry and the world? Or was there a pivotal moment or stretch that inspired you to take more public stands on issues?

PM: I think I’ve always been this way. There’s a keynote on my website you could check out where I talk about how I beat up this kid in junior high, because he was being a jerk to everybody else. I think that somehow, fairness and justice are really important to me. I feel like the hand I was dealt wasn’t so fair, but I just have this real, innate need to stand up for things that aren’t right or aren’t fair or just. That was just in me from the time I’ve been a kid. Then it’s just kind of blossomed in different ways. I went to New College, which is a college in San Francisco for social change. I had professors that were nurses helping insurgents in Nicaragua, and Harry Britt – he passed away in 2020 – he worked for Harvey Milk and then he was the one who took his spot when Harvey Milk was assassinated, on City Council. It’s always been a part of my life. You know, I didn’t choose to work at Film Arts Foundation and the San Francisco Film School, I chose to work at the LGBT Film Festival because I felt like that was important. So I suppose it’s just always been a part of who I am.

JL: That’s great. Did your parents help to instill that in you or was it just innate?

PM: You know, I think it’s a strange combination. My parents always raised us to be a good person and do good in the world. I mean, my mom is definitely in every sort of group of volunteers doing things in Toledo, Ohio. Like she does Meals on Wheels, and she does all these things for the temple and she is a big part of this multi-faith council that brings together people from all different religions. Hers just goes a little bit more through religion, which I think makes sense for her. Like bringing people from Jewish faith and Muslim faith and Christian faith and Hinduism, etc, together, I think it’s a fantastic way to reach people, especially in a community like Toledo, Ohio. I think part of it is also feeling maybe a little bit like I was always different and didn’t always feel cared for or safe.

And being like, this is not right. Somebody should be sticking up for me right now. I’m a kid, and I can’t do it myself. And I think that’s carried over as well. I continued to be informally and, in the case of someone like Jenny [Dorsey], who was in “Shifting the Lens,” formally, because she asked me to mentor a lot of younger, mostly women of color in the industry. I always joke about how there’s no role model for me, but I’m gonna sure as hell make sure there’s a role model for others.

JL: That’s great. As far as consumers go, it’s kind of hard for an average diner to know how restaurants treat and pay their staff and where they source their ingredients, or how they create opportunities for disadvantaged people or give back to the community. For a lot of people, food is the only consideration when they go to restaurants, but for people who are interested in making more informed decisions, what are some indicators that we should keep in mind? And which factors do you use when you decide which restaurants to support?

PM: It’s complicated. I mean, I know too much, right? A lot of times, there are things I know where I don’t even want to tell some of my friends, because I’m like, “I don’t want to ruin that experience for you by telling you that the chef or the owner is kind of a jerk” or whatever. Ultimately, it’s the proactiveness. Do you see them doing anything proactive? Because ultimately, you were asking you about the social justice, the year we opened the restaurant, George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin. And the Black Lives Matter movement actually started as opposed to a lot of people thinking that it started in 2020. I immediately thought, as a restaurant owner, you are a community leader. Whether you want to be or not, you are. You’re a business leader. People come to your restaurant. You have an opportunity to engage with people and to do something about things in the world. We immediately did this whole thing of black dal for Black Lives Matter. And let’s be clear. In 2013, there were a lot of people that did not get it, and were not feeling it at all. I mean, they just didn’t know. They were like, “I don’t know if I’m ready to align myself with this group. “What is this group? What are they about?” Are they legit?” All those things. So to me, if you don’t see a restaurant, especially in 2022, after everything we’ve been through, in the last two and a half years, if you don’t see a restaurant doing anything proactive to build community or help others, they probably are not the best people. Plenty of them out there are actually not the best people, but they still try to do something because, whatever, the charity offset. But to me, if you see people in a position when they’re successful in their business and they’re not saying or doing anything to help – there are so many people in need – you have to kind of wonder like, what are they doing? Because I think all of that bleeds through to how you treat people in the world. If you don’t care about these things, and you only care about your business, then that means you probably don’t care as much about your employees and you only care about your bottom line. I mean, if a place is not doing anything proactively beyond just cooking food in selling it, I think you have to kind of wonder.

JL: So that factors into your decision about where to go, restaurant wise?

PM: Honestly, I live in a small town now, so I don’t really have that many options. I wouldn’t go to somebody’s restaurant that I outwardly knew was a bad person. I also don’t have as many options in a small town. Honestly, I don’t really go out to eat much anymore. I just ate out ion Mexico City in New York. Holy crap. I need to hit that rowing machine so hard because we ate a lot, and we went out for so many delicious meals. But yeah, in regular country life, I generally am cooking, although we are going out for dinner tonight… It’s hard for me to gauge because like I said, I have too much intel compared to the average person. So it’s super complicated why we go somewhere and not go somewhere else. Aside from just the food being good and the service being good.

JL: Where do things stand with your “Loading Dock Talks” podcast? Are you planning to continue that and record more conversations?

PM: Yes, we are. We are just securing sponsorship. And I think we have at least one or two sponsors on board, and we’re looking for a total of three. So the first year was a labor of love. And then my producer and I were like, “Okay, well, this is great. I think we did great work. And we probably shouldn’t do it again unless we get paid to do it.” So that’s what we’re working on right now… We already have our list of people we want to interview, so hopefully it kicks off in the spring, 2023.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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