Chef, author, and speaker Preeti Mistry joins Kristen to talk tikka mac & cheese, Waffles & Mochi (!), table to farm, and giving credit where credit's due.
Referenced in this episode:
Special thanks to listeners Anita (@anitasyogurt) and Dominique (@dominiqueevanz) for sharing the works of Jonell Nash and Noreen Wasti.
Kristen Miglore (voiceover): Hi, I'm Kristen Miglore, lifelong genius hunter. For almost a decade, I've been unearthing the recipes that have changed the way we cook. Now on The Genius Recipe Tapes, we go behind the scenes with the geniuses themselves, and we get to hear from you.
This week I'm talking with Preeti Mistry. The twice James Beard-nominated chef, author, and speaker behind the late beloved restaurants Juhu Beach Club and Navi Kitchen in the East San Francisco Bay area. Like most of us, they've recently been spending more time tackling new projects like getting into farming and popping up on a kid's cooking show that you might have heard about Michelle Obama's Waffles and Mochi, which launches on March 16th. I haven't been so excited about a TV show since ever. Never, ever. Nope, this is it.
So I called Preeti to talk about their Tikka Masala Macaroni and Cheese from Navi Kitchen. Or tikka mac for short. It's tomato-tinged, warmly spiced, and, most shockingly, incredibly creamy. And it stays incredibly creamy, even without the fuss of making a bechamel–a step that I thought was crucial to the most reliable sturdy cheese sauces. There's more on how to make it, what's going on in the recipe, why it is so big-batch friendly, freezer-friendly, and just all-around handy for making right now. All of that's in the column and video on Food 52 today. But here in the podcast, we get even more behind the scenes. Where Preet’s ideas for tikka mac came from, what happens when other people start profiting off of your work without giving credit where it's due and what, if anything, we can do about it. We'll also hear from some of our listeners on some of the recipe creators they think more of us need to know. But first, here's Preeti on the two most memorable, very different macaroni and cheese styles in their life: the mom way and the one from when they met their wife hand in the nineties.
Preeti Mistry: I have literally been called a monster for what I do to macaroni and cheese by other food people. And Ann and won't have any of it. So, when I make a box of it, which is enough for two people to share, at least for us tiny women. I'll dump hers into a bowl, and then with the rest of it, I put it back on the heat, add ketchup, Tabasco, and cracked black pepper, and I mix it all and put it back in the bowl. I think it's the ketchup and Tabasco that really makes people freak out.
Kristen Miglore: Do you feel like you're connecting the version you made at Navi Kitchen with the boxed macaroni and cheese? Are you getting it a couple of steps closer to it, with the tomato and spice?
Preeti: In a way, yes. On a spectrum, those two do coexist. But I had another inspiration for the tikka macaroni and cheese. My mom didn't cook that many non-Indian things, but macaroni and cheese was one of them. This was the eighties, so most of the non-Indian dishes she made were clipped from the newspaper or a magazine. Mom’s macaroni and cheese had little triangles of bread with the crust cut off that she would push in around the edges of the Pyrex. And it was so yummy because then you'd always want one or two of them. The bread would get toasted and crispy, but then that spot where the cheese hits the bread is melted and gooey. And one thing that we did at Navi when we made the tikka masala mac was in homage to the bread. We made our tikka mac in these oval dishes and topped them with cumin bread cubes. We put three or four bread cubes down the center to get the same super yummy effect.
At Juhu, I swore that we would never do a chicken tikka masala like that. We're not that kind of restaurant. We make food that real Indian people eat. Not the Indian dishes that restaurants made up. Those are also delicious; I’m not knocking it. It just wasn't my bag. Our chicken curries were whole chicken on the bone slowly braised with chunks of onions, tomatoes, peppers, fenugreek, and all this stuff, which is how we eat curries at home. But we did have a kids menu. I can't take credit for the idea. It was my wife's idea, but I brought it to fruition. We lived in the same neighborhood as our restaurant, Navi Kitchen. She very quickly noticed the children and families. We had previously lived in San Francisco’s neighborhood South of Market, the land of no children, just grown-ups who act like children. We didn't want to knock those people out of the running because the menu was too spicy for kids.
So we created this kid's menu, and we found a plastic tiffin creator. They were super cute. If you google it, they are plastic instead of stainless steel and colorful, red, yellow, pink, and orange, all the little compartments. Kids got a salad, their choice of rice or fries with no spice, and either butter chicken or grilled cheese. We had this butter chicken sauce that we would make for the kids. We would make a big batch and portion it out, and every time, I thought it would be great with macaroni and cheese. It had this creamy consistency reminiscent of the Kraft macaroni with Tabasco and ketchup. I’m connecting all the dots now!
Kristen: You did the ketchup and tabasco macaroni and cheese before the Navi Kitchen tikka mac?
Preeti: Since the late nineties, it's been an emergency food staple in our lives. That's what happens when Ann and Pretti make macaroni and cheese. Tikka mac wasn't really what Juhu Beach Club was about. But the concept for Navi was more focused on playful Indian flavors with American foods. We had Indian pizza and Indian-inspired breakfast sandwiches. We had a Full Indian on our brunch menu, an Indian version of the full English breakfast on our brunch menu. One of our things we focused on at Juhu was giving back to the community. We started it with Black Dal for Black Lives Matter. We went on to call it Solidarity Soup. And we ended up supporting various causes, everything from Standing Rock to wildfire relief. When we opened Navi Kitchen, we wanted to extend that farther. We had three menu items that had a dollar go to three organizations.
Destiny Arts were lucky because they were the ones with the Tikka Masala Macaroni and Cheese. The other two organizations were Black Lives Matter and Planting for Justice, an organization that teaches formerly incarcerated people from San Quentin farming skills. And they have community-supported agriculture shares, among other things. Destiny scored in a big way with the tikka mac, even though people liked the other two dishes too. But tikka mac was so beloved, the difference in donations between the three plates was noticeable.
Kristen: This recipe took on a life of its own after you launched it and connected it with the Destiny Arts. It was in Julia Turgeon's Feed the Resistance. Do you know when you realized you had a hit recipe on your hand?
Preeti: I don't know–when other people started making their versions and saying that they invented it. All of a sudden, other people were doing this tikka mac without giving any credit. The moment it became a thing. This has been true for a lot of things that I’ve made. “Oh, I guess that's just a thing now.”
Kristen: That's so frustrating! Do you feel some amount of pride, but also rage?
Preeti: It used to bother me a lot more. But I have a statement from Two Chainz saved on my phone that I look at often. To paraphrase it, if you're creative and innovative, people will use your work as inspiration, and you need to be okay with that. I can stomp around and say, “What? I invented the doswaffle! I did all the research! I googled everything. No one else was doing it in a restaurant before me!” You know what? That's what's going to happen. And the best part for me is I'm full of ideas. I'm glad someone else is doing that idea I created. I will keep coming up with new things. I constantly find inspiration in my own experiences and how I see the world. I'll keep doing me.
Kristen (voiceover): Hey, are you enjoying this interview? If so, head right on over to The Genius Recipe Tapes and hit subscribe, so you don't miss out on more like it. In the second half of this episode, we'll hear how Preeti continues to create joyfully despite or perhaps in spite of all the copycats. Stay tuned.
Preeti: There are two things. One is that no idea is purely original. Some people might make versions of their tikka mac that are better than mine. I am a weirdo in how I want to be, like, really clear about what I'm doing. Integrity is crucial to me; giving credit is essential to me. I have no problem saying this person inspired me, and this is why. For example. I have a grilled cheese recipe coming out in a magazine soon. One of my inspirations was The Cook and Her Farmer in Oakland. She makes “the best damn grilled cheese.” It’s a slow-grilled cheese like she puts a weight on it and then just slowly cooks it. I have no problem saying that her technique is one of my inspirations, even when I made a different sandwich.
Not giving credit feels disrespectful because if I were all the things, it would be different. If I was more famous, if I was a man if I was, if I was white, if I was cisgender, if I was Thomas Keller, wouldn't they say that Thomas Keller inspired this? That piece feels disrespectful. We will take this idea from you, but we don't feel like you're important enough for us to bother mentioning you.
Kristen: What do you think is the best way to give credit in a menu? In a magazine, you have a little bit of space to explain your influences. But how do you credit on a menu?
Preeti: That's an excellent question. I'm not sure how you give credit on a menu.
Some people believe that they need to be the expert on everything and somehow can't share the community. We are all in this community, and we are all inspired by something in the community. Most likely, some Indian person saw a burrito and said, let’s take this paratha and put chicken and pickled onions in it. We all know noodles came from China. There are noodles and so many different countries. On that level, we're all sponges, and at certain levels of inspiration don’t need delineation.
But I think if the inspiration is direct, it is worth noting. And it's not lost on me, as a queer, gender-nonconforming, brown woman, that my contributions that gain popularity do so without credit. There wasn’t anyone who did it first, invented it, came up with this idea or vision. I can’t help but feel like my identity has something to do with it. That's a great idea, but we don't want to give you credit.
Kristen: I hope that's at least starting to change.
Preeti: I think it’s changing superficially, on the surface. But then I blow it off in that Two Chainz way. I'm just going to keep coming up with ideas, like the doswaffle, for example. I was literally in the restaurant supply store looking at the crepe griddles because I wanted to do a dosa for brunch. My eyes just moved over to the waffle makers, and that was it. I borrowed a friend of mine's waffle maker and tried it out. The test version came out delicious, and no one seemed to be doing it yet. So there’s always a new idea.
Kristen: I'm with you. The better part of my food career has been sharing recipes, crediting the creator, and talking about their techniques. That is the whole thing I do. So I'm with you that there is nothing to lose in crediting your inspirations, big and small. I'm more on the industry’s home cooking side, so I had not thought about it in terms of crediting on a menu. Or how it feels to see your dish pass around restaurant menus. In the same way that people say this is Mom's macaroni and cheese, how hard would it be to say this is Preeti’s macaroni and cheese?
Since the pandemic, it sounds like you have shifted over from cooking full time to farming as well. Has that changed how you think about the food you are cooking and eating?
Preeti: It has not entirely changed my relationship to the food I am cooking and eating because, as a chef, I've always been very involved with small local farmers. There is a magic that is satisfying in the same way as cooking food. It's not as instantly gratifying! Put the pizza in the oven; six minutes later, dinner is ready.
I’ve started thinking a lot more about the business of farming. How broken the industrial farming system in the United States is. How hard it is for small independent farmers to make it. Especially without inherited generational wealth, in the form of land or funding that can purchase large swaths of land. The inherent racism of the business of farming. Black and Indigenous people had their lands stolen from them. How is it a viable business? Should it even be a business? Should it be a community-driven effort? One concept cemented in my head because of the pandemic and what is happening in the restaurant industry. Growing food and cooking food became problematic when they went from being an act of nourishment into a business that required profit.
Whether it's people, the environment, the consumer, the worker, the earth, something, or someone gets exploited. My big challenge when I owned a restaurant was how does somebody do this and make it sustainable? Not just the beautiful, sustainably raised grass-fed beef, but sustainable for the humans who are doing this every day. Everyone who works here gets paid a living wage; everyone has sick pay and vacation time and enough training and access to the resources they need and childcare. Now I feel the same about farming. Unless people have outside generational wealth, it is impossible to “make it” in both restaurant and farming industries.
Kristen: You've started working with people to come up with a similar solution. Do you want to tell us about the project with Earthseed?
Preeti: Our relationship and our goals are currently amoeba-like. Earthseed Permaculture Center is a cooperative started by Pandora Thomas. She and I have discussed bringing me on to build the culinary side of the program. The reason it is still undetermined is that Pandora has spent the last six weeks raising $2.6 million to purchase a farm in Sonoma County. And I believe she's done it or about to do it, which is insane and amazing. Earthseed Permaculture Center would be at this farm in West County Sonoma. And it would be an Afro-Indigenous-led and owned collective. It is an inspiring project that is just getting off of its feet. But I think in the next three to six months, especially as we go into the spring and summer and start working on the land, it will blossom into something beautiful.
Kristen: And now here are the recipe creators that our listeners think more people should know.
Listener Dominique Evans: Hi, my name is Dominique Evans; I’m from Washington, D. C. The recipe developer I'm loving is Noreen Wasti. She is a recipe developer, and her most recent project is collaborating with Brightland. They are a woman and vinegar and oil company. They are unique, and so is she. Her recipes are bright and vibrant. I love them because they're incredibly pantry-friendly. She uses many colors of the rainbow in her dishes, and they're beautiful to look at, but they're even more delicious to try. I love her beans on toast recipe, and she has a delectable dal recipe with garlic oil that I love.
Listener Anita Shepherd: Hi, I'm Anita Shepherd from Anita's Yogurt. Someone whose recipes I admire is Jonell Nash, who is sadly no longer with us. Jonell was the food editor for Essence Magazine in the eighties and part of the nineties. I came across one of her books in a used bookstore, and it caught my attention because there were so many vegetarian recipes in it. There’s a cabbage roll recipe where you stuff the cabbage with toasted sunflower seeds and veggies and like a biscuit recipe that incorporates sweet potato puree. I love that. She wanted to highlight how soul food and traditional African American cooking is nutrient-dense and not heavy and greasy. It is feel-good, good for you food.
Listener Emily Hanhan: Hi, my name is Emily Hanhan, I am the Research Associate with Genius Recipes and I live in Brooklyn, New York. Jenn de la Vega is a recipe developer, writer, and food stylist that I adore. I also feel lucky to call her a friend, Not only does Jenn have so many brilliant tips on building charcuterie boards for one, ten, or one hundred people, but she has also taught me recipes, techniques, and juicy gossip culture of Filipino lumpia. Jenn is a chili genius, an egg connoisseur, a fire master, and an undercover brilliant baker. Jenn mixes her Filipino American culture, an endless desire to learn, and her offbeat personality into the kind of recipes I can't wait to make and eat.
Kristen: (voiceover): Thanks for listening. Our show was put together by Coral Lee, Emily Hanhan, and me, Kristen Miglore. If you are sitting on a genius recipe, especially from someone who is not getting as much visibility as they should, I would always love to hear from you at email@example.com. And if you like the The Genius Recipe Tapes, do take a second to rate, review, and subscribe, if you haven't already. Talk to you soon.