Palak Patel: Author of Food Is Love

Episode 526

In this episode, Palak Patel,  Author of the new cookbook, Food Is Love, shares all about her new cookbook which goes beyond recipes to explore the emotional connections we have with food. We also hear how this classically trained chef, restaurateur and winner of Food Network’s famed Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay – amongst other things – finds the balance between honoring tradition and experimenting with new flavors in her unique recipes.  We get to learn more about the growing plant-based cooking category,  her advice for beginner cooks as well as tips for substituting ingredients. She also shares her favorite spice to work with.  This is a must episode and you will love listening to Palak remind you why Food Is Love. Now on this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow. 

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, it’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I’m so excited to have my next guest. Here we have Palak Patel, who is the author of food is love, and Pollack and I were at an event with a whole group of friends in Santa Fe, and we became fast friends. She is not only absolutely amazing on so many levels, but also an incredible, incredible chef. And when I heard that her cookbook, with all of her amazing stories in it was coming out, in addition to having experienced everything that she is all about as a chef, I was like, Oh, my gosh, I have to have you on the podcast, so everyone can hear all about you. So for those of you who are not familiar with Palak, she’s a little bit of a celebrity. She’s very humble. So she wouldn’t say this. But she was the winner of Food Network’s fame chop, and also beat Bobby Flay. So and she was also a finalist on Food Network Star Season 14. So you would probably recognize her if you are just listening to the audio. But basically, she’s also somebody who’s experienced a lot in terms of being a not just a classically trained chef, but also a restaurant tour. And just an incredible human, as I said, but her cookbook that is just coming out is called Food is love plant based Indian inspired recipes to feel joy and connection. And there are many stories around food and the love of food and the things that she’s experienced. But it made me just really think about food in my own life, and so many connections around family, but also just around friends and experiences that I’ve had with them. So you are going to absolutely love this book and love hearing from Pollack as well. So welcome Palak. Thank

Palak Patel 2:49
you so much. Wow, what an introduction.

Kara Goldin 2:53
Super excited to have you here for sure. So what an incredible cookbook story I sort of had you when I say cookbook, because it’s so much more than that. And it’s just a beautiful, delightful. It’s not just recipes. Tell me a little bit more about why you decided to write this. Yeah,

Palak Patel 3:15
I think a couple of years ago, as I was going through this process of figuring out like, my relationship to food is, I think pandemic is probably where I would peg it. And I started to, you know, like everyone in the world had a lot of grief, a lot of things were happening, that were not in my control. And where I found solace was in the kitchen. And while I was doing that it started dredging up all these memories that I had of, wow, yeah, I remember feeling happy when I was with my grandmother, oh, I remember going to the market with my mom. And in those really tough moments, I went to food. And I went to cooking to find comfort. And just kind of started outlining for fun. I have a really big whiteboard. I’m a big, like believer in whiteboards. And I just thought, you know, these are great things for me to talk about and write about. And so I just started thinking of memories and memories then started to come forward into this relationship with food. And that’s where food is Love was born. Because I think cookbooks are great. But then this became more than a cookbook. It became my way of relating to people, building community and connecting with others that I didn’t know over something I loved so dearly. And that’s food.

Kara Goldin 4:45
Definitely. What was that? When you think about your grandmother, what was the recipe that you think about? And probably more than one recipe but when you think about her,

Palak Patel 4:55
she used to make these, what I would call sweet empanadas, they’re in progress. And it’s like this moon shaped pastry. And she was so meticulous i Till this day, remember her fingers, you know, meticulously stitching and making the design and like holding it. And I would just watch, I would watch her she pinched each corner the pastry to make this perfect like halfmoon place it line them up like soldiers and then pick up the next one. I tried to do it and I was like, No, not like grandma’s.

Kara Goldin 5:31
So, so funny. So I totally agree with you that food really does have it, there’s a visual to it not just a visual about the food, but your memories of you know, when you enjoyed something, or maybe time of day, or the people that you were with? Did you feel like there were other people doing this are making that connection? Or I because I went back and looked at some of my cookbooks, and it’s not done, what you’ve done? I mean, I think it’s it’s just, it seems so obvious. Yet that is not what typically is has happened yet. I think, you know, the love and attention that you’ve put into this book makes you think up your own history.

Palak Patel 6:17
Yeah, it’s, um, it’s purposeful, of using a cookbook, in a way to engage the reader on more than recipes. So the entire book is broken out by nine emotions that I fundamentally go back to, whether it’s I’m trying to cook something that’s comforting, whether I’m making something that’s indulgent, whether I’m doing something that’s installed Jake, and thinking about my mom, or grandma, so I broke out the cookbook in a series of emotions. And within each chapter, I just had these prompts. And these prompts are really a nice way, whether it’s to connect to yourself or to connect to your guests, people that you know, or don’t know, or even teams, you know, I’ve done this with companies. And in those prompts, it gets you to learn about someone through a very fun and light food memory. And so it is kind of a guide in building community in building these meditative practices or just conjuring up memories that are so valuable in connecting us back to everything.

Kara Goldin 7:32
What’s your favorite of the nine different memories segments that you divide this into? Probably nostalgia,

Palak Patel 7:41
I think this became kind of a book in honor of every, you know, auntie, and every grandmother, we I grew up in India, so we lived in a multi generational household. Three stories and all the families lived together, eat together. And so that was my normal and to go back to and think about those memories and write from that perspective. And think of recipes that came to me from that really was just such a beautiful trip down memory lane. So yeah, the food is installed. Eric is one of my favorite chapters.

Kara Goldin 8:19
So you switched careers at age 32. Go back one at 31 to go back to culinary school. Can you talk a little bit about that transition from a traditional career path to doing what you love? And why did you do it? What was kind of the turning point? All of those factors that made you who you are today?

Palak Patel 8:46
Yeah, I think right out of undergrad, I had this little voice in my head that was like, You love this, like go in I went to visit a culinary school. And I have very strict immigrant parents. And it doesn’t matter how old you are, you are still their child. And I remember going to visit the culinary school and I came back to have a conversation with my parents. And I was like, Hey, I’m like, I’d like to go back to culinary school. And before I could even finish my sentence, they were like, no, like, full stop. And I was like, great, good talk. So it just, it was like, like, I just kind of stopped dead in my tracks. I’m like, Okay, well, that’s not gonna work. And so I ended up working the typical corporate career. Worked at UPS when I was in Atlanta. And then I was like, you know, I should move far, far away from my parents, you know, and that would be the best way for me to kind of forge my own path. So I packed my bags and I moved to San Francisco. And in San Francisco, I got trained to be a personal chef and I was going to moonlight, because if I couldn’t do it full time, I was not going to let that dream go. And I started, you know, working for clients on the weekends and in the evenings. And then I met, someone that worked in a startup was starting a company. And he found out that I had a business degree and say, great, you’re not just a chef, I was, again, I have a full time job. And so I ended up kind of working in the startup space doing neural marketing. And that kind of just opened up the path of, you know, one getting to experience food in like, every country. I mean, I flew everywhere from Tokyo, to Taipei to Beijing, you know, the Middle East. And I like my whole world just opened up. And then I was absolutely certain that this was my path, waited until the company got acquired, orchestrated a move across to New York, and joined culinary school, but that that path wasn’t easy. I think. My definition of success came from my parents, right? Like, and their definition came from what stable and what’s solid and what’s known. And so they were like, no, don’t leave your corporate job. And meanwhile, I was so unhappy. Not because of the work. It’s just that’s not what was bringing me joy. And I was doing it. But it was just I was sent myself. And then there was this thing that just took all the fee. And I was enamored with it, every aspect of it. And so yeah, I went back to culinary school, worked a few more years in corporate and then finally made the leap to do this full time. But yeah, it was it’s a, it’s a tough thing. And it’s not the same path for everyone. It’s not linear by any means. There’s a lot of self doubt, there’s a lot of should I could I you know, but in the end, I think I have always followed my joy. And that’s never led me wrong. And so here we are. So,

Kara Goldin 12:08
Culinary Arts is a field where tradition meets innovation. How did you decide what you would be known for? is one way to look at this, but how do you balance honoring kind of traditional flavors with experimenting with new ideas and making food be different than what people might expect it to be? Yeah,

Palak Patel 12:32
I think it’s such an honor to one bring in new flavors that I grew up with that are kind of in my back pocket at any given time. And really make them accessible. I think accessibility is probably one of the biggest gifts that I was given. Whether it’s talking about a certain dish like samosas on a national TV show, or, you know, making chicken curry on a national level. And being an Iron Chef, I think I’m honored to be kind of the person that helps bring accessibility to this food that’s not always known to everyone in this country. And even if it’s just a spice, you know, we have so many spices, but that’s because I grew up with it. If you just learn one spice from me, or if you learn one dish, or if I made something from for you that had cardamom, I’ve done my job. I’ve expanded someone’s palate into a world that is very unique, and very comfortable for me, and bringing them along for the ride and introducing them to amazing flavors. So I’m more into introducing and teaching and experimenting than I am sticking strictly to tradition. Because I don’t even cook traditional all the time. So why would I expect readers to but I think there’s a good balance between here’s my new life. And here’s something culturally that I know and how do I blend the two together beautifully so that I can have more people enjoy the food I love. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 14:12
definitely. So sustainability and mindful eating are topics of growing importance. Your your cookbook is a plant based Indian inspired recipes. But obviously you are not just plant based, but you that’s that’s a basis for much of your cooking. I feel like so many plant based items in that I’ve eaten, they taste blah, and obviously yours do not. I mean, and I think it is the spices. I think it’s the uniqueness that you add to it. Many of the recipes in the cookbook, too. But can you talk about sort of how how the plant based movement it’s not just Just about it has to taste good, right? It can’t just be about I’m eating healthier. And what do you see? As is kind of the influence there? And And overall, where do you see that headed?

Palak Patel 15:12
I’m a big believer in giving people choices. And plant based, you’re absolutely right, you can have two dishes that are side by side. And if one tastes really incredible, you’re more likely to eat it. And I think people don’t care as much about the labels as they do about the taste. And if I can just bring a expansion into someone’s purview, plant based, in this case, it helps them decide it helps their palate decide what they’re going to eat. I do think that plant based is going to be more prevalent as we like, look, you know, 510 15 years into our ecosystem. But from a practical standpoint, I am tasked with making it delicious and making it accessible and making it fun, so that people are at least willing to try it. And once you try it, you’re like, oh, actually, great. Maybe I want to eat plant based twice a week instead of once a week, whatever that movement is. And that shift is, it’s going to be based on your palette. And so this is kind of my mission of, let’s just put all the labels and all that stuff aside, do you like eating it? Would you crave it? Are you going to want to experiment with it? And if that is what I’ve done, then my job is, you know, successful in that sense. So I do think that having people experiment and really try it is going to be the way forward rather than giving them stats and statistics. And you should and nobody, nobody wants to eat that way. Nobody wants to be told what to eat. But I do want to eat good things that tastes really amazing.

Kara Goldin 17:06
So cooking can be so intimidating for so many. And what advice do you have for beginners? First of all, I think your cookbook is it’s very easy to follow the recipes too. It’s sometimes it’s, you open up a cookbook and you get intimidated just by the listings for the for the recipes, but yours is not even though you are you know, a classically trained chef and winner of chopped and beat Bobby Flay. I mean, you can simplify things to make it easy for people. But any suggestions for people who think I’m not a good? I’m not a good cook. And I’m just so intimidated by all of this. What What would you say to that?

Palak Patel 17:56
I think everyone can cook. I think that’s a fallacy that when people tell me they can’t cook it, that’s not true at all, I think making it accessible, or making it easy for yourself in the kitchen. So if there is something you already like to do, I’d like to kind of use that as a jumping point. Like if you know how to make a dressing. If you’re adding one different ingredient to make that dressing taste different now you’ve learned something. So as much as possible in the cookbook, I have tried to like, give people the sense that it’s a guide, it’s not a like, it’s not a you have to have every single thing in this recipe to make it. It’s like, if you don’t have red lentils, use green ones, if you don’t have green ones, use brown ones. And it’s it’s about this idea of using your intuition to at least try because the only way you’re going to know is if you try it, and start with simple things of whatever it is even if it’s as simple as making oatmeal. Right? We for example, in Santa Fe, we had oatmeal, but I pureed it with avocado and spinach and it became a different like a smoothie bowl. It’s not hard, yeah, to put these in a blender, but it’s just using this intuition of Oh, I see this picture I was very meticulous about telling the team that I wanted a photo for every single recipe because I do feel like we cook with our our visual sense. And our updates. And so if we see something maybe that’s a jumping off point, like oh, wait, I don’t have plans, but I see peaches. I could probably put features in here. And as many times as I could in the book I’ve kind of given that option of like, don’t have this use that. But most importantly just try it. Because if one thing gets left out it’s not going to break the recipe unlikely Baking but in cooking, it’s very forgiving. And it’s the idea that if you only have 80% of it, great, that’s the recipe you’re going to execute. But don’t let that deter you from at least trying. And

Kara Goldin 20:13
I love your cookbook for that reason. And many people know that I’m allergic to coconut. And so you were so kind at the event where you substituted different things that you you had a bunch of different recipes that you were making, but you were able to make everything without coconut, which was so kind of you. But when you hear like coconut in a recipe, what would be your go to one or two things that you would put in place of coconut? To try? Yeah, cashew

Palak Patel 20:44
cream is also a natural thickener. And you can use that. The idea is that right now, there are so many wonderful companies that are so many wonderful substitutes that have come where if you were using cream, now there’s plant based cream, if you’re using butter, there’s plant based butter. And so you know, with a little imagination, and you know, use use your internet to kind of just pop in, and I’m pretty certain if it’s not in my book, it’s on the internet to help guide you to, I really want to make this or I have an allergy and just get a little creative. It takes just a little bit of effort. But I think when there’s effort, you come out with beautiful dishes, and you’ll be proud. Like, it’s there’s nothing more triumphant them when I get pictures of people even post retreat, when folks were making some of the things that I was making and sending me pictures like, Oh, I did it, you know, because it is it’s just, it’s a beautiful way to spend some time. You know, whether you’re working out consider that an activity, you know, just like working out to decompress and make it easy for yourself. Don’t start with something difficult, you know, kind of know know your guardrails, and then just go in and have fun. What’s your

Kara Goldin 22:02
favorite spice? If you have one to work with? My

Palak Patel 22:06
favorite spice? Like, I’d have to say, I’m spice as in the heat, I love heat. And to make that distinction, not all spices are spicy. I do talk about that in the book. But from a spice level. I do like heat. And so I would go for like a chili powder any day. It’s like many varieties, many forms from many countries. So if there’s a form of chili that can be found. I’m going to find it and I’m going to cook with it.

Kara Goldin 22:38
So my husband is exactly the same way. So he just died. Yeah, no, definitely. In fact, in Santa Fe, I think I asked you where you had gotten the chili powder, and I went down to the market and found it. So to bring it back for him. And here’s like, that’s really hot. So it was very spicy. So but it But oftentimes, when you’re traveling, do you go and try and look for those different unique spices of areas as well?

Palak Patel 23:08
Yeah, it’s one of my favorite things to do in order to kind of connect back to where I’m traveling. In Santa Fe. There’s a style of pepper that is very native to Santa Fe, it’s called hot chilies. And they have a whole festival around it. There is like I mean, you can’t go a block without running into a hot chili. Whether it’s, you know, charred on open fire powdered, pickled, fresh. They’re only in season twice a year, or sorry, two times, two months out of the year, which is in August and September. So yeah, I think I make it a fun little mission to go on a little journey and find local spices or ingredients that are native to where I’m traveling.

Kara Goldin 23:56
Me too. I love doing that for sure. So you cook for groups around the world. Where’s the weirdest, most remote place that you’ve been invited to cook at?

Palak Patel 24:09
A couple of years ago for me years, I traveled with some friends to the remotest island that I’ve ever been to off the coast of Yemen, and it’s an island called Socotra. Now Socotra was not open for travel for a number of years because of the Civil War. And I think in 2022 They finally started opening up flights and you bet hours on one of those first flights to go to Socotra no electricity on the island you camp everywhere. You take everything in the SUV and then you like tent out in the middle of the open, you know, Sky and we got into the small village and the our drivers and I Guide, I found out that I was a cook and invited me into this like tiny little hut, you know, over in this tiny room, and I got to make a meal and show them how to just I, I had a chopped experience. I opened their basket and I was like, let me see what you have. And they’re like, Okay, and they’re just so delighted and happy that somebody else was cooking. And they were like learning and asking me questions. And I think it’s just one of those most cherished memories that I have, you know, making dinner for everyone that night. And for them, because no one cooks for them. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 25:38
definitely. Oh, I love that story. So what what is your favorite recipe from the book if you have one.

Palak Patel 25:46
I’m big into lentils, I think it’s one of these like unsung heroes of most kitchens. It’s one of the most sustainable ingredients on the planet. Lentils come in so many forms, and so many shapes and colors and variety. So doll, which is a soup is made in many different forms that just a classic doll, which is an Indian comfort food, I crave that if I’m on the road for a long time, or if I’m sick. That’s what my mom used to give me. And it’s just a really hearty comfort dish that I love making. It’s always on the menu if I can help it. And it’s just a nice way to bring in a very perfect food, nutritionally speaking and adding any kind of things that you want to add in a very simple and humble form. So

Kara Goldin 26:38
last question, looking to the future on new projects and adventures, obviously, you have quite a nice business traveling and and helping others enjoy their experiences through food. But what else are you looking forward to in the future for you for you and your career?

Palak Patel 27:02
Well, I am going back to New York. So I was in New York, 11 years pre pandemic and came down to Atlanta and Nevada for beautiful years, you know, had a restaurant here. But once the book was done, I decided to close shop and go back to New York City. And yeah, pick up where I left off before the pandemic. So I’m really, really excited. I had a couple of meetings before I came back from this trip, and yeah, so I’m looking to go back and do something big back in New York again.

Kara Goldin 27:39
I love it. So Pollack Batal author of food is love. Thank you so much. And everybody needs to get the cookbook, your local bookstore or on on Amazon, we’ll we’ll have all of that info as well. We’ll have all the info for Pollack in the shownotes, too. But thank you so much for joining us and sharing all about your, your journey. And also the cookbook is just absolutely amazing. So thank you.

Palak Patel 28:12
Thank you so much.

Kara Goldin 28:14
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