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Teasing Our Tastebuds With Words:
Interview With Food Columnist Ajesh Patalay
by Mona Bavar
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
Every artist has their preferred medium of expression, and for Ajesh Patalay it’s the pen and paper. As an award-winning journalist and food enthusiast, it was nothing short of a dream come true when Patalay was offered the position of food columnist for the Financial Times’ How to Spend It magazine.
DLISH asked Patalay about life as a journalist, discovering gastronomical gems, and cooking at home.
Mona Bavar: Tell us a little about yourself.
Ajesh Patalay: I am a London-based writer and editor with (what I believe is) a GSOH and a well-stocked spice cupboard. As the food columnist for the Financial Times’ How to Spend It, I have written about everything from hot sauce and sea kale to dehydrated meals and food in the novels of Hilary Mantel. I am also an award-winning travel journalist and celebrity profiler who has been fortunate enough to interview the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Gary Oldman, Sandra Oh, Tom Hiddleston, Viola Davis, Carey Mulligan and Deepika Padukone. Other highlights including having lunch with Margaret Atwood in Venice, collaborating with Meryl Streep on an open letter in defence of journalism, and talking to the late Tony Curtis about what a ladies' man he was.
MB: How did you get into journalism? Food Columnist?
AP: I got my start in journalism working on the student newspaper at Cambridge University, where I studied English Literature. After graduating, I moved to Berlin, where I ate lots of currywurst and high-fibre bread. On my return to the UK, I enrolled at Goldsmiths University for an MA in Journalism. The course allowed me to make all the mistakes one could possibly make as a journalist in the safety of a classroom. Boy did I make some embarrassing mistakes. Towards the end of the course, I landed a job on the features desk of the Saturday Telegraph Magazine. That was my big break.
I have since worked at British GQ, Harper’s Bazaar and PORTER magazine and contributed to publications including the Guardian, Fantastic Man and the Independent. I also worked with supermodel Naomi Campbell on her fashion memoir for Taschen, whose second edition is due out in 2020.
As for writing about food, I've always been an eager cook, so it was a dream come true - and a huge stroke of luck - when editor-in-chief Jo Ellison asked me to join How to Spend It as its new food columnist earlier this year. I write about food as an enthusiast not an expert, and have reconciled myself to the fact that my waistline will never be the same again.
MB: How do you decide on what to write about?
AP: I follow my nose and my stomach. I speak to restaurateurs, foodies, PRs. It’s not dissimilar to finding stories in other areas. You write about things that excite you and that you think your readers will be interested in. If the subject gets your tastebuds watering, that’s a good start.
Lunch With Leonard Cohen by Ajesh Patalay
How important is it for you to write about the current challenges facing the food industry – sustainability, waste, possible shortages?
AP: Everything is connected in food, so it’s hugely important to be able to write about all aspects of the industry. At the same time, I don’t write for a catering or farming journal, so I have to find ways to address themes like waste and sustainability in ways that make sense for my readers. One way is to write about the people tackling those issues, the entrepreneurs, innovators and agents of change. Dynamic people are always interesting to read about. Another way is to demonstrate to readers how these issues affect the food that lands up on their plates. To be fair, most readers are fairly educated about those things now – they understand the importance of sustainability and how good practice in production results in better tasting food.
Everything is connected in food, so it’s hugely important to be able to write about all aspects of the industry. At the same time, I don’t write for a catering or farming journal, so I have to find ways to address themes like waste and sustainability in ways that make sense for my readers. One way is to write about the people tackling those issues, the entrepreneurs, innovators and agents of change. Dynamic people are always interesting to read about. Another way is to demonstrate to readers how these issues affect the food that lands up on their plates. To be fair, most readers are fairly educated about those things now – they understand the importance of sustainability and how good practice in production results in better tasting food.
MB: During this period of COVID-19, how can journalists bring to light the tragedy facing the hospitality industry – especially restaurants?
AP: By now it’s clear to everyone that the hospitality industry is going through an existential crisis. Despite the government interventions and philanthropic efforts, a large number of restaurants may not survive. What can journalists do? I think many of us have been doing it. We are telling the stories of those involved and advising readers on how they can help, often by connecting readers to suppliers and restaurateurs. I will be following this all the way.
MB: What do you think the ‘new world’ post-COVID will be for the food industry?
AP: It’s hard to say but I am interested in the positive changes that may come out of this crisis. I already see people shopping for groceries more locally and turning to smaller independent stores. I see people paying more attention to supply chains and the provenance of their food. I see a lot of restaurateurs taking this time to innovate, particularly with takeout and delivery options as well as with fresh produce boxes, which help suppliers. I also see a lot of people cooking more creatively at home, thinking about waste and making the most of what they have. It would be nice to see those habits endure in the post-COVID world. I think this period has brought home how critical restaurants and cafes are for many of us, not just economically or gastronomically but as places of communion. We rely on them – well I do anyway – to help us stay sane and feel connected. I can’t think of many things I enjoy more than dining out with friends and family so I pray that restaurants find ways to survive and evolve.
MB: How are you dealing with lockdown and social distancing?
AP: Like most people, I am cooking a lot more, which I love. I haven’t baked sourdough or banana loaf yet, but I have been making compotes, pickles and yoghurt. Next on the list: jam. The other day I cooked beef rendang for the first time (using a recipe passed on to me by street-food chef Lara Lee). It required 40 mins of stirring towards the end to caramelise but not burn the meat. The wrist injuries I incurred were worth it. The rendang was delicious. I’m excited to try more slow-cook dishes, now that I have time on my hands. Eight-hour short ribs on the barbecue is this summer’s challenge.
MB: What is your favorite dish/recipe?
AP: My mother’s recipe for Hyderabad lamb biryani. It requires layering up yoghurt-marinated cubes of lamb with parboiled rice, slow-cooked onions, coriander and ghee, and cooking it in a large pot in the oven for 3-4 hours. The fragrant billow of steam that comes off the biryani when you lift off the lid is heaven. It’s a real showpiece so I only wish I could invite some friends round to dinner to coo over it. I will do as soon as lockdown is over.
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