Painted by Patrick Byrnes
Nik Sharma is a Bombay-born, Bay Area–based photographer and food writer who previously worked as a molecular biologist. These aspects of his background, combined with his gold-star #jarrytype status, must be a part of what make his work stand out so much. It manages to be specific and universal at the same time: “Though we’re all different in many ways,” he says, “our differences also bring us together at the table.”
His photos are rich with drama and vibrant splashes of color, and so often he captures a fleeting detail or step in the process that infuses the ordinary or mundane with beauty—a drip or swirl, or the cracking of an egg. And then his recipes, where he draws from his North and West Indian heritage as well as the punchy, fresh-forward trademarks of his local Bay Area food scene, are some of our very favorites to make at home.
In Issue 2 he offers a full weekend feast, one to immerse oneself in, with semolina-crusted spiced fish cakes, spring pea pilaf, naan bread, kheer, and four more recipes. Nothing is too fussy or complicated, but the intent is pleasure in the kitchen, with delicious, rewarding results. In the following exclusive Q+A, we talk to Nik about some of his inspirations and mentors, how science has shaped the way he develops a recipe, and why screwing up is what makes us all better cooks.
How does your understanding of science influence your cooking, and the way that you develop a recipe?
In many ways, cooking reminds me of working in a lab, you start with a hypothesis and then try to test it. I get to test and play around with ingredients and flavors, manipulate techniques—it’s one big experiment and quite often with a tasty outcome! I still jot down a lot of notes when I’m working on a recipe, like differences in taste, color, texture. Not all of my cooking “experiments” succeed (some cakes could have functioned as door stoppers) but when the recipes do work, the results are always rewarding and exciting!
Tell us about the most recent great meal you ate.
A friend recently introduced me to The Chairman in San Francisco. Their baos are amazing! I’ve been there probably around 4 times for lunch this month.
What’s your process when shooting food?
Cooking a meal is probably one of the most stimulating experiences I can think of, from selecting ingredients to washing them to baking. There’s a story in each of those moments that I try to communicate via my photography. But there’s something special that you think a little more about after working in a kitchen: the people behind the food we eat. Through my photographs I wanted people to imagine themselves cooking with me but also draw attention to people of every color, gender, and sexuality. My story could be yours and your story could be mine—we’re all connected on some level and I hope that my work gets that story across.
Where do you go, and who to do you go to, for inspiration? Do you have any food mentors?
When it comes to creating my food, my ideas are strongly influenced by my heritage, my experiences as an immigrant, but also from the people around me. I’ve lived in India, in the Midwest, on the East coast, and now on the West Coast and there’s such a huge and vibrant food scene to learn and sample from.
From farming to cooking to writing, there are a lot of amazing people doing amazing things in the food world so it's hard to pick out a few but I admire and get inspired by the works of Alice Waters for kicking off the sustainability movement that we all talk about now, John Birdsall for his writing that makes me think about the sociological and cultural influences of food in our lives, Niloufer Ichaporia King for writing My Bombay Kitchen, one of my favorite Indian cookbooks, and Martin Yan for being one first cooking shows on television that really made me want to explore cooking at home and other cuisines from around the world.
It feels as if the gay food scene is really taking off. What do you think it can be attributed to? What is it about how LGBTQ and queer people approach food that might be unique to us?
I honestly think the gay food scene has always been present but what has changed is the availability of the internet to give us a platform to share our thoughts and have like-minded people to connect with. Our community is much more visible than before. With the barriers to free speech and accessibility removed through blogs and social media platforms, the gay community has found a voice without any limits. We can talk about the food we love, the issues that we care strongly about but we also bring a unique and passionate voice through our stories and experiences. Mine has been one through the perspective of a gay, colored immigrant and though we are all different in many ways, our differences also bring us together at the table.
What's one essential piece of cooking or baking advice that you'd like to pass along to our readers?
Practice and make mistakes, especially when it comes to baking. I’ve learned to remember what not to do because of all the errors I’ve made while cooking.
Click here to learn more about Issue 2 content.
Banner Photos by Nik Sharma for Jarry.