By spreading awareness for inequality in fine dining this chef-turned-farm intern during the pandemic, became a mentor for underrepresented communities in the food industry while empowering women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and other minorities.
Photo by Alanna Hale
Chef Preeti Mistry, born in London and raised in the United States, earned classic culinary credentials by working in fine dining restaurants for many years. This led to holding Executive Chef roles at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco and Google HQ in Mountain View, CA. Preeti co-founded Navi Kitchen and Juhu Beach Club restaurants with their wife Ann Nadeau in Oakland. A contestant on Top Chef Season 6 and twice nominated by the James Beard Foundation as "Best Chef of the West'', Mistry also co-authored The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook. Since the pandemic, the couple has been living in the Russian River, Sonoma County, California. They have been making the best of it, hiking in the redwoods, cooking as well as volunteering on local regenerative farms. For a few months, Chef Preeti learned about agriculture in a small family-run farm in Sebastopol that specialized in hard-to-find Asian heirloom vegetables. This reconnection with the land has also been the opportunity for introspection and willingness to speak out about their experiences as a queer, brown, immigrant chef. Passionate, mission-driven, and activist Preeti Mistry, denounces the lack of diversity in fine dining. Undeniably, an industry dominated by white men that they deplore being built from a system permeated with oppression and hierarchy in which women, LGBT, and other minorities are not treated equally. During our conversation they talk about their dream project: an inclusive farm restaurant model centered on people of color and non-European cuisines. A place that would promote minorities while cooking accessible and flavorful food.
Welcome, Preeti to Chefs for Impact!
By Preeti Mistry as told to Chefs for Impact
What brought you to become a Chef?
“I’ve been cooking professionally for 18 years but at first I wanted to be a filmmaker. I did make one short film in 2002 and then I promptly moved to London, as my wife got an opportunity to move there. In Europe, I started to host dinner parties at my house and our friends pushed me to go to culinary school. I enrolled in Le Cordon bleu in London, then started working in fine dining and luxury hotels. When we moved back to SF in 2004, I was still enamored with fine dining. I wanted to work at the top places, which I did, and it was awful. I hated it because it was the most toxic environment. The Chef was screaming all day long. I couldn’t subject myself to feeling fear and lack of safety every day so I quit.
From running our own catering business with my wife to being the Exec Chef at the DeYoung Museum in SF, I was also Exec at the Google HQ for several months. I didn’t like the corporate world and the idea of feeding entitled people bothered me. They were entitled to eat what I cook as opposed to making a conscious choice to go to a restaurant. That’s how I decided to start my own restaurants Juhu beach club and Navi Kitchen to share my own cuisine: Indian street food. Since both restaurants closed in 2018, I’ve been writing, speaking, doing special dinners, and consulting work for restaurant groups. I’ve been working on myself and trying to figure out what I really want to do in my life.”
What is your experience navigating these times of uncertainty?
“We were on a vacation in our house in redwood when the lockdown happened so we decided to stay. Our friends were running, for the second season, a small farm about 30 mins away from us. I asked if they needed help and I ended up spending the last 6 months working on the farm. I just finished my internship but I’m still volunteering for another organization called ‘Farm to Pantry’, which gathers the surplus of fruits and vegetables from larger farms donated by local farmers to send to food pantries in order to feed the ones in need. Sonoma County has a 20% unemployment rate right now which is the highest since the great depression. There are a lot of hungry people out there. Agriculture and tourism are the 2 largest industries here, and have both been devastated by the pandemic and the fires. So, I’m just trying to do my part.”
Photo by Sarah Deragon
Will this experience as a farmer change the way you’ll work as a Chef?
“I have this dream project to open a farm restaurant. When I started looking into what kind of restaurant and farms exist together, I realized that the field of farm restaurants is dominated by very white fine dining folks. I’ve done classes with young people, mostly black, and they see organic and sustainability as an elitist white person thing, instead of seeing it as part of our culture. They don’t see themselves reflected in that, even though they could have a great experience. When most people think farm to table, they think California cuisine, European cuisine, or “new American” – whatever that means! I think my cuisine should actually be called New American, not Indian, because this is what I am: a new American.”
Covid made it clear that this farm project isn’t going to be about me, this is bigger than me. I don’t want this place to be Chef Preeti Mistry’s restaurant where I’m in charge of everything and I make all the decisions. I want this to be a collectively owned opportunity for many people. I want to collaborate with guest Chefs from everywhere who could see their cuisine represented in this environment. I would like to provide educational opportunities for young people and for cooks. That would be a very powerful experience and great opportunity for so many people.”
What would a sustainable restaurant model be?
“What I’m talking about is not a full profit farm and I think that’s where a lot of things get difficult in this world. Growing and cooking food is one of the most basic things that everyone in the world needs. But as soon as we started cooking and growing food for profit instead of sustaining ourselves that’s where exploitation starts. I’m thinking about a place that is either collective ownership or a non-profit. We won’t be farming vegetables that will sell well in the marketplace, we’re farming vegetables that we need to sustain a kitchen. We are not going to have CSA boxes and going to farmers markets, the food we are going to grow is to get the kitchen going as a circular model. I spent the last 2 years trying to figure out how it would be sustainable to do that without someone along the line getting exploited. If you’re going to grow food organically, pay all of your employees a living wage, etc. It is obviously going to cost money. So, I would need some investments and funding for sure but that collective ownership and membership could sustain a certain amount of revenues. This is not about anyone getting rich but about everyone being paid fairly for the work they are doing.”
How do you use your experience to mentor the new generation of chefs?
“That it is not always easy for a queer gender non-conforming brown person to find a place that feels safe. When you find it, as I did the last 6 months at the farm while spending time with the workers and the volunteers, it felt really good. Having a place that mirrors who you are and sees you in a full self is often time challenging for people of color, queer, etc. I’m teaching confidence and empowerment and very often, young chefs reach out to me to ask me to be their mentor.”
We see new models and movements emerging as the crisis has forced most of us to reinvent ourselves. Do you think this crisis represents an opportunity to rethink the fine dining industry?
“The problem is that I don’t see a lot of Michelin stars Chefs with a genuine interest in change. I hate the system that created these Chefs or that allows people like them to be in power and not others. I hate the same system that allows people like them to not question the whiteness of their institutions. But just because you criticize somebody doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate that they’ve also done good things. Some of them are very talented and those two things can coexist.”
As you’re spreading awareness for inequality in this industry, what’s your advice to change mentalities?
“All these Chefs may be realizing they need to do more now and that’s a good thing. You can name a thing, but it’s not enough to just name it, you must do something about it. If you are the one who’s benefiting from that, you must acknowledge that there is inequality and you’ve benefited greatly from the exploitation of other people – women, black and brown people mostly. For the ones who are finally making changes, good for them, they are finally doing something and I want them to be successful.”
What’s your vision of what gastronomy should be?
“Gastronomy must be simple, accessible, nourishing, and flavorful. It’s not about radishes on a spike, whether that radish is, all of the sudden, dip into turmeric. To me, this is not pushing us forward, it is entertainment for the 1%. Cooking is about nourishing people, their body and their soul. If as a chef, your goal is to create a restaurant where only a few people can afford to taste your food, good for you, but I don’t see you as a leader in this industry.”
What drives you?
“My desire for fairness and justice. I want to create something that goes beyond just having a James Beard nomination or being featured in this or that magazine because of my food. I want to give back to a larger community of people. I’m also aware that I have a lot of privileges that a lot of people don’t have so I want to help lift them up in the scene. There is a magical experience when you go to a farm and see the food growing and eat the produce right there, there is a connection that I think everyone should be able to experience.”