LLF Impressions—Part Four
Born in Pakistan, Fatima Ali, known as Fati, was an award-winning chef in New York City. Her ambition, conviction and drive led Fatima to break many conventional boundaries during a time when a career in the kitchen wasn't seen as an option for a young woman like her. After graduating as class valedictorian from the Culinary Institute of America, Fatima worked her way through multiple restaurants, ultimately becoming the youngest executive sous chef at Stella 34 and La Fonda del Sol. When Fatima was just 23, she competed in and won an episode of Chopped on the Food Network—the first Pakistani and the youngest contestant to do so at the time. Later she starred in a Munchies episode for VICE, and began to gather a significant following from around the world through her sporadic appearances on TV. Another competition success with Chef’s Roll sent her to Napa Valley to work at the three Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood. Fatima went on to win the world's hearts as a contestant on the fifteenth season of Bravo's Top Chef—again, she was the first Pakistani woman on the show and went on to be voted as ‘Fan Favorite’. Unfortunately, shortly before the show aired, Fatima was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, interrupting her journey and derailing her trajectory just as her star was rising. After a 16-month-long battle, Fatima passed away on 25 January 2019. She wrote several essays for Bon Appétit, one of which was posthumously awarded a James Beard Award. Before she said goodbye, Fatima made plans. Plans to spark curiosity about Pakistani food and help people value and see themselves in her culture and country. Plans to hold the doors open for other brown women to chase their dreams and believe in themselves the way she did. Plans to make everyone understand the importance of leading with love, to live without fear, to have a vision and bet on yourself to get there. Gone far too soon, and missed dearly by her loved ones and fans throughout the world—with this book, she shares with us her story and how it came to be.
“Do we have the posters? Check. Do we have easels organized? Check. When can we enter the space and set it up before people arrive? It better look good.” I mumbled under my breath as I walked over to Hall 4, the venue for our talk about my sister’s book: Savor – A Chef’s Hunger for More. It has been out in the world now for barely a year, and we had the chance to have it featured at this year’s Lahore Literary Festival.
Our mother’s anxiety grew as the day came closer, wanting to rehearse, to practice, to prepare for us taking the stage. A place most natural for Fatima, the stage is where you could see her star shine brightest, she was built for it and the world was built to watch her grow into the phenom that she would go on to become.
My mother and I, not so much. We needed to see how we would approach the talk, get some confidence and do Fatima proud. Even our facilitator Zahra, seasoned by the junket of lit festivals that she has attended with her best- selling author husband was feeling the occasion. Here we were, standing in place for Fatima—what big and beautiful shoes they are to fill—in front of a crowd full of people who have a special place in their heart for her, and probably a few folks who just wandered in.
It was reassuring to see a full room. I feared a small, uninterested crowd, coming by to show us support, a sort of emotional compulsion of sorts. That was, thankfully, not the case. It was not as full as it probably would be if she were talking, but it was enough to make us a little jittery and excited. I’ll take it.
I suppose we had done something like this before, when it came time to prepare for her memorial. We made posters for the event in Brooklyn. Her best friends had put together some collages, pictures from different phases in her life—we put those up and around the room. A gigantic poster with her bright smile looking all ‘cheffy’ from a Food and Wine Festival she was participating in—we put that up too.
We were slowly building a sort of a toolkit for when we need to be Fati’s surrogates. It always feels good to represent her, to share stories about her, to share the lessons we have learned from her and through her illness. As the crowd clapped and stood for us at the end, a great sense of pride and gratitude set in for me. These feelings though, were not at the forefront in the days and weeks leading up to it.
Instead, I found myself a little lost. I am supposed to go and be a delegate at the LLF, but it’s not my book. It’s Fatima who should be on stage, where she belonged, where she had made a place for herself. But she cannot. She is somewhere else, somewhere we can’t see her, or talk to her, or be with her, cook with her, laugh with her. She died years ago.
“She should be here.” I grit my teeth and fight back the choking anger I get when I confront the cruel reality of her life, and spit out these muffled words into a tissue now soaked with snot and tears. It’s easy to break when I remember everything that has happened. All that practice and rehearsal is not so we can say our lines without forgetting, but simply so we can keep it together enough to string sentences that have some meaning and not turn into blubbering messes in front of everyone. To be on stage, talking about Savor is to be very close to Fatima, and sometimes the closer I get, the more painful it can be.
She would be here if she was still alive, or would she? If I rewind the tape back, chop and change some plot points, she would’ve beaten her cancer and been on track to be a global food icon and superstar. I wondered if she would’ve written this book, or a book at all by now. She wasn’t short of the talent and ability to write like the authors she grew up reading, but would she have written Savor?
I think Savor is much more than a book—it’s a means really. A means to continue conversing with people in this world, of inspiring them, challenging their thinking, a means to continue leading from the front, defying expectations, a means to make distant dreams a reality, a means to help families face truth and heal, a means for other people fighting illness and disease to fight and not lose themselves, a means to bridge relationships, for parents to think about what they would regret should their sons and daughters leave this place forever. A means to defy death.
I suppose we had done something like this before, when it came time to prepare for her memorial. We made posters for the event in Brooklyn. Her best friends had put together some collages, pictures from different phases in her life
A means to understand the immense complexity and that this life can have, and the simple and totally uncomplicated ways we can choose to lead it. Just as the book acts as a means for so much, on that day at the LLF, I too was just a means, to share what the core of my sister’s book has to offer everyone, to be another part of her story, to become a little part of someone else’s story, to say something someone needed to hear that day, to encourage others facing traumatic loss find a way to heal, to heal myself.
Our mother often repeats something her father once told her, that “we are all a means to an end.” To what end? I’m still learning. I do hope that my life—as a means—can be even half as glorious as my sister Fatima’s.
Mohammad Iftikhar Ali is the founder and director of the Chef Fatima Foundation based in Lahore, Pakistan. He is also a lawyer and like his sister, he too is obsessed with eating and cooking food. He studied to be a chef at the Ballymaloe Cookery School after Fatima passed and hopes to one day actualise a food dream they both shared. Before coming back to Pakistan, he lived and worked as a management consultant in Australia.