Whether you’re tuning in on the Food Network, Instagram, or YouTube, seeing Chef Palak Patel cook and talk about food is delightful. Not only is she confident in kicking Bobby Flay’s butt in front of a crowd on Beat Bobby Flay, she’s just as easy to watch when she’s the only one on camera, roasting corn on the stovetop or clarifying butter in her home kitchen.
And what makes her so appealing is that her philosophy on food and cooking — using simple ingredients to make delicious dishes packed with flavor from herbs and spices — is inspiring to everyone, regardless of skill level.
Believe it or not, Chef Palak wasn’t always in the food world. She began her career at a start-up in Berkeley, eventually relocating with the company to New York City. Once she settled in, she decided to lean in to her love of the cooking and enrolled in culinary school at night.
Despite working all day and taking classes at night, Chef Palak still found time to work as a cooking instructor on the weekends. Around the same time, she submitted an audition tape for Chopped, and after a (spoiler alert!) successful date with a giant fish, she was crowned the winner. From there, her vibrant, flavorful dishes and ability to remain unruffled under pressure made her a popular Food Network star.
We were fortunate to chat with Chef Palak recently over the phone, where she shared more about her journey through the world of food, and what she would do if she ever had to live without chilis.
Where did you grow up? Are there any specific foods you remember most fondly?
PP: I grew up in central India and lived there until the age of 12, when we moved to the United States. In India, my strongest food memory was eating gol gappe. I used to get in trouble, sneaking out to eat them street-side.
What drew you to cooking and why did you want to be a chef?
PP: I grew up in a house of 14 or 15 people. We would go out to a restaurant maybe a few times a year, if we were lucky. The whole idea of cooking with your family was very big. Just being in the kitchen with my mom, my two aunts, and my grandmother made a huge imprint on my upbringing. At any given time, five women would be buzzing around the house, cooking for the whole family. I was six or seven when I made my first ‘chef’s creation.' It was bread that I had cut the ends off of, toasted, and mixed with spices and oil. I had basically made the Indian version of panzanella.
How has your South Asian culture informed your work in food?
PP: Growing up in India, I ate an entirely vegetarian diet. In school, I dabbled in eating meat, and since I lived in the South of France, I know how to cook duck with my eyes closed. Meat was always something I could appreciate, but I’ve found myself going back to my roots and eating a diet that’s 95% plant-based. I’ve even gone back to reconfigure some of the recipes my Mom has made, and I love finding ways to make them more accessible.
Who is your cooking inspiration?
PP: When I worked in California, our offices were in Berkeley, and I remember everyone raving about Chez Panisse and Alice Waters. I grew up in Atlanta and until I moved to California I really hadn’t seen an open market like the ones in India. Seeing a farmer’s market, where you can actually touch the produce, blew my mind. Going to Chez Panisse was a wonderful way to learn new American cuisine, and my love affair with food began through California and Alice Waters’ cooking.
What spice could you never live without?
PP: Oh, cayenne pepper, or anything spicy. I’d give you my kidney, but don’t take away my chilis! I’m a little psychotic about it. I love everything from Calabrian salt-dried chilis to Aleppo pepper to the Hatch chilis I packed in my checked luggage and brought from California to New York.
Do you have any advice for young people, and women in particular, who are interested in pursuing a career in food?
PP: Do what works for you. Figure out what you’re good at, and make the path yours. I don’t think anyone should feel there’s only one way to do this.