Today marks the first anniversary of my daughter, the chef Fatima Ali’s passing, and yet I remember when she came into our lives on the brightest summer day in August in 1989.
For everyone that came to know her afterward, she would bring the summertime with her wherever she went. When people spoke to her, their hearts felt lighter.
When her well-wishers come up to me, they do not mention Chef Fatima Ali, who won awards, created cuisines, and ran some of the world’s finest restaurants. They mention Fati, the girl that made them laugh, that was there for them when they cried, whose humanity shone through in everything she did.
That’s not to take away from what she ended up accomplishing; it is to say that the first led to the second. Fatima became the youngest sous chef at one of the largest restaurant companies in the world; she worked as a sous chef at Café Centro in New York, and as an executive sous chef at both La Fonda Del Sol and Stella 34 Trattoria at Macy’s.
She became the first Pakistani to win Chopped, the cooking reality show, and was voted fan favourite on Top Chef. The essay she wrote about her battle with cancer won her the James Beard Media Award in 2019. She won laurels in such widely disparate fields – culinary, literary, television — before she turned the age of 30. There is not a single barrier she did not break: in areas where success is only granted to middle-aged men, Fatima smashed every glass ceiling she could. She transcended age, gender, faith, and ethnicity, and proudly planted a flag of her own.
And yet even after all that, she was fated to be something else. Diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, Fatima refused to let cancer extinguish her star – she made it burn even brighter than it did before, spending a life filled with meaning, one that became a symbol of perseverance to people across the globe.
As she wrote last September: “When we think we have all the time in the world to live, we forget to indulge in the experiences of living.”
This is undeniable: we are so often bogged down by the here and now, by our daily wear and tear — papers and presentations, taxes and traffic — we run the risk of never realising what we are all doing here in the first place.
What was the message of our lives? What lessons did we leave behind? Most of all, did we leave the world a better place for having passed through it?
Fatima answered all those questions in her own way, by living each moment with purpose. She understood, with the sort of wisdom that was beyond her years, that the measure of our lives is not defined by our destination, but by the amount of distance we have travelled to get there. In Fatima’s case, some of that distance was literal: from Lahore to Karachi to New York to Los Angeles – I find it fitting that Fatima would cover all those miles between the city of lights and the city of angels; she represented both those things to so many people.
Each minute of hers had meaning in it: whether that meant having truffletoast in Brooklyn, or cooking at Thanksgiving, or helping, as she had always done, those that needed it.
Last November, Fatima wrote a note to her younger self, the 18-year-old Fati. I feel it is also a message to every 18-year-old, to every young person that navigates the waters of their lives, looking to find peace and joy. It is her own message that I thought to end on:
“I know the thought of an ordinary existence makes your skin crawl, but sometimes you have to keep it simple, slow down, and don’t take things so seriously. It may seem like a lot. Almost too much for you at times, but I’m here to tell you that with the love and support of your family, friends and well-wishers, that chain becomes a meagre string around your neck. You are no longer shackled against your will. You no longer wear your chains with grace. You are grace itself.”
Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2020