When my daughter Fatima was five years old, her teacher often gave her a weekly assignment. She would be given a pictogram of a recipe — a cupcake, a fruit cup, sometimes a sandwich — to make on the weekend. She would anxiously wait for each recipe and excitedly wave it when she came home on Fridays. She was, then, the only child I knew who enjoyed homework.
From pictograms she graduated to cookbooks that she found in her school library. Fatima would pick a recipe, nudge me to take her to the grocery store and we’d bring back the ingredients she needed. I watched her marvel at the food chemistry as cakes rose in the oven, spices sizzled in the pan and vegetables changed colour. Soon, she was ordering calamari at restaurants at the age of six.
That Fatima became a chef was a surprise to no one. It was not an orchestrated love, and no one can take credit for it. Fatima found cooking at a time when her family life was in flux. Cooking comforted her and healed her. She had uncovered the power of food to offer respite very early in life — that it can take you away from reality and how being offered a good meal can make you feel special.
It was with this mindset that Fatima wanted to spread joy through food. We had just moved back to Karachi from Austin. We would always get stuck in traffic jams when I would pick up her brother and her from school, so I started keeping a packet of chips and juice boxes for them in the car. She would delightfully rip open her packet of crisps and poke the straw in the juice pack. Not long after, a street child would knock on her window, asking for food or money. She could never understand why they were being deprived of the joy she could access so easily every day.
She would ask me to help her feed more people, and so we would round up the children in Khadda Market and take them to a dhaaba (roadside café), where they would get their standard daal and roti. It wasn’t enough for Fatima. She turned to me, hardly nine years old at the time, wide-eyed. “But mom,” she said, “That’s not a treat. We need to give them treats!”
So dozens of children were given dozens of burgers from a nearby restaurant. Fatima watched them, thrilled. Looking back, I think that was when she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life.
January 25 marks the second death anniversary of former Top Chef contestant, Fatima Ali. Her mother remembers the girl she was and her clear-eyed vision of spreading joy through food
Her certainty and confidence came in no small part from her ability to put together a dinner for sixty people by the time she was 16. So, when my straight-A student of a daughter said she wanted to go to cooking school instead of getting a regular degree, I sighed. I knew I could not stop her.
That’s who she was. She was as studious about her passion as she was unflinching. It showed in how she built herself up, from her time at the Culinary Institute of America to her unprecedented run on Top Chef as its first Pakistani participant.
When she was setting up pop-up restaurants in Lahore, helpers in the kitchen would be flabbergasted by her ability to carve meat, lift heavy trays and filet fish. “Just like a man,” they’d whisper. Fatima’s dreams could only keep up with how fast she was making them come true.
Until she began feeling a pain in her left shoulder.
Maybe it was a muscle spasm. Maybe she wasn’t sleeping right. We told ourselves all the things it could be, and never imagined it would be what it turned out to be. Ewing’s Sarcoma — a rare and vicious cancer that normally surfaces in young, white boys. What the hell was it doing in Fatima?
As our world came crashing down, Fatima began her fight. She never complained and, if she were terrified, she did not let us witness it. She arranged viewing parties in her hospital to watch her run on Top Chef, inviting her nurses and caregivers.
Chemotherapy would take its toll, and then some. She would be carrying backpacks of the medicine, tubes and pipes coming out of her. She could have been bitter. She could have been angry. Instead, she only asked for her favourite comfort food. Daal chaawal [lentils and rice] with shami kabab, a hot bowl of pho, ramen, sometimes just a slice of chocolate cake. Treats. They could still make her forget the things she wanted to.
Cancer raged through her body. We brought her back home from the hospital after months and she asked me to make sure that at least 300 children in Lahore must have a burger meal from a top burger franchise. It comforted her, even in her last moments, to know that 300 children would get to sink their teeth into a burger and, for just a bit, feel better.
She was 29 years old. I miss her so much. I feel her presence and love her more every day.
For a mother to lose her child, is to take the skeleton out of her. You’re not sure what will prop you up, what will make you move and how you’ll stop yourself from collapsing every time you try. But Fatima left instructions.
Surah Al Balad (Surah 90: verse 11-18) teaches us that wealth should be directed towards helping the needy: “feeding on a day of hunger, the orphans and the kinsmen, or the poor person, lying in the dust.” It is recognised as the harder path. Fatima had already initiated this during her time with us. It is our sadqa jaariya (perpetual form of charity) to continue her work.
And so, we have set up the Chef Fatima Foundation — partly to fulfill our promise to her, partly because this is the only way we know how to take something so tragic and turn it into a force for good.
The Chef Fatima Foundation is an initiative to spread joy and bring about change through food, to enable people to be seen through gestures of hospitality and share delicious and comforting food experiences with people who may not have ready access to them.
There is so much misery around us, with little or no avenues for recreation for people who live hand-to-mouth. Rest is a luxury, not a right. Comfort is a distant dream and so many feel invisible as they struggle to move mountains to live a normal life. We are all guilty of ignoring children who knock on our windows, while we try to look straight ahead, hoping our disinterest will discourage them.
Good food, and it being offered, can make you feel cared for, like an equal. That is exactly what we want to do through our food truck that will fashion Fatima’s recipes into treats and distribute them to as many indigent children as we can.
Fatima always wanted to create more opportunities for people who wanted to make cookery their life. She would always tell us that the hospitality industry in Pakistan could do better and deserved better. She wanted to learn so she could teach. The Chef Fatima Foundation will also be setting up a Chef Exchange Programme that will bring some of the world’s best chefs to Pakistan, and the people who will be learning from them will be those who would otherwise never have that access.
Through all of this, Fatima’s vision to make food and hospitality viable career choices for people in Pakistan, no matter what their background, will be that much closer. And maybe, we can start building Pakistan up as the next great food destination. God knows, our food deserves it.
With any luck, another little girl will go to her mother one day and tell her, “Mom, I want to be a chef — just like Chef Fati.”
To follow and support our work, visit www.cheffatimafoundation.com
| Instagram: @ChefFatimaFoundation
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 24th, 2021