She got so much from the world. She knew how to coax the most out of a flavor, an ingredient, an experience, an opportunity. Even if Fatima had lived to be a 100, time would not have been wasted on her. I never understood where she got that energy from, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was because of how sure she was. Even when she was half my size, Fatima never flinched before copying my moves. Climb a crooked and gnarled tree? She’s there. Balance on top of a 12-foot wall? She’s there. Try to dunk a basketball in a miniature hoop? She’s there (nearly). She was always on some sort of mission. Or perhaps Fatima wasn’t such a superhuman, maybe she had all of the doubts, fears, and insecurities we all have, but they were not important enough to stop her from doing what she wanted.
As a cook, she seasoned with such confidence I was sure it would ruin the dish, taking the salt to the edge, allowing every little nuance of flavor to show up, browning and caramelizing a little longer, pushing just a bit further. Fatima was hosting a barbeque some years ago now in Lahore where we were born and asked me to make her a chimichurri sauce. I tossed the parsley, garlic, chiles, lemon zest, olive oil, and vinegar into the mortar and pestle. Fatima glanced at it and said to add more olive oil and vinegar. I drizzled some in, hesitating. She came back and said to keep churning in more olive oil and vinegar. I still couldn’t trust it. When she looked again, she sighed and said, “Dude, MORE OLIVE OIL AND VINEGAR!” And sure enough, the chimichurri became exactly what it needed to be.
Grief makes it harder to think of what you need. There is no emotional equivalent to salt, fat, or acid. No one has figured out the ingredients you need to take something as terrible as what happened to Fatima and make something good out of it.
Once the absurd reality of her terminal illness set in, Fatima and I would have very open conversations about what would happen “after.” I would ask her what she hoped her legacy would include and how, if at all, I could try to achieve some of the things she would have if she had more time. She told me how she wanted to inspire and encourage other young women in Pakistan to become chefs, to shoot for the stars. She told me how her restaurant and cooking show would demystify Pakistan for people, make them understand and appreciate the country she simultaneously loved and struggled with. She never forgot the children and young people she saw on the streets growing up, hungry and hustling, unable to see a way to break through the intergenerational disadvantage that exists here. I think after her Chopped win, Fatima understood how food could be her means to do something big.
This year my parents and I are launching the Chef Fatima Foundation to try to carry on what Fatima started and do the things she would have done if she were still here. Our purpose is to “spread joy and make change through food.” We have a big and bold agenda, and we’ll take it one step at a time.
With the Chef Fatima Foundation, we want to use food to help people find some respite from daily struggle and worry. One of our first projects will be a food truck that travels to children in challenging circumstances throughout Lahore in Pakistan: those in group homes, orphanages, or on the street, those who may feel forgotten and invisible. When Fatima was a little girl, she used to save her after-school treats and give them to the children on the streets who would crowd our car at the odd traffic light, begging for money and motioning to their empty mouths. Her mango juice, potato chips, candy bar, whatever our mom had got for her that day would get handed over with the warm embrace that was her smile. One day, maybe communities all around the world can have their version of a Chef Fati Food Truck rolling around and leaving a trail of smiles behind.
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