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A Brown Table
Nik grew up in India and the United States. The non-traditional dishes on his blog represents this experience. He believes in using fresh, seasonal whole foods and knowing where his ingredients come from. A Brown Table was recognized by Better Homes and Garden in 2014 as a top ten healthy food blog. Nik recently gave up his job in the pharmaceutical industry to follow his dream of learning more about the culinary arts.
I am so happy to have Nik Sharma of A Brown Table here on the show today.
(UPDATE: Since recording this episode, A Brown Table was chosen as the winner of the International Association of Best Culinary Professionals – Best Photo Based Culinary Blog of 2015, and is a Finalist in the 2015 Saveur Blog Awards for Best Photography.)
On His Upbringing in India:
I come from a mixed background where my dad is from the north and he grew up Hindu and my mother is Goan who grew up Catholic. So it’s an infusion of cultures which is what I try to reflect in my food, but it’s also something that I grew up with where you eat everything.
That is something that my parents gave us, both me and my sister the opportunity to do that. We were very fortunate in that sense to try everything out at least once. But make up your mind about it and then you decide. That is something I strongly believe in. I think people should explore food. There’s a lot out there. And have fun with it more than anything.
On His Interest in Cooking:
Growing up, both my parents had day jobs. I think Thursdays were my day off from school and I had to take care of my sister at a certain point. So she would come home from school and she hated my mother’s food.
My mother’s a good cook but I feel like my grandmother, her mother, was a better cook. We always lean through with my grandmother’s food. Anyway, I started learning how to cook at that age because neither of us wanted to eat what my mother cooked. It was good food. It just wasn’t something that we were interested in so I started exploring, going through my mother’s cookbooks and notes that she had collected before getting married, and I started exploring those recipes by myself.
A lot of them were desserts. I have a strong sweet tooth that shows up quite a bit on my blog. So that’s when I started to cook.
I also spend a lot of time with my grandmother where I’d watch her cooking and she would talk about how you need to cut all the vegetables to the right size, they should all be similar, and stuff like that.
On His Culinary Influences:
For me, it’s been more to explore and see what’s out there because my personal belief is that I do not want to get restricted to be in one genre. I’d like to learn as much as I can because there’s so much out there and you live once. Why stop yourself?
Definitely when I moved here, there was definitely that stage where I wanted to taste a lot, get an idea. Because in Indian food, I think the flavors are a little stronger and there’s definitely a mix of what doesn’t match can actually be mixed and brought together in Indian cooking.
Whereas in Western food, it’s a little more mellow and subtle; flavors are kept subtle. So over the years, I’ve definitely learned to strive to get close to a mixed balance between the two. I think I’ve become better at it. I don’t think I’m an expert in any sense. But I think with each recipe, I try and strive for that.
On Experimenting with Indian Flavors:
I always say start basic and simple. That’s how I’ve learned. I think a lot of the Indian food, we use a lot of combinations. So there’s like the garam masala, then there’s like when you make chana masala, there’s a separate mix. It’s nice for me. My experience has been to go back to the spice mix because that’s the root of all the flavor. Go back, make it from scratch.
You may find that certain ingredients in there, you may not like them individually but they actually make the dish up as a whole. So I think it’s important to go back to the basics. Knock everything down piece-by-piece and that’s something you learn in science.
When I worked in science, one of the things we do is hypothesis testing. Go back to the basics and break everything down and then build it up again from scratch. I think that really applies to food as well. I think not only with Indian food but any cuisine.
On Starting His Blog:
So I was in the habit of entertaining a lot of friends at home for a while. It’s something that I enjoyed doing. Then a couple of them, and I think this sounds a stereotypical way of friends or family members tell that, “You should start a blog.” I said, “Okay, let me go ahead and do this thing.” and it sucked. It sucked. It was way too much work for me and I decided to scrap the whole thing. Because I couldn’t keep up with it. I just started school. I was working full time. I was about to start in school in the evenings and it just wasn’t happening. It wasn’t coming together.
So then, a couple of months later, we had gone to visit my now mother-in-law’s house. She said, “I think you should go back and give it a shot.” So I said, “Well, I think my photography sucks,” number one, and all the blogs out there that I’m drawn to are visually just stunning. I can spend hours just scrolling back through the pages and I don’t have it.
I said, “Well, maybe I should invest a little money in a simple camera and then give it a shot.” So I went ahead and I did that. I started practicing a little bit. And then I thought, “Maybe I also need a concept and I wanted it to be something more personal. It didn’t matter if it’s mainstream or not.”
That’s the other thing in blogging. You have mainstream and then you have off-site, probably just never does well. And that’s where I was coming from. I said, “Let me talk about the food that I make at home. That’s a fusion of cultures. Let’s do that. Lets infuse things and see what happens. If it works, it works; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”
So I tried it again.
I started finding my voice and personality which is when I started falling in love with it. I think the main thing for me there was I was talking from my heart. My food was coming from my heart. I think that’s important in anything that you do. Blogging or a job, it should come from your heart, and then you’ll enjoy. And that worked for me.
On Finding His Style of Photography:
I think it’s really important to find your own voice. It takes time.
When I started blogging, one of the things that a lot of food bloggers, we do as a community is you go and submit a photograph to photo curating sites, which is all good and done deal at the end of the day. It gives you traffic but also you have to remember why you’re blogging. For me, it was expressing myself through food and also getting to be creative which I wasn’t getting to do at work.
Photo curating sites are good to a certain point. Take the advice they give you with a grain of salt and move on. When I stepped away from all of that, I feel I grew as a photographer, as a cook. That helped me because I stopped caring about the numbers.
In blogging, we get really focused on numbers so much. As soon as I stopped focusing on that, I felt happier with my work. I’m not saying I’m perfect right now. I’m definitely not. I still see faults in everything I do. But as a person, I feel happier with my work now. I think that’s what people need to focus on. Just be happy with what you do.
Alot of the times, the style that I’m doing now is something that I’ve always wanted to do. When all these sites people come and tell, “Don’t do this because they don’t want this. This is not good.” For me, the biggest step was putting my hands out. You see my hands a lot with my photographs. I like to do a lot of process shots because I’m not very good at writing, so I like to visually tell people. If I’m making a recipe, I’d like them visually to see what’s going on.
For me, that’s an easier way to get that message across. So for me, that was something important but a lot of sites did not want that. I said, “Well, let me take a chance and see how this works out for a couple of months. So far, it’s been fortunate enough that people have been very receptive about it, so it’s good.
On Following His Passion for Food and Culinary Arts:
My husband has been my number one supporter of everything that I’ve done. As a kid growing up, I wanted to go to chef school. My mother said, “Well, a lot of chefs, all they do is they sit in the kitchens. I’ve seen them because this is what happens at work. They are sitting in those walk-in freezers peeling onions and cutting their fingers. I don’t think it’s meant for you.”
So I went the traditional route as all Goan Indian families push you to do. It’s either engineering, medicine or something more stable. I went with that and there were still those nagging feelings that I enjoy being creative. And I love biochemistry. That’s one of my things. And a lot of foods is especially based in the pastry field. It’s all about chemistry, like knowing biochemistry and why stuff does what it does in food.
I started noticing that as I started applying those rules from school into my food, my baking skills improved quite a bit. So in that sense, I found that I wasn’t really going to step away from all the knowledge I had gained in school, so it wasn’t a waste but it’s helped me quite a bit.
I talked to my husband a couple of months. We had moved from DC to San Francisco. I said, “I feel now that I’m at this stage where I want to take the dive. And if I don’t do it now, I’ll always regret it. I want to have a professional angle to my work.” So he said, “Well, okay. Go ahead. See what’s out there.”
I called out every bakery that was close by. No one responded. I had almost given up and finally got a call from this lady who says, “So you had called up both of our bakeries. It sounds like you’re really interested. Would you be willing to come in and talk with me?” I said, “Sure.”
So I went in with no expectations. Because a lot of the people that actually called me back, a few of them that actually called me back said, “You don’t have a culinary degree, so we’re not gonna take you in.” But then again, to that end, I had read a lot of blogs who had said, “Go out there. Get the experience before you do decide to do anything professionally because it’s so different. It’s not at all a glamorous field. You’re on your feet all day.”
So I met this lady and she was really nice and kind to give me a chance. She said, “Come on in. It’s definitely a hard business, especially pastry because you’ll get up at 5:00. You are in sometimes at 5:00 and you’re on your feet all day long. So it’s a hard life, but let’s do a trial phase. And if you like it and if we like you, we’ll keep you on.” So I did that for a long time, for a month.
The trial was a month, and then I asked them. I said, “Do you want me to come back? What’s going on? Because I’m still working at the other job I attend during the week. I’ve gone part-time on everything.” I said, “I’m still working in my pharmaceutical job and then this at the side. I’d really like to just really give it all up and come here? Do you want me?” She said, “Yes, we would love you to come back. But just remember, it’s going to be tough.” So that’s when I said, “Okay.”
I spoke to my husband at home. He said, “Go for it,” and did it and I’m happy I made the decision. It helps having someone who supports you emotionally during the whole phase because it’s scary. I’m still scared about what’s going to happen tomorrow because it’s such a risky business.
It’s worth the risk. I feel like if you feel like it’s something you’re questioning, give it a shot if you can. I’m not saying everybody can do it. It’s a financial risk. It’s a stability risk, I feel. So go ahead. Give it a shot if you can. Go for it a little bit. If you don’t like it, okay. At least you tried it. Move on. I think that’s critical.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
It’s called The Great British Baking Show on PBS. That’s one of my favorites.
America’s Test Kitchen is another great show to learn from, and Lidia’s Italy. That’s another really good show to learn about food and culture and flavors. I guess all those are all PBS shows.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
Gosh, there are so many good ones so calling any specific ones up will be hard.
I’m sure everyone is familiar with the best blogs out there, so go ahead and look those up. But when it comes to some of the more different ones, I would say, feel free to choose a great community to get involved in and learn from them. America’s Test Kitchen, again. They have a great resource on their website, and The Kitchn is another great resource to learn from.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook that make you happy?
I have a dog. I obsess over my dog like a crazy person. Yeah, so Dogs of Instagram.
Pinterest, I follow a lot of food photographers and photographers in general. So it’s hard to pinpoint any one person, but anything that I find different from stuff that I do and that visually speaks to me.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
My ice cream maker. I love ice cream. I love making ice cream at home.
If and when I go to culinary school, and if I get to open a restaurant or a little shop, ice cream would be a special section. So yeah, ice cream maker.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
Radishes. I hated radishes as a kid. I thought they were the nastiest things that existed.
I still don’t like the large, white radishes. I still find the flavor a little disgusting. But radishes, the Easter egg radishes, I’ve come to appreciate that they look cute. They’re not that harsh in flavor, so I like those a lot.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
I do collect a lot of pastry books. Some of the ones that I really find useful are the ones, again, by America’s Test Kitchen because there’s a lot of talk process.
I like the books by Thomas Keller from Bouchon and The French Laundry. Those are really good books to own.
Also, a lot of the culinary textbooks from the CIA. If you don’t want to buy a lot of cookbooks, those are some of the good resources to learn from, so I always have those stocked.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
As of now, I would say Taylor Swift’s new album. I love that CD.
On Keeping Posted on Nik:
Instagram would be the best way. Then my second social media platform that I really use is Facebook. Those two are the two that I love.