She got so much of the world. She knew how to get the most out of a taste, an ingredient, an experience, an opportunity. Even if Fatima had turned 100, no time would have been wasted on her. I never understood where she got that energy from, but if I had to guess I’d say it’s because of how safe she is. Even when she was half my size, Fatima never flinched before copying my movements. Climb a crooked and gnarled tree? She is there. Balance on a 12 foot wall? She is there. Are you trying to dip a basketball in a miniature hoop? She is (almost) there. She was always on a mission. Or maybe Fatima wasn’t that superhuman, maybe she had all the doubts, fears and insecurities we all have, but they weren’t important enough to keep her from doing what she wanted.
As a cook, she seasoned with so much confidence that I was sure it would ruin the dish, bring the salt to the edge, reveal every nuance of flavor, brown and caramelize a little longer, just a little further push. Fatima held a barbecue a few years ago in Lahore, where we were born, and asked me to make her a chimichurri sauce. I tossed parsley, garlic, chilli, lemon peel, olive oil, and vinegar into the mortar and pestle. Fatima took one look at it and said to add more olive oil and vinegar. I sprinkled something and hesitated. She came back and said to keep stirring in olive oil and vinegar. I still couldn’t trust it. When she looked again, she sighed and said, “Dude, more olive oil and wine!” Indeed, the chimichurri became exactly what it needed to be.
Grief makes it harder to think about what you need. There is no emotional equivalent to salt, fat, or acid. Nobody has figured out what ingredients you need to take something as terrible as what happened to Fatima and make something good out of it.
As soon as the absurd reality of her terminal illness set in, Fatima and I would have very frank discussions about what would happen “after”. I would ask her what she hoped her legacy would include and how, if anything, I could try to accomplish some of the things she would have when she had more time. She told me how she wanted to inspire and encourage other young women in Pakistan to become chefs and 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 that she both loved and struggled with. She never forgot the children and teenagers she saw growing up on the streets, hungry and hectic, unable to find a way to overcome the intergenerational disadvantage that exists here. I think after her Chopped win, Fatima understood how food can be her means of doing something great.
This year my parents and I set up the Chef Fatima Foundation to try and continue what Fatima started and do the things that she would have done had she been here. Our goal is to “spread joy and bring about change through food”. We have a big and bold agenda, and we will take it one step at a time.
With the Chef Fatima FoundationWe want to use food to help people recover from daily struggles and worries. One of our first projects will be a food truck that will drive to children in difficult circumstances across Lahore, Pakistan: those in group homes, orphanages or on the street, those who may feel forgotten and invisible. When Fatima was a little girl, she saved her goodies after school and gave them to the children on the streets who crowded our car at the strange traffic light, begging for money and waving to their empty mouths. Her mango juice, potato chips, chocolate bar and everything our mother had for her that day were handed over with the warm hug that was her smile. Perhaps one day, communities around the world can roll around their version of a Chef Fati food truck and leave a trail of smiles.