“Cooking is a language of love, a medium for connection, and a bridge to cultural heritage” – Kausar Ahmed

By Sumeha Khalid
Tue, 07, 24

This week in an exclusive interview with You! Kausar talks about her passion for food. Read on...

“Cooking is a language of love, a medium for connection, and a bridge to cultural heritage” – Kausar Ahmed

chef interview

Kausar Ahmed is a food stylist, chef, recipe developer, author, entrepreneur and cooking consultant with over 35 years of experience in culinary arts. She has been actively teaching, speaking, and advocating for Pakistani culture and cuisine across North America, especially in New York, California, and Washington State. Working alongside chefs and culinary professionals from across the globe has enriched Kausar’s skill set, granting her a unique versatility in cooking international recipes. Kausar’s journey into the culinary arts has been a voyage of discovery, tradition, and connection. This week in an exclusive interview with You! Kausar talks about her passion for food. Read on...

When did you first get involved in cooking?

From a young age, I eagerly assumed the role of my mother’s apprentice in the kitchen, dedicating countless hours to learning by her side. Our routine extended beyond the kitchen, accompanying her to select fresh ingredients from her trusted butcher, chicken vendor, fishmonger, and favourite produce shops. She had a discerning eye for quality, always choosing the freshest options available.

Have you done any professional courses?

I pursued professional courses to deepen my culinary knowledge and expertise. Notable among these are programmes at the Institute of Culinary Education, Sur la table, and Cordon bleu and recently I completed an online Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from ECornell and T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.

How would you define your style?

Cooking, for me, has always been more than just preparing meals. Today, as a culinary expert, I cherish the traditions and memories of my family’s kitchen while embracing the innovation and creativity that the modern culinary world offers. My dishes are more than just food; they are a tribute to the powerful women who shaped me, the stories of my heritage, and the communal spirit of dining.

Your greatest culinary inspirations?

“Cooking is a language of love, a medium for connection, and a bridge to cultural heritage” – Kausar Ahmed

Coming from a lineage of foodies and exceptional cooks, my mother and grandmother have been my greatest inspirations. Their wisdom and techniques, passed down through generations, laid the foundation of my culinary pursuits. Besides them I am inspired by few culinary experts including Shireen Anwar, with her approachable yet exquisite recipes; Padma Lakshmi’s exploration of food as a cultural narrative; Martha Stewart’s unparalleled finesse and business acumen; Madhur Jaffery’s role in introducing the West to the complexities of Indian cuisine and Julia Child, whose fearless approach to French cuisine and dedication to demystifying cooking have all been monumental in shaping my aspirations.

What do you like most about your job?

Being able to create dishes that evoke memories, inspire conversations, and bring people together is the most rewarding aspect of my job. There’s something magical about the way food connects us, carrying stories across generations and cultures. It’s not just about the act of cooking; it’s about crafting experiences and narratives that resonate deeply with individuals and communities alike.

What is your feature flavour these days?

Berbere. This classic Ethiopian spice blend weaves a fiery flavour with its combination of chilli peppers, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, among others, creating a complex, spicy, and slightly smoky profile. What stands out to me about Berbere is its remarkable versatility. It’s capable of transforming simple flavours into dishes of profound depth and warmth. Whether seasoning traditional stews, adding a spicy twist to roasted vegetables, innovating with spicy baked goods, or enhancing daal, Berbere, brings an unparalleled richness to the table.

Ingredients you can’t live without?

Ginger and garlic, particularly when they’re freshly ground. This practice of incorporating them into nearly every curry or sabzi is deeply rooted in our culture, where they serve not just as flavour enhancers but as fundamental elements that define the dish itself.

Signature dishes?

Some of my signature dishes - Dum kay Pasanday and Fish Masala - stand as testaments to my culinary style, which emphasises the art of crafting spice blends from scratch.

Who are your favourite chefs?

I deeply admire chefs who leverage their craft to drive social change, for instance Alice Waters with her advocacy for sustainable agriculture and farm-to-table dining. Similarly, Kate Rogers’ work with sprouts, focusing on empowering young people through cooking and sustainable practices, demonstrates the transformative power of culinary education. These chefs have not only excelled in their culinary endeavours, but have also shown an unwavering commitment to using food as a means to a better society.

What makes Pakistani cuisine unique?

Pakistani cuisine is diverse, known for its meat and oil-laden dishes and its array of healthy grilled meats, poultry, seafood and vegetables. My cooking reflects this duality, where tradition meets innovation. At the heart of traditional Pakistani cooking are slow-cooked meals and the ancient technique of cooking in a fire pit, either on or beneath the ground. While I employ modern techniques in my kitchen, my philosophy is to celebrate and preserve these traditional and unique cooking practices.

What are some of your favourite cuisines?

Italian cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh ingredients and freshly made pasta and simple yet profound flavours, has always captivated me.

Chinese cuisine, with its incredible regional diversity, from the fiery heat of Sichuan peppercorns to the delicate flavours of Cantonese dim sum, provides an endless array of dishes to explore.

Thai cuisine, always a favourite, delights in its intricate balance of sweet, salty, and spicy flavours. Dishes such as a fragrant green curry or a refreshing papaya salad demonstrate the complexity and vibrancy of Thailand’s culinary landscape.

“Cooking is a language of love, a medium for connection, and a bridge to cultural heritage” – Kausar Ahmed

Tell us about your debut cookbook – ‘The Karachi Kitchen’?

The global perspective fuelled my passion for food styling and recipe development, culminating in the launch of my first cookbook. It features recipes from the crossroads of South Asia. This book is more than just a collection of recipes; it’s a celebration of the rich cultural tapestry of Pakistan and a homage to the strong, influential women in my life.

How do you plan to reach to a wider audience?

My daughter and I launched a food brand producing and promoting Pakistani chutneys and spice blends. Through these endeavours, I aim to bridge cultures and share the vibrant flavours of my homeland with a wider audience.

What would be your advice to someone who is thinking of training to be a chef?

Education is the key, whether it’s self-taught, through formal culinary schooling, or hands-on training. Embrace every learning opportunity with an open heart and an open mind. Prepare to commit wholeheartedly to your craft, setting your ego aside. The path to becoming a chef often starts with the basics, tasks that may seem menial but are in fact, fundamental to building your professional foundation.

Is this a lucrative job?

The key to financial success in this field lies in combining culinary talent with savvy business practices. This includes effective marketing, managing operational costs, and continuously adapting to consumer trends and preferences. Additionally, one needs to thoughtfully consider and strategically implement the business model - whether it’s running a restaurant, offering catering services, conducting cooking classes, branching out to recipe development, food and prop styling, writing cookbooks or wearing all the hats like I do!

What do you think you would have been if you had not become a chef?

I would have dedicated myself to education, specifically aiming to empower women and youth of Pakistan.

How do you unwind?

I am into gardening. The simple act of nurturing plants offers a profound sense of calm and connection to nature. Reading also occupies a significant portion of my leisure time. To maintain physical well-being and mental clarity, I make it a priority to visit the gym and take long walks. These activities not only help me stay fit but also serve as meditative practices, allowing me to clear my mind and recharge.

How do you enhance your cooking skills?

I regularly sign up for cooking classes. I view them as invaluable opportunities to broaden my culinary horizons, allowing me to dive into new cuisines and master emerging techniques. Each class is a chance to learn from fellow chefs and culinary experts, gather fresh ideas, and stay abreast of the latest trends in the food world.

What do you think are the main ingredients to become a good chef?

You have to have a passion for food, then you need to be creative along with technical skills. You need to be a persistent learner and be resilient. A good chef can handle stress, bounce back from mistakes, and endure the demanding pace of professional kitchens. Maintaining composure, displaying a calm demeanour during mishaps or when under pressure, ensures steady leadership and decision-making.

How do you keep a balance between family life and work?

Family has always been my top priority, and I’ve tailored my daily tasks and schedules to balance between work and family life. Being a stickler for home-cooked meals, I plan our weekly menu and prep in advance. Beyond this, setting clear boundaries ensures that my time at work is productive, allowing me to be fully present during family moments. I cherish quality time with my loved ones, engaging in activities we all enjoy, grounded in open communication about my work commitments and their needs.

What’s next on your agenda?

I am writing my second cookbook which promises to delve deeper into the culinary traditions I cherish, along with introducing innovative recipes and stories that reflect my ongoing culinary journey. In addition to this, I am planning to initiate a series of culinary programmes in Karachi specifically designed for women and children. These programmes aim to not only teach cooking skills but also to foster a sense of community and self-reliance.