Stories / Interviews

A Chef’s Journey From Family Recipes to Uplifting Her Community

JBF Patron Kausar Ahmed on how she champions traditional Pakistani cuisine and her community along the way

Janae Butler

May 24, 2023


Photo Credit: John Curry

The James Beard Foundation Patrons are a community of supporters that believe in our mission, including both food lovers and the people behind the plate—from chefs to restaurateurs, winemakers, front-of-house, and more. In this new series, we’re highlighting members from across our Patron program who are working to improve our food system and who embody our mantra of Good Food For Good™.

Meet Kausar Ahmed, our May member spotlight. Kausar is a Seattle-based chef, author, food stylist, and social change leader. She is the author of The Karachi Kitchen cookbook and founder of Karachi Kitchen, a line of authentic Pakistani spices and chutneys. We spoke with Kausar about her ambition to use generations of family recipes and stories to champion awareness and education around traditional Pakistani cuisine.

JBF: What prompted you to join the Patron Program?

Kausar Ahmed: A few years back, I signed up for the newsletter so I could learn more and connect with people making social change. Around that time, I’d also started mentoring students with Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) in L.A. One day, I received an email that they were collaborating with the James Beard Foundation (JBF) and recruiting for the Beard House Fellows program while promoting the first Beard Box created by a Food Education Fund Alumni. It was one of the most beautiful emails I’ve received. From there, I saw more of the work JBF was doing for women’s leadership and good food for good, and I thought, “this is it!” I realized this is for people who are working towards social change and really making a difference.

JBF: What is the story behind the creation of the Karachi Kitchen?

KA: Before Karachi Kitchen, I was running Kitchen Craft studios from Pakistan, working as the only food stylist in the country, teaching, and running a culinary program. That work led to additional opportunities with TV shows, magazines, and recipe development. But I noticed a big gap in the culinary programs in Pakistan that support food education for children. I started working with low-income communities and created a home economics program to get boys into food education because that was a huge no-no for them. My plan was to change their mindset so they can grow to be independent and have more respect for women. It not only revolved around teaching them cooking skills and healthy eating habits, but also working with the ingredients they have and can afford.

I transitioned to the Karachi Kitchen when my daughter said that I needed to write a cookbook. I published The Karachi Kitchen as my first cookbook containing stories from my childhood and motherhood, with the goal of representing the diversity I grew up around. After moving to Seattle four years ago, we saw that people were still getting to know Pakistani cuisine and the question was always “Pakistani? You mean Indian cuisine?” They are similar, but we have our own flavors and identity and I wanted to educate around that. We couldn’t find anything traditional or authentic, so we decided to launch our line of chutneys and seasonings inspired by family recipes.

JBF: What are some of the nuances of Pakistani cuisine that make it unique and how did you honor that in your line of spices and chutneys?

KA: It’s a tough line to draw because there are so many similarities with Indian cuisine and Indian cuisine has been a pioneer of international cuisine. Pakistani cuisine is defined more by its regions and the spices used to flavor foods. Karachi, where I’m from, is the most diverse city, and there is a lot of magic created in that area with all the different flavors and spices. As you move to the north, there is minimal use of spices but still extremely flavorful food. For example, the province of Balochistan has a desert climate and they cook a lot of salted meats in a fire pit under the ground. In memory of that, I created an earthy flavor pack, which we use a lot in our cuisine.

JBF: You previously worked at Project Feast preparing and guiding immigrants and refugees towards careers in the food industry. What did you learn from your students through this experience?

KA: When I moved to Seattle, I got lucky landing a job at Project Feast and worked with over 20 students from different ethnic backgrounds. One very common thing among everyone was that they'd lost a lot and many of them had trauma. However, they all had another thing in common, which was hope. An important activity we’d do was write down their home recipes and the story behind the recipes. We would teach them about different cuisines through the program, but their starting point was always their own cuisine. I’d say: “You think you've come here with nothing. But no—you already have a lot with you.” I saw that hope in them and their determination every day.

JBF: Your work supporting women and children and socioeconomic equality seems like a theme throughout your career. What inspired you to keep this as a priority in your work?

KA: I would simply put it this way: the strong, empowered women in my family have inspired me. I have wonderful memories of spending time with my grandmother in her kitchen watching her cook, always in a white saree. She strongly believed in empowering women. She would go for walks and come back with random women and cook up her kofta meatballs for them. There were no questions asked—she did not care about their background, ethnicity, or religion. So, I learned early on how to love communities, break bread with strangers, and share stories over a meal.

JBF: What’s next for you? What are some goals you have for 2023?

KA: For 2023, I’m working on my second cookbook . And then I hope to make my first trip back to Pakistan since the pandemic and get my culinary program started again. One big goal is to hopefully get our brand into stores. My daughter and I have been working towards growth and creating more awareness around our products. We hope to give more talks about it and get our story out there. It's been a very exciting journey with the brand so far.

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Janae Butler is manager of development operations at the James Beard Foundation.