An interview with Chef Afreen on Culture, Cuisine, and Art
Originally from Pakistan, Chef Afreen was raised and educated in Toronto, but calls San Francisco her home. She is an entrepreneur, a teacher, an artist, an executive chef, and a proud mother of two. Chef Afreen is the business owner and executive chef of Cuisine Afreen, a catering company which combines elaborate arts and gourmet cuisine for established events throughout the city. Chef Afreen was also a professor at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, where she taught Anthropology of Food for 8 years, and was an Executive Chef for a non-profit organization called C.H.E.F.S Conquering Homelessness through Employment and Food Services.
Her art appeals to all the senses, ranging from taste, to touch, to smell, and sight—interweaving Mediterranean spices, musical notes, and poetry. Through extensive knowledge in the history of cuisine, as well as strong passion for cultural arts, Chef Afreen’s work has been presented at the Paul Mahder Gallery in San Francisco, and featured in publications such as the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
This interview was conducted by Deanna Shen and was condensed and co-edited by Deanna and Chef Afreen for clarity.
Q: You mentioned earlier that you draw much of your inspiration from culture. Could you elaborate more on what culture means to you?
A: Well, first of all, we all share culture. Any subtleties of a given culture, whether it be sitting around the table for a meal, or mixing flavors and spices for consumption—there is a sort of Zen to it. You can’t read this in cookbooks; it’s something you learn by physically participating in it. That’s something we all share as an ancient practice. As human beings, we’re all one. When food is in front of us, we know what to do; we eat it.
So my inspiration comes from cuisines which allow for ancient spices to come together and create a brilliant synergy within the dish. Creating with colors like burgundy, red, orange—those gorgeous hues—because we first eat with our eyes. Next are the herbaceous notes and aromas, because second we eat with our nose. And last, but definitely not least, we eat the dish. Catering to all our senses, we take a journey that explores new horizons and recalls fond memories.
Q: Is there a specific culture or type of food that is the pinnacle of your inspiration and how does it influence the dishes and experiences you create?
A: Yes, outside of French cuisine, which is the western pinnacle of cuisine, there is Mediterranean and South Asian. Mesopotamia! In my opinion, mother cuisine. Imagine going back in time, where exotic fruits, spices, flavors and cooking methods and styles were practiced. Europe referred to it as the New World, bringing back aromatic spices, flavors and cooking styles to introduce into their Culinary Canvas. This is my idea of ‘biodiversity.’ My inspiration is drawn from ancient recipes and practices, not foregoing authenticity, but rather drawing the consumer into the experience.
I am intrigued with ‘biodiversity’ on the plate. There is a quieting of the mind, when we slow down to appreciate the dish presented to us. Where, how, and who was behind the product we are consuming? This changes the entire mindset of what I prepare and work with. It invites thought and reflection. Prompting us to imagine the journey of the product we as chefs work with. It challenges us, the Chef, to be aware of ‘food ethos’ and ‘carbon foot-printing’.
In the photo: Spice tray from a Cozymeal class provided by Chef Afreen
Q: As a teacher, what is something you always teach your students? A core nugget you would want all your students to walk away with?
A: Be open and receptive to new ways of thinking about food. Can I change the way I think about creating or consuming this meal? Who are the hands behind this? Can I envision or visualize a family doing this, or generations of traditions and recipes passed down? This is what opens up the mind. It’s ongoing. It’s not a cookie-cutter paradigm. Its food, it’s tactile. It’s an amoeba that takes shape depending on my energy—bringing love to the dish, breathing into it, and away from it. Tasting it until one gets that perfect symphonic note. A symphony of flavors, ready to dance on one’s palate.
I’m reminded of a poem I read many good moons ago. Rumi, a Persian poet, and I’m paraphrasing but it’s something like, “the eye goes blind when it only asks why.”
This shifted my paradigm as a teacher to a student. It’s never the eye that should ask why, but rather the mind opening a new window to the soul. I work with the poor and the hungry in the city. Why do I do that? Because it’s something that feeds my soul and my spirit. Sharing a convivial meal at the table, we realize that the ritual of eating makes us all the same. Poor or rich, we all need to nourish our bodies.
My eyes don’t care why things are the way they are, but rather I embrace life as it presents itself, in all its randomness. A chef is stale if he/she uses the same recipe each time they create something. A recipe is a template, but can only evolve as you breathe energy into it and give it new perspectives.
Q: How was the morale when you worked at C.H.E.F.S?
A: Very giving of love that they not only exude, but receive. There was no shame of ‘poor me or poor them,’ there was this incredible sense of integrity and dignity. As if to say, “my clothes, my title, don’t define me.” It’s that we are all born with integrity and dignity first; that’s the innate nature of humankind.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote “If I don’t manage to fly someone else will. The Spirit wants only there be flying.”
None of us want to be stagnant. It’s my spirit that wants to do good, and I do good in service. Cooking for people gives me joy. It is in the ‘service to others’ I find contentment and my spirit soaring!
In the photo: Chef Afreen at The Officer’s Club in San Francisco
Q: How have you seen technology impact your industry? Like with Cozymeal, KitchenSurfing, and even photo-taking of foods and to social media?
A: I think it is a brilliant tool to expose one’s art form, like food photography. Twenty first century has opened this avenue for ‘pros’ and ‘amateurs’ to explore and share their love of what they enjoy most. Virtual feasting! Why not? It’s edible art. Eat with eyes first right?
By origin the role of chefs have always been male dominant, there weren’t that many she’s in the kitchen then, or that many she’s in the kitchen now, in an executive role. But with the use of technology, there is more visibility and awareness coming to women interested in ‘chefdom’. Technology is great in this regard, bringing like-minded people together to share a primal ritual of eating and sharing food.
Q: You mentioned there weren’t many “she’s” in the kitchen, could you please tell me more about your experience as a woman in your industry?
A: By tradition, it was the domain of the male, like many industries today. We could be talking about any industry really. I think we’re still 55% globally women, and women are doing very inspiring impactful stuff. I just don’t think the ratio is in balance. It’s not 50/50 for chefs.
Cooking for people gives me joy.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: I think its old thinking. We haven’t evolved to a place where we overlook gender yet. Today, I do see more women in chef roles, and I’m glad for this development, but I am waiting until we are equal ratio with our opposite. Women are better managers, multitaskers, communicators and critical thinkers. There is a calmness and a Zen in how we communicate because we are home makers and baby makers and life givers. It starts with us.
I think there are many great male chefs, and I have absolute respect for them. I just wish that in my industry I saw more women in the Executive role.
Q: Do you think it’s that women were qualified but never had the opportunity to rise, is it just an industry expectation?
A: The industry is really quite primitive and ancient in template and infrastructure. I find it intriguing that we are in the 21st century, and even in the United States, we have not demystified male vs. female issues. I am not only referring to the world of ‘chefdom,’ but rather the world at large, where professional women are still questioned, and not perceived as equals.
If I were to remove myself from the role as a chef and talk now as a woman, to say that it is unfortunate that we still perceive certain jobs for women and certain jobs for men. It is an enigma. In my eyes a woman can excel and do just as much as any given man. It is an attitude shift don’t you think?
In the photo: Chef Afreen at The Officer’s Club in San Francisco
Q: Did you ever feel that gender or diversity were obstacles for you as you progressed through your career, or was it merely the lack of people like you in executive roles?
A: Yes, it’s there, but you know *shrug* fine. Bring it on then. But I am who I am! I happen to be a very feminine woman, but I also hold my reign in the kitchen. Yes, I encountered a lot of male egos, machismo-y kind of things. But are those the kind of chefs I’m attracted to? Perhaps not. It’s like any industry right? I have absolute respect for you, but if you cannot perceive me as your peer, it matters not whether I’m a woman. I’m a peer first, I’m a chef first, I’m wearing pants, I’m wearing a chef coat, that’s my uniform. But, if your eyes continue to ask why a woman? Then I leave that to the discretion of the person and their conscionable growth. I’ve transcended the gender issue! It is passé!
Q: So what would you recommend for women who might be facing similar obstacles in their life? Perhaps it’s addressing opportunities for career advancements, or juggling family and career at the same time, what advice would you give?
A: The first and most important thing is to breathe in oxygen. Take a look at everything. Regardless of how much we feel we are in control, we really aren’t. The universe has its own time, and we need to work to with the divine and cosmic clock.
Second, don’t react, but rather respond. It’s a discipline! It’s rewiring our brain, because we’ve been groomed to think if something happens, we must react to it. But if you can stay calm, there is balance inside all of us.
As humans we will make many mistakes. But, if we are not aware and humbled by our mistakes, then we will spend a lifetime of regrets. I came up with a simple equation many, many years ago. I would like to share it with you.
In the mistake is the lesson, in the lesson is the learning, and in the learning is conscionable growth over life.
People will make mistakes, but if one keeps making the same mistake, there is no self-awareness. It’s that simple. Only by being aware of oneself, can you change your being and your mindset. I feel that with self-awareness, comes humility. Bottom line, I am in the service industry. My table and art form invite the stranger and the lover both to share a feast prepared with love, joy and passion. I cook and my table is open to anybody.