May 9, 2019

Like many Southern belles who learned to cook at their grandmother’s elbow, a young Asha Gomez was molded by the matriarchs of her family in a three-household compound overlooking the Arabian Sea. There, surrounded by banana plants and papaya trees, the James Beard-nominated chef and a 2019 Garden & Gun Artist in Residence at Palmetto Bluff made fish curry with her mother, an incomparable hostess known for setting the most exquisite table. Her three aunts showed her how to cook the traditional coastal Keralan cuisine accented with spices such as black pepper, coriander, fenugreek, nutmeg, cloves, and kudampuli, a spice loved across coastal India for what Gomez describes as its “puckery” flavor.

But, she also drew culinary inspiration from an improbable source: her father, a civil engineer who worked for a German company that built bridges. Today, Gomez constructs both metaphorical and literal bridges between the food traditions of her birthplace in southwestern India and her adopted home in the American South. Although 10,000 miles stretch between Kerala, India, and Atlanta, Georgia, these two distinctly Southern cities share cultural similarities in terms of hospitality and entertaining, where handmade food is most often the deepest expression of love and affection.

“You know, when you come from little towns, everybody knows everybody. Friends would drop by and immediately chai would be made and snacks would be served. Or, if it was dinner or lunchtime, they were invited to sit down and join and be part of the meal,” she remembers. “This sense of generosity and hospitality is also very Southern. The sense of community that’s found and formed around the table happens everywhere around the world.”

Even before leaving India and making her way to Georgia in 2000, Gomez understood how a single dish, like a region, was the mashup of diverse cultures. Colonial influences impacted her native port city, including the cuisine. The Portuguese began settling Kerala and the surrounding area during the 15th century, and the Dutch soon followed. Some of what Americans often think of as distinctly Indian foods are actually the convergence of ingredients from Europe and the Mediterranean, including pork, chili, sweet peppers, and vindaloo—the name itself derived from the Portuguese words for wine (vinho) and garlic (alho). Similarly, American Southern cuisine is the outgrowth of forced and voluntary migration, our plates punctuated with flavors from West Africa, England, France, Spain, and the Caribbean.

These influences are on full display in Gomez’s first cookbook, My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen. Published in 2016, it earned Gomez her second James Beard nomination and features such delectable culinary amalgamations as Kerala fried chicken and Lowcountry rice waffles with spicy syrup, Southern-style pork vindaloo and green bean verakka with cardamom cornbread, banana leaf grilled catfish, green cardamom shrimp étouffée, and Atlanta buttermilk peach lassi.

So, how did Gomez, raised a Roman Catholic in a predominantly Hindu country, make her way from Kerala’s capital of Thiruvananthapuram to Georgia’s capital of Atlanta? She credits her “forward-thinking” father and her unrestrictive mother.

“One of the main reasons my father wanted us to migrate to this country was because he was very liberal in his views of how his sons should be raised, and he wanted me to have the same opportunities,” she says. “And likewise, my mom was not expecting me to be this traditional Indian girl, so I was allowed to blossom and become the woman I am today.”

To prepare for the family’s move to the United States, the Gomez patriarch mandated that only English be spoken in their Kerala home. The family first moved to Michigan, where Gomez’s brothers were in college, and later to Queens, New York. Although there were a few culture shock road bumps here and there, the process was surprisingly smooth.

“When we first came to America, my mom’s main focus was that we all got an education,” she says. “My parents really believed in assimilation and wanted us to integrate. We had friends from all facets of the American life and became part of the landscape.”

Eventually, Gomez landed in Atlanta, where she launched her foray into the culinary world. In 2012, she opened the fine dining restaurant Cardamom Hill, which earned a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in the country during its first year in business. Despite the awards and recognition, Gomez said being in the restaurant environment was not something that brought her joy, so she closed Cardamom Hill in 2014 to focus on a fast-casual concept, Spice to Table. The change did nothing to lighten the load on this chef and mother of a young son, Ethan.

“I still was not finding my joy. In fact, I was losing it on a daily basis. I wasn’t able to be the mother I wanted to be to my son,” she admits. “And so, I had to create a space where I could still cook and love what I do while being able to balance my personal life and being a mother.”

That space, simply known as The Third Space, is what Gomez describes as a “culinary conversation.” There, she hosts two to three ticketed dinners a week for 36 people at $120 a head. The rest of the time, the space is used for corporate events, cooking classes, and chef demonstrations as well as culinary production, filming, and media events.

“I managed to carve out a space for myself outside of a restaurant kitchen because that’s not where I thrive and that’s not a place that gives me joy,” she says. “I created a financially lucrative model for myself.”

It’s safe to say that Gomez has hit her stride in the kitchen; at the computer where she researches, develops, and writes cookbooks; and out on the street as an advocate. Knowing full well that Indian food is often reduced to the nine iconic Indian dishes served on a $5.99 lunch buffet (some, like butter chicken, Gomez notes, are actually British), she has made it her mission to preach the gospel of the richness of Indian food, historically, culturally, and ritually.

“Indian food is a 5,000-year-old tradition, so it’s not a food that evolved yesterday or a hundred years ago or 200 years ago. It’s been around for 5,000 years,” she emphasizes. “So why isn’t Indian food elevated to the same levels of French or Italian or any other cuisine? It’s masterful, and you have to understand the nuance of spice. We must have not-so-easy-to-have conversations so people can change their perception about food being cheap. The heart and soul of cooking comes from the same place for everybody, so why is one food more valuable than the other?”

Understanding that food is what connects all of us, Gomez not only advocates for the culinary contributions of immigrants, but has also found a way to give back to those in need. She currently serves as a chef advocate for CARE, a leading humanitarian organization that worked in 93 countries in 2018, reaching 63 million people through 950 poverty-fighting development and humanitarian aid programs. One such program works to end global hunger by leveraging socially conscious chefs to influence United States policymakers and advance CARE’s international food security policies.

As part of CARE’s Chefs’ Table, Gomez recently visited a program in Peru that connected potato farmers with Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio. The ultimate goal was to showcase their produce and get it into Acurio’s restaurant.

“Peru grows 4,000 out of the 4,500 potato varieties in the world, and yet all people will buy are the red and white potatoes. Meanwhile, there are purple potatoes, blood red potatoes, potatoes the color of orange egg yolk,” Gomez says. “These farmers were actually starving because no one was buying these indigenous potatoes. CARE taught the farmers better business practices and showed them how they can take this product to market and make it something people want to buy. These small programs actually break the cycle of poverty, which is what you need to do to end hunger.”

Gomez, a self-described “storyteller,” is happy to lend her services to CARE and continues to tell her own food story in an upcoming cookbook, Color Full: A World of Bright Flavors from My Kitchen, due out in spring 2020. She will also appear with American restaurateur and author David Chang on season two of his Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, where she will showcase the culinary contributions of Kerala. Clearly, there is still a connection to that distant shore for Gomez, and that is the most important story for her to tell.

“We leave these faraway lands and we make a new land our home, and the one connection we end up having to those distant lands is through food. Food is what keeps the memory of the place you once called home alive,” she says. “I stand on the shoulders of so many immigrant chefs whose stories were never told, and I feel a sense of responsibility to make sure I tell my story in a way that allows people to connect to my food traditions beyond just the plate. There is a bigger connection than just the food—there’s a story, there’s culture, there’s history, there’s tradition. Anything that I put on a plate is the sum total of my life experiences: The beautiful places I’ve called home, the kitchens I’ve been fortunate enough to eat in, the friends whose kitchens I’ve been welcomed into, the global flavors that I love and enjoy. My food is forever evolving.” 

Amuse-Bouche with Asha

What meal is most important to you? What is your favorite and why?

My mother’s fish curry. I was in Kerala recently, and I had this moment where I didn’t feel at home in Kerala because home had become the United States. The one thing that has kept me connected to that land has been the food. Fish curry is the tie that keeps me connected to my traditions and my roots and my mother’s kitchen. It’s a very poignant dish to me.

If you could host a dinner party for five people, living or dead, who would come to your party?

President Obama. President Trump. I would love to have Bill Gates because I think he is the most amazing philanthropist of our time outside of Warren Buffett. I would have [Israeli chef and restaurateur] Michael Solomonov from Zahav in Philadelphia, and I would have an American chef on the table. I would want everybody to sit at that table and truly experience the beauty of the American table and what it is that the American chef and the immigrant chef bring to that table, to the landscape, and to the fabric of this beautiful country that we all call home.

What are the three ingredients you can’t live without?

Black pepper from Kerala, rice, and coconut.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

I am obsessed with cake. I will eat cake any time, any place, anywhere. It has to be really good buttercream. I just feel that when people bake, they put a lot of heart into it and you can taste it. The scents that waft through a kitchen when someone’s baking. The time that it takes to actually bake a cake . . . it’s such a thing of beauty.

What’s your favorite thing to do outside of the kitchen?

Travel. I want to go to Israel next. I think the food scene in Tel Aviv is amazing.

If you could do another job for just one day, what would it be?

I’d love to be a photographer. I’m actually researching right now by taking photography classes.

What advice would you give your 13-year-old self?

Oh my gosh, be fearless. Think out of the box. Understand there are more paths to success. I come from an ideology and parents who thought you had to take certain educational paths in life and you had to do certain things. With my son, Ethan, I want him to start excelling at something, and I want him to do whatever he desires. I would tell myself to take more chances.

Your greatest achievement?

My son. I say it all the time: the privilege of my lifetime is being his mom. My greatest accomplishment, I hope, will be the human I put out into the world.

Written By: Nancy Fullbright

Photography By: Jade McCully

Food & Wine