It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as the saying goes.
Personally, I’ve always liked fall better. Octobers are full of crimson trees and pumpkin-spiced everything; the weather isn’t too cold to be constantly sniffling, yet not too hot to darken my sun-lust brown skin into a mid-July charcoal every brown girl fears. Damn, fall is the best.
Yet ever since I was five years old and began my first day in an American school, I was taught the most wonderful time of the year is at its dwindling end—specifically during the holidays when Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and the New Year is celebrated. December in America means Christmas and Christmas meant lights, snow, presents, trees, and God—even though he wasn’t my God.
In kindergarten, I participated in a school-wide nativity play, which we all know today as a classic holiday staple commemorating the birth of Jesus. My mother dressed me up in a checkered black dress with neon pink socks, unbeknownst that my Dr. Seuss attire wouldn’t fit into the sea of my fellow peers dressed as angels. I blindly recited the lines and prayers my teacher told me, and was captivated by cookies, snowmen, ornaments, and gifts galore. I rejoiced the birth of my de-facto savior as I would, by default, every year growing up in America.
Now, seventeen Christmases later, I’m listening to a story on the radio about a Texas mother who was upset at her seven-year-old daughter for arriving from school with henna on her hands. The station played the interview of the enraged mother lamenting “having to go through Christmas with another religion’s symbolism all over [her] daughter’s hands”—all while I’m driving home past houses donned in Christmas decorations and Christian symbolism, some of which have been up since Diwali.
I’ve been inhaling secondhand Christianity for so many Decembers that the irony took a moment to register. Here is a little girl who, not unlike me as a child, was curious and learning about cultures and religions different from her own. Her innocence is still untainted by the schisms of race and wore henna for an appeal that’s independent of cultural significance, much like I give and receive presents for Christmas every single year. But her mother is upset about a temporary cultural stamp on her daughter when the many non-Christian families in America have been permanently engrained with instructions to consume Christmas culture.
Having a hyphenated identity means carrying the weight of one culture while navigating the world of the other. We’ve taken in every American tradition, sometimes in lieu of our own, in an effort to not only assimilate, but to survive. For those of us who are first-generation Americans, we’ve spent years battling on our Trojan horses made of western customs so that we could be recognized as Americans by our experiences over the color of our skin.
It hasn’t always been a smooth stride to assimilation but hey, who’s to say we haven’t had some good times? At its foundation, the beautiful part about different cultures is the myriad experiences we would not have been able to take in otherwise. We’re lucky we live in America, the world-renowned melting pot. Regardless of religion, us non-Christians love shopping for gifts for our loved ones as much as we love every pop diva’s cover on a classic Christmas song. We’ve taken in holidays and customs as our own not only because we think we should, but also because it’s kind of fun. While being cognizant of cultural appropriation, we should be allowed live and learn and be part of the experiences of others when they welcome us with open arms. The best part about cultures is sharing.
And for the record, henna is beautiful and loved by all; it’s also not a secret cult symbol we’re scribbling on the hands of young, impressionable kids to brainwash them into waging war on Christianity.
Speaking of which, there is no war on Christmas—Christmas is a holiday, not an institution.
I live in Texas as well. And despite how many “coexist” stickers embellish the bumpers of so many cars, many of us have a long way to go in actually heeding its meaning. I truly believe it’s impossible to not feel a part of someone once you get to know them, because despite our many identities of race, sex, or religion we are, after all, the same collection of muscles and bones at our very core. The paradox of culture is that it has the power to both unite us and separate us, depending on how it’s consumed.
If I could meet the mother of this girl, I’d tell her to let her daughter learn about the world as much as possible, and there’s no wrong time to do so.
Nikita Redkar is a freelance writer in New York City who currently interns for Fusion Network where she writes about diversity in pop culture and how it’s shifting the current landscape of racial and gender politics. When she’s not writing, she is taking classes in sketch comedy and reading bizarre astronomy theories. She likes cute animal gifs and dislikes long walks on the beach, plagues, and other cliches.
January 18, 2023January 18, 2023 9min readBy Arun S.
Neha Samdaria is the founder and CEO of Aam, a new type of fashion label. Aam’s mission is to change the way womxn with the hourglass and pear-shaped body types shop for clothing. The word Aam means ordinary in Hindi. The community consists predominantly of womxn of colour with naturally curvier hips. Aam has a low return rate of 3%. The team at Aam has built sizing charts and tested them over a 10-month period. The clothing was made with sustainable materials in ethical factories. If you are struggling to find clothes that fit appropriately check out Aam today. Continue reading to learn more about Neha Samadria’s company Aam!
What were your personal struggles with shopping for clothing that fit and how did these experiences inspire you to start a company?
I have what you would call a “pear shaped” body, meaning my hips and thighs are wider than my upper half. I’m 1-2 sizes bigger on the bottom than on the top and for years, I’ve struggled to find clothes – especially pants – that fit me correctly. Too tight on the hips? Size up. Too loose on the waist? Wear a belt. My entire life, I felt alone in my struggle. Eventually, the pant shopping experience became so unpleasant that I started avoiding them entirely – choosing to opt for dresses, skirts and stretchy leggings instead.
When I arrived at Stanford Business School in 2016, I learned that I was far from alone in my experience. 1 in 4 American women – predominantly women of color – shared my struggles. And when I dug deeper to understand why, I uncovered the bias-riddled foundation of size charts in the United States. When I learned that the fit issue was systemic and rooted in bad data, I felt inspired to do something.
You’ve had a range of experiences working in consulting, marketing, as well as completing an MBA program. How have these range of experiences helped you start a company?
On a practical level, acquiring a range of skills helps with the various hats you have to wear as a CEO. On a daily basis, I am a strategist, marketer, fulfiller, accountant and designer. But the biggest thing I feel I’ve gained is an approach to tackling new problems. One of the toughest things about being a solo Founder is that the buck stops with you. You have to have faith that even if a problem is brand new and well outside your area of expertise, you’ll be able to forge a path forward. My life before Aam gave me a lot of practice in that.
Have you faced adversity as a newcomer in this space?
The biggest adversity we’ve faced is in marketing and sales. As a bootstrapped e-commerce business with no outside investment, it’s been tough to compete with large retailers with big marketing budgets. How do you get noticed as a small brand? Through trial and error we’ve found success in niche influencers who are excited by the problem we’re solving and are keen to support, in-person markets and events, and organic, word of mouth referral. We’re also beginning to partner with marketplaces and small retailers, to expand our brand reach.
Who are some mentors and leaders you look up to and what characteristics do they possess that you sought to emulate while starting your own company?
My biggest mentors are bootstrapped entrepreneurs who built up their businesses brick by brick. My father is one such example, and I have a handful of folks in my circle who have done the same. I find their grit and scrappiness inspiring; most of them don’t have a professional degree and gained their business acumen on the field.
I also admire kind and supportive leaders; team culture is one of the most difficult things to nail, and you have to be intentional from the beginning. I had a wonderful boss at my first job out of college. He knew how to nurture the strengths of his direct reports and wasn’t afraid to task them with challenging, meaningful work. Crucially, he was always there as our safety net in case we had questions or needed help along the way. I’ve tried to build the same type of ethos within Aam.
Do you see Aam as a strong contender in the fashion industry helping a wide variety of individuals?
I do! We’re one of the only brands catering to pear and hourglass shapes, perhaps because the fit issue is so fundamental and expensive to fix (see Q7). But beyond this, we’re one of the only brands that focuses on fit – period. The entire industry – from runways to fast fashion brands – is focused largely on design, when poor fit is actually the #1 driver of returns. Aam’s return rate is just 3%, vs. an e-commerce industry standard of ~30%. We can make the industry more customer-centric and less wasteful by investing in the early steps of proper sizing and fit testing.
In terms of helping a “wide variety” of individuals, Aam is a niche brand that is committed to helping the 1 in 4 women with curvy hips and thighs. I don’t plan to expand to other shapes at this time because I believe that in order to add value, you can’t be all things to all people. Our community has been underserved for almost 100 years and we’re here for them.
What made you decide to name the company Aam?
“Aam” means “ordinary” in Hindi, my native tongue. The company’s approach to design – starting with the consumer, and designing entirely for her – runs counter to the industry. My goal with this business is to make this consumer-centric approach to design more “ordinary,” giving power back to the women who wear our clothes, and elevating their voices on a global stage.
What is the process of rethinking fit standards?
Modern size charts are based largely off of a 1939 study that surveyed 15,000 women across the U.S. This study was flawed for several reasons including: 1) it relied on bust measurements, assuming women are proportional throughout and 2) it excluded women who were not Caucasian from the final results, thereby underrepresenting body shapes that are more commonly found among women of color.
At Aam, we’ve rebuilt a fresh dataset of 314 women across the U.S. who have pear and hourglass shapes, and are using this dataset to inform all of our collections. By fixing bad data, we’re addressing the root cause of poor fit and rethinking fit standards.
Where do you feel the fashion industry can improve?
There are big opportunities for improvement in supply chain, fit and inclusion.
On the supply chain side, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to ethics and sustainability. There are great auditing standards out there (SEDEX, OEKO-TEX, GOTS, for example), but only a small percentage of factories are certified. In 2021, as I was building out my supply chain in India, I visited factories that spanned the full gamut, from regularly-audited, responsible manufacturers to those who enforced 14+ hour daily shifts and refused even chairs for their workers to sit on. Brands are engaging in conversations about diversity and inclusion but it’s often on the consumer side; few are willing to be as transparent when it comes to their supply chains, where women of color are disproportionately exploited. As consumers, one easy thing we can all do is check the Ethics & Sustainability page of the brands we love. Do they talk about certified factories, third party audits and following sustainability standards? If not, we have the power to ask – why?
I’ve shared a bit above about the issues surrounding fit – it is the single biggest driver of returns, an issue that has been plaguing retailers for decades. It’s costly, harms the environment and (in the long term) hurts your brand. I believe that investing in better upstream processes – improved size charts and more rigorous fit testing – will lead to huge improvements down the line.
And finally, inclusion. One of my pet peeves is seeing brands design styles that are clearly intended for straight shapes and small sizes and then scale them up to mid and plus sizes claiming that they now design “for all bodies.” Putting ill-fitted pieces on models of different shapes and sizes doesn’t mean you understand or care about that customer. We should be asking ourselves – what does this customer really want? How is this garment going to make her feel? How can we design FOR her, first and foremost? This is being inclusive in a real way.
As a CEO of a company what is your daily routine?
My day starts the night prior, when I write down my priorities for the upcoming day. I use this great planner by Kindred Braverly that helps break down my activities into bite size segments. I’m not a morning person and part of my team is based in India (with a flipped schedule), so I usually start my date late around 9am.
First, I workout, so I can feel like I’ve accomplished something early in the day. Then, I grab breakfast, coffee and start work around 10:30. I start with the highest priority items on my list, which can range anywhere from sales and marketing to strategic planning and design. I work in 1hr increments with 10-15 mins of break in between. During these breaks, I’ll step outside, hydrate or crank up some music and just free dance. I try to get away from a screen, so I can return to my work with fresh eyes.
I then have a hard stop from 7-9pm to spend time with my husband, and then I’ll usually squeeze in an additional hour or two of work with my India team, before heading to bed.
Early in my Founder journey, I started tracking productivity patterns during my week. For example, I’m usually less productive on Mondays than I am later in the week. So I try to schedule more interesting, strategic work early in the week in order to stay motivated. I also work a half day on Sundays, to take some of the pressure off of the following week.
As there are many companies interested in fast fashion, how does your company differ in terms of sustainable materials and ethical factories?
Responsible production is one of our brand pillars, so we think about it in each step of the process. All of our suppliers must be third-party certified for ethical working conditions from one of the leading, global certification programs (more info here).
Additionally, we use sustainable fabrics in all of our collections. For example, we work with organic cotton (vs. regular cotton), which saves water and is made without toxic pesticides. We work with new fabrics, like lyocell, that can emulate the handfeel and durability of less sustainable fibers without the environmental footprint. In our most recent collection, we introduced premium deadstock wool, which is fabric that was produced in excess by brands and would have otherwise gone to waste. We also ensure that all of our dyes are free of Azo compounds (several of which are carcinogenic) via rigorous testing.
On the production side, we rely on a combination of third-party audits as well as personal, first-party checks. I’ve spent days in each of our factories, observing the working conditions and interacting with the team.
On the packaging side, we spent a great deal of time thinking about how to recycle and reuse. Each Aam pant comes inside a reusable cotton cover, inspired by the beautiful saree covers you see in southern India. This cotton cover is placed inside a fully recyclable box, with a simple packing slip and card. There’s no excess paper, bubble wrap, or cardboard.
I’m proud of where we are in terms of ethics and sustainability – and I think we can still do better!
We would love to hear some testimonials from previous customers.
“I have paid hundreds of dollars for ‘custom fit pants’ from various brands, and none of them fit quite as well as this pant did straight out of the box.” – The Flex Waist Pant, Size S
“This pant is amazing!! It is so lightweight and breathable… the material is so soft and silky, it feels like you’re wearing PJs but they look like elegant chic work/business pants.” – The Wide Leg Pant, Size M
“Never have I ever been able to easily pull a pair of pants over my thighs. I have ALWAYS had to jump to pull my pants up comfortably. These pants are amazing.” – The Crop Pant, Size L
“I can tell these are Aam pants instantly from how they taper at the waist. No other pants do that.” – The Limited Edition Wool Wide Leg Pant, Size S
Where do you see the company expanding in terms of different types of clothing offered?
I see bottoms as the biggest area of need, so we’ll first expand to other types of bottoms or clothes with bottoms: skirts, dresses, jumpsuits, potentially underwear and swim. Then, we’ll start expanding into other categories.
What is the toughest part of running your own company?
Staying motivated and showing up every day – even the bad days. As a Founder, there’s no one to answer to, no fixed schedule, and progress can sometimes feel very slow. There are weeks where I feel frustrated because I keep missing targets. Other weeks, we get a string of wins. It’s important to detach myself from both types of outcomes (wins and losses) and take neither very personally. This helps me commit instead to the process and just focus on the next small step forward.
But, easier said than done!
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I’ve read Brown Girl Magazine for years and am so honored to be featured. I hope folks reading this feel inspired to tackle whatever problem – small or large – that they understand innately. Personal experience is a powerful motivator and difficult for others to replicate.
January 1, 2023January 1, 2023 7min readBy Brown boy
Wyatt Feegrado is a comedian and content creator from Walnut Creek, San Francisco, California. Feegrado moved to New York City to attend the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Feegrado always wanted to be a comedian and grew up watching “The Last Comic Standing” with his mom — his favorites being Alingon Mitra and Sammy Obeid. In 2020, Feegrado starred in the TV show “Bettor Days,” on Hulu and ESPN+, as the character Vinnie bets on the baseball team The Astros and wins big. Feegrado also has a podcast called “First World Problematic,” along with Vishal Kal and Surbhi, where they talk about a range of topics such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, and will be dropping an “Indian Matchmaking” Reunion show. Currently, in Bangalore, Feegrado is performing his first show in India, at the Courtyard in Bangalore. He was previously on tour in the United States. He recently dropped the Amazon comedy special “Wyatt Feegrado: De-Assimilate.” Continue reading to learn more about Wyatt Feegrado.
Do you feel that your upbringing in Walnut Creek and your personal experiences are what molded your comedic style?
Walnut Creek, for people who have never been there, is frankly a very white place. I must’ve been one of four or five Indian kids in my high school of 2000. I think growing up like that, you begin to believe that it’s a bit ‘odd’ that you’re brown. Part of finding my comedic voice was changing that perspective to say; it’s not weird that I’m brown, it’s weird that you’re not. That’s the paradigm shift — I don’t move through the world trying to impress people, why should I? Who are they? They should be trying to impress me.
What was it like attending the Tisch School Of The Arts and what classes helped shape you as a person?
I hope I don’t get too much flack for this…but I don’t really think that NYU helped my career very much. Being in New York helped me immensely, it raised the ceiling on what I could achieve. I really appreciate NYU’s approach, they teach art as a fundamentally collaborative discipline, which I do believe it is. However, that’s just not how I learn. I’m a competitive person, I want to be pitted against my fellow students and prove I’m the best. That motivates me. I would say, if you want to use NYU or any art school to your advantage, understand that classes are only half of what you’re supposed to be doing. That was a pet peeve of mine, I used to see my fellow students finish class and simply go home. That’s not the way to do it in this industry. Every day, after school, I used to go to two or three open mics, send in self-taped auditions, and make opportunities of my own. You’re betting on yourself — so go all in.
What was the process of creating the comedy special “Wyatt Feegrado: De-Assimilate?”
In terms of writing the jokes, it’s the culmination of studying joke writing for 10 years. But I was approached with the opportunity in March or so, and I had my reservations to even tape a special — I’m a perfectionist so I wanted all my jokes to be some of the best ever written. But that’s just a bad strategy in terms of trying to make it in life. When an opportunity falls in your lap, you have to take it no matter what. Worry about whether you’re ready later. One time I was cast in a commercial for Facebook that required me to do skateboard tricks. I lied and said I knew how to do skateboard tricks at the casting call. I landed the commercial and then started practicing how to skateboard. I think the most important lesson in comedy you can learn is how to believe in yourself when nobody else does. I always have the confidence that I will rise to the occasion.
What was it like getting your special on Amazon Prime?
So Four by Three, the amazing production company that produced my special, has a very good relationship with Amazon, as they’ve produced a lot of content for their platform. They handled distribution for me, and together we made the strategic decision to also release De-Assimilate on YouTube. I think because of the over-saturation of streaming services you have to pay for, combined with the renaissance YouTube is having, where a lot of the content will have TV-level production value, more and more young people are turning to YouTube as their primary source of content. People are always asking who is going to win the “streaming wars.” My dark horse candidate is YouTube.
As a comedian how do you deal with hecklers?
So many comedians are mean to hecklers. I hate that. There’s no reason for that. They’re a person too and it’s not right to berate them unless they truly insulted you first. In my opinion, there are three types of hecklers — the heckler who is just too drunk, the heckler who thinks they’re helping the show, and the heckler who actually hates you or thinks you’re unfunny. I think only the latter deserves to be berated. The rest of them I try to work around, and tell them they’re interrupting the show in a way that doesn’t interrupt the show in itself.
What was the first joke you ever wrote and your favorite joke you have ever written?
Oh god this is going to be horrible. The first joke I every wrote was:
“Shawn White is a professional snowboarder, but a lot of people don’t know he is also very skilled in Curling, his hair”
That is so bad. I’m embarrassed. At least it disproves the BS some people say that “funny isn’t learnable.” That is NOT TRUE. What they mean is the infrastructure for funny scant exists. There’s no Standup Comedy Major in Art Schools or Textbooks that teach joke writing. There will be one day, but for now there isn’t.
My favorite jokes I write are jokes that I really think encapsulates the zeitgeist. My favorites on the special are the joke about how Jesus’ Disciples are Brown, and how the Vaccine is the first time anyone in the US has gotten healthcare for free.
Are there any jokes that you regret telling in front of an audience?
Of course. Referring back to my answer to the first question, any joke that has the underlying presumption that it is ‘odd’ to be brown — which is a genre of jokes that many Indian-American comedians in history have been pigeonholed into — I regret saying those type of jokes when I first started. Now I do the opposite. Sometimes I’ll do a joke about how Jesus was brown in Texas just to piss them off.
What has been your favorite project to work on?
Flying to Nashville to shoot Bettor Days for ESPN+ was great. I was just out of school at the time so it felt amazing to make money, travel, and work. Also the sets were fun and I’m still friends with the cast. And then getting to see myself on TV for the first time — thrilling.
Can you tell us more about your podcast First World Problematic?
Yes! First World Problematic is the comedy podcast I host with Vishal Kal — yes the same one that broke Nadia’s heart on Indian Matchmaking — and Surbhi, another close comedian friend of mine. We’re all Indian-Americans, and we discuss a wide variety of topics, such as dating, pop culture, and just in general make a lot of jokes. ALSO! We just released an Indian Matchmaking Season 2 reunion special — we brought back all the cast members of season 2 for a tell all! In Jan we plan to do a Season 1 reunion.
Who do you look up to in the world of comedy?
Man. I’m a student of a looooooooot of comedians. So so so many people I look up to. Steven Wright and Dave Chappelle are my first loves. When I was a kid, I used to think standup was just time pass, until one day I stumbled upon Dave Chappelle: Killin Em’ Softly on YouTube. That is what made me realize that standup can be high art. That is when I knew I wanted to be a comedian. Steven Wright is the comedian who first inspired me to write jokes, many of my first jokes emulated him. I have learned so much about modern Joke Structure from Dave Attell, Emo Phillips, Dan Mintz, and Anthony Jeselnik. Bit structure I take directly from Louie CK and Bill Burr. As for my comedic voice, I learned so much from Paul Mooney. Listening to him is what I feel really unlocked my approach to comedy, the way how he is so mean, so aggressive. He talks about white people the way the media talks about black people. I always thought us Asian people needed that, an Asian comedian that talks about Asian-American issues, but not with the friendliness you typically see Asian comedians portray. He taught me to be in your face. And Chappelle taught me how to be nice about it.
Do you feel that South Asian comedians can be easily pigeonholed?
Historically — unequivocally yes. In the modern times, much less so. I very much think South Asian comedians in some sense pigeonhole themselves, by trying to emulate past South Asian comedians, who were pigeonholed by the market. I do think now, and it is completely because of social media, there is a market for every kind of comedy. Like I said in my previous answer, I’d like to be a South Asian comedian with the confrontationality that we have historically only seen from Black comedians.
But you know who is really pigeonholed nowadays? Female comedians. This may be a tangent, but if there was a Female comedian that talked about Female issues, with the hostility towards men that Bill Burr will occasionally have towards women, in my opinion she would likely be the GOAT.
How do you feel social media such as Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and Snapchat have changed comedy?
Social media has been a truly beautiful thing for comedy. It has completely decentralized the power structure of our business. Back in the day, if you wanted to get famous, you had to do comedy that appealed to the white men who held the power at the networks, at the talk shows, in the writers rooms. They still do control all those things, but now because of social media the people watching our stuff are representative of the population, and we can grow our followings because the market is wider. Now if you have a social media following, you have all the leverage, and therefore you see a multitude more styles of standup comedy out there. Also social media in my opinion is the third great comedy boom. Seinfeld made standup a household art form, Netflix made it possible for people to binge watch standup, and now Tiktok and Instagram have proliferated standup to the point where it is EVERYWHERE. There are more comedians than ever and there’s a bigger market for standup than ever.
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
Us Indian-Americans are at a very interesting financial and cultural intersection. Indians are the richest ethnicity in America, and culturally Indian parents will generally pay for their children’s college, unlike other ethnicities. If Indian parents were to hypothetically support their child to go into the arts, just like they may support them in getting their Masters degree, I believe Indians would have an astronomically higher chance of making it in the arts than anyone else. The greatest gift you can give your artist child is financial support in the early stages, since we all know the early stages of the arts make next to nothing. We just have to get rid of the Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer only BS that I would argue is a remnant of the Caste System in India.
Also, remember to call white people Euro-Americans. It helps the movement!
Passion is something many claim to have, but few truly possess. Whether it’s hobbies, professions or romances, it’s the secret ingredient we all crave but is quite difficult to come by. But on meeting Chef Devan Rajkumar — aka Chef Dev — it takes just a few moments to understand true passion. For the Indo Guyanese chef from Toronto, passion has always been food and its power to connect, nourish, excite and represent.
Whatever the outlet, Rajkumar feeds his mission to bean ambassador for modern, West and East Indian cuisine. I recently sat down with him to talk about this and the experience of bringing Indo Caribbean flavors to South Asia and beyond.
Feeding a passion for food
“The sights, the sounds, the aromatics. The excitement of the kitchen has just always appealed to me,” he began. “Food moves me in a certain way. I want to nurture and nourish. I’ve just always wanted to do for others.”
As he sat back in a ‘Guyana vs. the world’ tank top, Rajkumar’s energy was palpable.
“I’ve always lived and breathed food, all day, all night. Like I’m talking about food right now. I’m constantly talking about food.”
To Rajkumar, food is education — one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways to learn, teach and explore the world — and he credits his older brother Jai for inspiring this mindset. Jai was the first to introduce him to different cuisines, teach him to be curious about the world and show him how to challenge the norms of a “typical brown kid.”
Despite this encouragement, however, a culinary career wasn’t Rajkumar’s first instinct. The son of a businessman, he initially jumped around universities and career paths. He also struggled with substance abuse and grief after Jai’s passing. Through all the challenges, food remained a constant, and the sense of community it created was a powerful draw.
“At a very young age, I recognized how food made me feel if I was in a bad mood and how it made others feel,” he shared.
He’s always looked forward to sitting around a table with friends and family, enjoying a nice meal, and how everybody could share their stories or just forget their troubles.
“Food is a very powerful vehicle for transporting someone.”
In 2009, Rajkumar finally followed his passion and joined a culinary school. He realized he had a knack for creating this experience for others.
“I realized I had the power and the gift to nourish and nurture someone else in this way,” and it became irresistible.
A cook with no boundaries, Rajkumar didn’t want to limit the number of people he reached to just those in Canada.
For many, success in the culinary world is having a thriving restaurant, but after spending six months opening one with The Food Dudes in 2015, Rajkumar realized this route wasn’t for him.
“I wanted more culture,” he explained. “I wanted to learn and not so much get my ass kicked, but to be a sponge. I knew I needed to travel to broaden my horizons.”
So he did. Rajkumar spent months cooking in India, London, Peru and Dubai. He shared his experiences on social media and people back home took note.
“When I returned to Toronto,” he continued, “that trip had established me as a cook who had no boundaries. As someone who wasn’t afraid to explore and get out of their comfort zone.”
And get out of his comfort zone he did.
“From catering to a pop-up abroad to filming ‘Cityline’ and speaking engagements, every day is different,” he explained. “I’ve had my bouts with imposter syndrome, but ultimately, I’ve gotten to make more of an impact than just opening a restaurant.”
That impact has especially been prominent in South Asia.
Rajkumar embraces not only his Caribbean culture, but his South Asian roots as well.
The temple he grew up in was a blend of Guyanese and East Indians, so he knew foods from a typical Guyanese household like alu curry and saijan but also East Indian favorites like dhokla and malai kofta.
“Ultimately, we came from India,” he declared. “I embrace the culture and I am very comfortable leaning back and forth into it. It’s in me. It’s who I am.”
In fact, Rajkumar noted his career became much more defined and successful when he really began to identify as not just a chef, but as an Indo Guyanese Canadian chef.
Hearing this, it was no surprise that Guyana, India and Pakistan stand out as some of his favorite destinations.
“Guyana is hugely impactful for me,” he shared, having visited his parents’ homeland frequently. “As soon as that door opens [at the airport], you smell Guyana. You smell the sugarcane burning from rum factories. I have all these wonderful sights, sounds, smells and flavors from those trips.”
His sentiments for India are similar.
“Incredible India is incredible India,” he referred to the country’s tourism slogan. “Every 100-200 kilometers, the menus can change completely. I can live in India for the rest of my life and never see it all.”
Rajkumar’s first trip in 2020 was only nine days long, but its impact stayed with him.
He couldn’t have been more excited to return for a month, earlier this year, and host what his friends there dubbed the “Mad Love Pop-Up,” after one of his signature sayings.
He filled the menu for the 18-day event with global dishes like ceviche and scotch eggs but infused them with West and East Indian flavors like masala, jerk and cassareep — a rich extract of the bitter cassava native to Guyana. Before he left, he even prepared Guyana’s national dish of pepper pot, a hearty meat stew, for the staff meal.
“My whole thought process was ‘let me give these people — my family there — an experience they’ve never had before,” he detailed. “Any time I give someone pepper pot or cassareep, they’re just so shocked. It’s so unique.”
Rajkumar is always excited to share the flavors and culture of Guyana with new people, but with his roots in South Asia, bringing them to Pakistan was that much more profound.
“In India, maybe it’s different, but in Lahore, most people don’t know about Guyana or where it is. That’s another reason why I did this. That’s why I do all the things I do. That’s why I’m wearing this tank top — to raise awareness about my culture and how beautiful it is,” he said.
Time in South Asia has also helped Rajkumar gain a deeper appreciation for the origins of many Indo Caribbean dishes and reinforced his love for them.
“Guyanese cuisine doesn’t just have Indian influence, but so many dishes in some way, shape, or form come from there. Like when I’m eating sada roti, I can tie it back to which type of flatbread it came from in India. I feel like a better-equipped chef at the end of the day. I’m more connected to my Guyanese roots and to the culture overall.”
Rajkumar wants to foster a deeper understanding and relationship between both heritages. He wants his food to build connections, not disparity.
Bringing the world back home
Rajkumar has visited over 20 countries, but Pakistan remains one place he’ll cherish his entire life. He is grateful not only for the opportunities he’s had there, but also for the chance to offer a fresh, alternative view of the country from what is often shown by the media.
“When people saw me posting content from Lahore, they were like, ‘Oh my God, this is Pakistan?’ This is not what we expected. This is not what we thought we’d see.’ They were shocked at how beautiful, kind, and welcoming everyone was.”
Reactions like these are Rajkumar’s ultimate goal.
A cookbook is due next year. He has aspirations of launching merchandise and cookware, traveling to South East Asia, and continuing his pop-ups, but ultimately, he concludes,
“I just want to stand for something. I want to continue to learn, remain humble, represent my Western and Eastern cultures and spread mad love. I want to be an ambassador to that world and be someone who’s dedicated to his craft, bettering himself and those around him.”
“I just want to continue to grow as a person,” he added with sincerity as he touched on his sobriety and what it’s taught him about achieving your goals.
“That might sound cliche, but it’s new to me. I’ve spent the last two years learning about myself and being vulnerable about how I feel, my healing journey and what I’m going through. If I excel and continue to invest time and discipline in that arena, everything else around me will flourish. I believe that goes for anyone.”
Rajkumar is going far literally and figuratively, but no matter where he lands, you can be sure he’ll bring something back for his supporters, whether it be a new view of the world or a concoction like a ceviche pani puri on one of his menus.
“That’s my travels to India, Pakistan and Peru all in one bite!” he exclaimed.
Chef Dev’s journey has not always been an easy one, but it’s a powerful example of the success one can taste with hard work, embracing authenticity and following true passion.