Why you should care
Sometimes the path to greatness starts in an unexpected place.
See Marcus Samuelsson, Padma Lakshmi and Rachael Ray cook at OZY Fest in Central Park on Sunday, July 21. Get your tickets here.
Like most native New Yorkers, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield fully appreciated the healing power that a good bagel holds in the tri-state psyche.
The pair — who became fast friends as the slowest runners in their seventh-grade gym class — had hatched plans to make money delivering bagels and copies of The New York Times on Sunday mornings. But bagel-making equipment proved too expensive for the fresh-faced duo, for which all future Phish Food fanatics will be forever grateful. They moved to Vermont — and with $4,000 apiece, a $4,000 loan and a $5 correspondence course on how to make ice cream, the beloved brand Ben & Jerry’s was born.
Cohen isn’t the only OZY Fest culinary host whose career in food came from an unconventional entry point. Author, actor and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi’s professional gateway wasn’t cooking; it was modeling. At age 21, while studying abroad in Madrid, she was discovered by an agent at a café. Modeling and acting helped to pay off her student loans, while a bonus was traveling to exquisite, far-flung places like Paris, Milan and Bali. Lakshmi credits modeling for her career in food; it pushed her to roam the world and taste it.
The kitchen has been a gateway to larger platforms for these culinary power players to speak out about broader societal issues.
Harlem-based chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson also found his way into the kitchen by crossing borders. After his birth mother died of tuberculosis, he and his sister were adopted — a move that took them from Ethiopia to Sweden. It was beside his Swedish grandmother that Samuelsson cultivated his passion for cooking and baking. His culinary skills helped expand his view of the world, taking him to Paris and then New York, and eventually making him a household name and renowned chef around the globe.
For celebrity chef and businesswoman Rachael Ray, on the other hand, it was precisely the people who didn’t want to be in the kitchen that cemented her place there. When Ray was working at a gourmet market in Albany, New York, she regularly spoke with people who were reluctant to cook. She carved out her niche by finding a way to make food speak to them in their own language, championing the concept of meal-making in 30 minutes or less.
For all of these chefs extraordinaire, the kitchen itself is only one platform where they share their love affair with food. Through books and talk shows, entrepreneurial pursuits and radio broadcasts, they explore how the food people eat illuminates the lives they lead — and what they care about — around the world. Perhaps most importantly, the kitchen has been a gateway to larger platforms for these culinary power players to speak out about broader societal issues. Lakshmi, who became an ambassador for the ACLU, has been vocal about sexual assault, endometriosis (a condition which she’s grappled with herself) and immigration rights.
“When you explore unfamiliar foods from other people or other places, you have a doorway in to see a little piece of their lives,” says Alex Lau, OZY’s cinematographer who led the production of Mix Plate, OZY’s latest TV show exploring the history of cultures through the fusion of different foods. Whether intentional or not, political forces are inherently woven into what we consume. “You could talk about your love of vanilla and suddenly learn about the hardships of vanilla growers in Madagascar because of corruption,” Lau says.
To be sure, there’s plenty to unpack when it comes to what ends up on our plates. Through cooking demos and live discussions, OZY Fest guests can soak in the scents, style and savvy of these chefs firsthand. And for curious minds who want to explore how others live, perhaps the best place to start is by taking a bite.