There are few things that bring people together like food. A catalyst for sharing culture with others from diverse backgrounds, food continues to build connections, relationships, and appreciation for gathering. As a rising star in the food industry, Palak Patel is a masterful artist in creating unforgettable shared experiences.
According to a report released by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), only 19 percent of chef positions are held by women despite women making up 71 percent of servers nationwide. Gaining critical acclaim from victories during her appearances on shows like Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay on Food Network, Palak is making a name for herself despite this statistic. Also, an advocate, Palak battled it out against 24 other seasoned chefs in the Sear’s Chef Challenge to successfully win $20,000 for Los Angeles Food Bank.
Palak contributes her success to cooking with her mom and the rest of the women in her family when she was young. She learned how to cook traditional Indian food as a child and knew that she had big dreams of being a chef. Palak proves that it is never too late to pursue your passion. After deciding to leave her office job, Palak went on to complete her initial training with the acclaimed Culinary Business Academy of the United States Personal Chef Institute in San Francisco and later earned her culinary degree from the prestigious International Culinary Center in New York.
Her Agenda had the opportunity to chat with Palak about transitioning careers and navigating a new industry, using food to connect cultures and people, and what it takes to be successful in the food industry.
Her Agenda: Where do you find motivation for the work you do?
Palak Patel: My mom is where a lot of my motivation stems from. I grew up in a family of 15. We all lived together and cooking was kind of the DNA of our family. So it has always been a part of my life.
Her Agenda: How would you describe your career path up until you decided to become a chef?
Palak Patel: Do you know that [visual] with Steve Jobs where there are dots in every direction? That’s how I would describe my career, so not linear at all. I switched careers in my thirties against my parents’ wishes and left my very stable corporate job to jump into a brand new industry. I went back to culinary school. It was all gut feel, I knew that this is what I had to do, so I dove in.
I switched careers in my thirties against my parents’ wishes and left my very stable corporate job to jump into a brand new industry.
Her Agenda: What is one unexpected win you have encountered since your success as a chef?
Palak Patel: My time as a Food Network star was unexpected. I tried out for that series, if you can believe it or not, 12 years ago, and I might have even applied twice. I’m pretty sure when I first applied it was the first year they aired and then again the subsequent year after. I thought to myself that I should just forget it because I wasn’t going to do it. Twelve years later, lo and behold, I received the phone call where someone said, ‘Hey, you know what? We’d love for you to be on this season.’ So I did the season!
Her Agenda: How did you find the courage to pivot to your current work and navigate a new industry?
Palak Patel: The courage came from just not doing what I knew I wanted to be doing. [If I continued] to do the same thing it meant being unfulfilled. I was so fearful of not reaching my full potential so doing anything else was not an option. I knew I would have to sacrifice to get where I wanted to be and I also knew that choosing to do something else that was not my best was very scary. I decided to trust myself to figure it out. The fear is totally natural. We are humans, we have fear to protect us, however, at the same time, that fear can debilitate you if you let it. If anyone is considering a switch, I would say do it sooner than later. That is the advice that I would give to myself as well. I wish I had gone to school in my twenties when I first looked at culinary school because it just became harder and harder as the years went by. When you are younger, you are more agile; when you do it, you start figuring it out. It is about overcoming that fear and making that switch. The rest you will figure out.
I was so fearful of not reaching my full potential so doing anything else was not an option.
Her Agenda: You recently celebrated a birthday. What are your top goals in your new year and for 2019?
Palak Patel: My goal right now is to lean into whatever makes me happy in this new year. It is also a new decade of life for me as well. Over the last 10 years, I have strayed away from creating very structured and tangible goals. What I realized is that the more spiritual and aware I become, the goals are really focused on how I want to feel. How do I want to feel with my relationships? How do I want to feel about my career? How do I want to feel when I accomplish something? It is more about how I feel rather than checking things off a list. When I was only checking things off it was never enough. That mindset is an obsession where striving for that next thing is always at the center and you are not enjoying it. So as I look forward to the next decade and the next year, I would say it’s just more about stopping, checking in with myself and really experiencing the right feelings with each goal. There is nothing wrong with having goals, but it is critical to recognize what emotions those goals bring up for you. Is it joy? Did you overcome fear? Did you learn something new or take on an adventure? These sentiments are worthwhile and worth noticing.
When you let someone else define your success, you have given away your power. So yes, the statistics are what they are but if you want to be the head chef or run the place, you will do it.
Her Agenda: As we know, food has always been a tool for connecting people to cultures and traditions they otherwise would not experience? How have you carried your heritage into your work as a chef?
Palak Patel: For women interested in entering the industry, now is really a great time to go this route because there is so much awareness and focus on bringing women into the industry. We may not get to fifty-fifty right away, but there’s definitely momentum to bring women into higher positions into leadership positions. Additionally, you should not wait for anyone to let you in anywhere. It may sound a bit cliché, but you should never wait for someone else to let you in. When you let someone else define your success, you have given away your power. So yes, the statistics are what they are but if you want to be the head chef or run the place, you will do it. You might have to overcome obstacles, but at the end of the day, you should speak it into existence. It might take a little longer or be a little tougher but do not give away your power.
You should not wait for anyone to let you in anywhere.
Her Agenda: As we know, food has always been a tool for connecting people to cultures and traditions they otherwise would not experience. How have you carried your heritage into your work as a chef?
Palak Patel: I love leading with my heritage. It’s such a change from when I was younger when I hid how I grew up and what I ate because I didn’t think it was fancy enough. I didn’t think people would be interested in what I had to offer. As I get older, I am 150 percent leading with my heritage. You will know I’m Indian before anything else because I am proud of it. I wish I had done so in my younger years. I spent so much time hiding it.
Her Agenda: What is one thing you are really proud of at the moment?
Palak Patel: You really are never too old to take on challenging things. I am currently training for The Boston Marathon taking place in April on a vegan diet! We are now 30 days out before the big day. One of my friends at Clif Bar called me and said we are going to give you a running number. I said no, laughed and hung up. Somehow he convinced me and I decided as a birthday present to myself I would take on this challenge and experience. My mindset has changed. I am focused on getting through this physical challenge, which has turned out to be a mental challenge as well. I am looking forward to celebrating this accomplishment soon!
Her Agenda: What are you reading right now?
Palak Patel: Right now I am reading History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. It is a really interesting read on the subject of Western philosophy.
[Edior’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]