Meet Aman Dosanj: Chef - Story Teller
Who is Aman Dosanj?
I'm going to borrow what I wrote on my blog to describe me: "‘Self-taught’ is probably the best way to describe me (I pretty make things up as I go along). My name is Aman, which means ‘peace’ – but don’t get me confused with Malala, she won a Noble Peace Prize and is also brown (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). I’m an ex-footballer, ex-anti-racism ambassador, marketer, BSc (honours) graduate, former Nike UK employee, BSKYB marketing graduate scheme recipient, middle child, Western Living Magazine’s Top 10 ‘Foodies of the Year’ 2015, Virgo, planner, food geek, people watcher, feminist, supporter of Slow Food, not your conventional brown person, storyteller, and just weird enough to be interesting. Oh, and I say the word ‘fuck’ a lot (sorry, it’s because I’m English). So I guess ‘work in progress’ is a good start." I was also proud to be the first British Indian (of either sex) to play soccer for England (and I'm the size of a hobbit) — so I like to prove people wrong.
What path led you to discover your passion for food, cooking, and storytelling?
This is a complicated story! I grew up in a household where my Mum or Granny would cook a freshly-made meal from scratch for us every day. I never knew I was part of this food culture until I realized that it wasn't 'normal' for a lot of people. My background is in marketing, so storytelling is kind of what I do. I fell in love with food because of the Okanagan. We moved here in 2008 on an entrepreneurial visa and started our farm-to-table Indian restaurant in 2009 without ever working — let alone, owning — a restaurant before. We not only live in a beautiful place, but also a really delicious one, where we're so close to our food source: we know how your fresh vegetables, fruits, seafood, and produce has been grown or raised, and whether it's been sprayed or not. It's pretty special when you can order your local organic vegetables from your farmer; it's picked for you the day before collecting from the farmers' market, then it's potentially on your guest's plates that evening! There's just so much more love in the food here and it makes my job so much easier. I started cooking in at Poppadoms because our ex-Chefs, who we got their Permanent Residency for, ended up leaving right after they got their stamps. As a family-run business, you do what you have to do to keep the doors open. I love the fact that I'm always learning with food.
I remember meeting you for the first time last summer...you described what you do with the paisley notebook, your eyes full of passion as you shared. you've probably experienced challenges along the way, so How do you overcome those hiccups when they arise?
In April 1999, I became the first British Indian to play soccer for England (before a boy, too). That was the moment I realized I could do anything I put my mind to. I've experienced racist comments, I've had my extended family ask whether I was a boy or a girl because I played, and people questioned my sexuality, but none of that mattered to me. I knew I wanted to play for Arsenal and England, but I also wanted to get my degree and then a Marketing graduate scheme. I stayed true to myself and fought for it. Women are as capable as men. Indians are as capable as other ethnicities. And hopefully one day, these stereotypes will end.
I don't have a culinary background; I think that's my biggest mental barrier. But I do cook with a lot of heart and I think, that sets me apart. Now that I don't have a restaurant and I'm on a pop-up basis, there are no guarantees...if people stop buying tickets that's it. So, I have to step my game up every time, and I cook like it's the last time. I don't want it to end and I feel like I'm just getting started.
I am very fortunate to have a lot of incredible women in my life; they pick me up. It has taken me 9 years to get to the point where I have people by my side, and that helps a lot.
What makes you jump out of bed in the morning?
Bacon! Plus, a blue sky. Being able to go outside will make me jump out of bed in the morning, too. But, knowing I have a pop-up dinner and it's another chance to cook is what really makes me spring out of bed.
Tell us more about the paisley notebook, for those of us who don't know anything about it.
After selling Poppadoms, I went traveling for 7.5 months, and I wrote about how food connects us and started a food memory project. I learned so much during my travels and to be honest, I don't think I've ever learned as much as during that time. My travels taught me that it's never a bad thing to invest in yourself, even if it means using every penny you have. I calculated I was due 6 months of holiday for 6 years of restaurant life. This was time for me to do something for me, heal, and remember what it's like to really live life and learn. I went to farmers' markets, bought ingredients, and then fed people I met for free. So, I decided to take the negative factors of restaurant life (the long hours, lack of staff, pay etc) and focus on why we cook in the first place. It's those stories that shape my dinners.
The Paisley Notebook is a pop-up dinner platform that is based on edible storytelling. Basically, I like to craft memories by serving up intimate dining experiences with restaurant quality locally sourced Okanagan produce in unexpected places (mainly on organic farms across the Okanagan and without a kitchen — I make my life as challenging as I can!). My food is proudly Indo-Okanagan. The Paisley Notebook is firstly a community building project with communal long table dinners that add the value back into food, and through my 'Sourced' pop up series, I'm trying to bring people closer to their food source, as well as the people growing, raising, or cooking their food.
Food truly connects people and builds a community, and that's what I try to do with The Paisley Notebook. I want to make people think, surprise people, and educate — I don't think there's a better way to do that than food. I love how awkward people are at the start of a communal long table dinner. Then, when the first course comes out along with a little alcohol, the magic of food happens. I deliberately cook up 4-courses because people have to clear their entire evening for an edible night of storytelling — in a way it's my superhero powers because, in a sense, I stop time.
A surprise 4-course menu is created (taking into consideration allergies and vegetarians) to highlight the host farm and throughout the night my guests and I take this edible adventure together. I buy directly from the source, utilizing the farmers’ market in Kelowna, or picking produce with my farmers, I’ve even processed chickens at Sterling Springs Chicken to get a deeper understanding of their business and the economic impact of a family-run business choosing to do things the right (but harder) way. The menu is written the week of the event, because if our farmers have to deal with Mother Nature, so do I. Celebrating imperfections is key. And now I get hugged at the end of every dinner, which is so special. Food is just an easy way to make people smile.
I also host collaborative dinners with my friends with The Paisley Notebook not only paying for the food cost, but each Chef gets paid for their time and effort. This way you have better quality events, the people cooking the food are happy, and it's just the right thing to do, especially if something is 'for-profit'. I'm hoping event planners will do the right thing and hopefully, things will change within the industry - we get asked for a lot of free things.
What advice would you give other dreamers who are currently pursuing their dreams?
Believe in yourself and what you're doing.
My thinking is when we see the similarities in one another, it's easier to accept people's differences. People I've met in my travels inspire me the most as a cook. When I was creating the food memory project, things started to feel easy because I was doing what I love — I was traveling, learning about the world through food and feeding people.
Since coming back to the Okanagan, I've raised over $25,000 for charity in a year, spoke as a keynote speaker at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto, hosted sold-out pop up dinners, and filmed an episode of From The Wild cooking wild meat. My dinners will be the main feature for Western Living magazine's Okanagan Summer 2018 issue. I'm making my own not-so-conventional path within the food industry and that's ok. My guests have been amazingly supportive of what I do, embracing how my weird mind works. So, keep on doing what you're doing and have good intentions.
Women supporting women...what does this look like for you in your career and in your life?
I've been raised by two strong women (my Mum and my Granny), so female role models have been key for me. It's exciting to see how and when women are doing their thing. I've been in an Indian male-dominated kitchen (where I was working for free) and I was told by a 'chef' that I shouldn't use a Chef's Knife because I have little hands and I'd cut myself (I didn't cut myself!). I had to deal with a lot of other sexist comments, including, 'You women should make us men food!' It was a toxic work environment and I remember feeling the relief after each shift had ended, feeling like I could breathe again. I don't think anyone should feel like that, regardless of their gender. Treat people like people, that's rule one. Magical things happen when women truly support each other. That's why my International Women's Day dinner is there as a platform. It's not about who can shout the loudest. Sometimes when people work together, with a smile on their face and without the ego, the message gets across better. This event is a really pure event: 100% of profits go to selected charities, everyone donates their time, operating costs are taken care of, and our winemakers not only donate the wine pairing, but have been happy to pay for their tickets to attend too.
You have an exciting event coming up. tell us more about this amazing event!
In 2015, I wanted to unite an all-female lineup for a special dinner, but then a little somebody decided to sell her restaurant and travel around the world instead. And so, in September 2016, I started to piece together the framework of this International Women's Day event idea again. Whilst I was traveling, my friend’s stepdaughter ended her battle with mental health challenges and committed suicide. Her last wish was written on a piece of paper with torn edges, it read: “Please tell the truth about why I died. We need to open up the conversation.”
#BeBoldForChange was my little way to start the conversation using food. We raised $7,709.87 with that dinner, got a standing ovation, and made a small difference in our community. This has become an annual event that I plan, produce, cook, and host. For this year, I wanted to bring some of my friends from Alberta, so that's what I'm doing. Calgary and Edmonton have really strong food scenes; the way the Okanagan is going to improve is by looking and learning from these cities. It's pretty special when you meet cooks from other cities and they're so proud to showcase what their cities and provinces are doing. Food is supposed to be collaborative. The second #PressForProgress collaborative dinner will be held at Tantalus Vineyards and we're increasing our capacity from 39 people last year, to 52 people. Again, The Paisley Notebook doesn't make a penny from this event, it's just something I do. We're just a bunch of women, supporting women and telling stories all night long.
How does one connect with you Aman?
There are quite a few ways to connect with me, starting off with feeding you at one of my pop up dinners across the Okanagan (https://paisleynotebook.com/2018/02/11/pressforprogress-2018/) , @paisleynotebook on Instagram, Facebook.com/paisleynotebook, paisleynotebook.com for my blog, or firstname.lastname@example.org for questions, comments, and bookings (or a chat).