Levi's® Monthly Muse


October 2021


In this interview series, we introduce you to the people who inspire us most: creatives, educators, activists, community leaders and the everyday superhumans who keep us on our toes. We’ll take you inside their day-to-day lives, homes and workspaces. We’ll talk motivation and inspiration and, of course, all things style. 

The last thing you’d label Mayukh Sen? A food snob. Which is kind of funny, since our August Monthly Muse’s other labels include 29-year-old professor of food writing at New York University, James Beard award-winning essayist and author of the upcoming book Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. But, as Mayukh explains, it turns out culinary skills and a super-refined palate aren’t prerequisites for appreciating food as a creative practice. On a video call from his Brooklyn apartment, the self-described “queer, brown child of immigrants” discusses “accidentally” becoming a food writer, his work on behalf of marginalized communities and his surprisingly impressive cookbook collection. Read on to learn more about Mayukh in his own words.

We gotta talk about food first, right? What’s your favorite cuisine?

Probably Ethiopian. The flavors are just perfect. My parents are immigrants from West Bengal, so it’s kind of reminiscent of the Bengali cooking I grew up with but strikes a balance between comfort and novelty. It’s also the kind of cuisine I can't imagine I’d succeed at cooking on my own. I don’t actually cook that much!



Yeah, my dinners are just rice or noodles with a bunch of protein and enough vegetables in some sort of sauce—probably a soy ginger or Thai green curry. I don't feel super at ease when I'm cooking. It’s labor to me. And honestly I’m okay with that. I don’t think it’s antithetical to my profession, even though many people might. Prior to becoming a food writer, which happened very accidentally, I didn’t necessarily appreciate food. My mother is a spectacular cook, yet I only saw cooking as a method for sustenance. Back in suburban New Jersey, I didn't grow up in a restaurant-going family. My idea of luxury was going to Cheesecake Factory.


Ha! How does one “accidentally” become a food writer?

I grew up wanting to be a film critic. I read Entertainment Weekly religiously as a kid and could name every Oscars best actress nominee from 1960 onward. I double majored in history and communication at Stanford and moved to New York in 2014 for family reasons right after graduating. My plan was to get a master’s in cinema studies at NYU Tisch, but given everything going on at home, I ended up not participating in the program. Instead I started freelance writing about film, television, music—every aspect of culture except food, basically. Fast forward to summer 2016 and an editor for Food 52 contacted me. They were looking to hire a staff writer who was not a “food person.” Someone who wasn’t necessarily super into cooking, but could instead write about food in a way that connected it to the broader culture. When I first got that email, I was like, “This is hilarious.”

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Because you never wanted to be a food writer?

I’d seen food writing as an occupation that was totally out of bounds for me because it seemed so racialized and classist in a way that would box me out. When I thought of food writers, I thought of stuffy white guys in suits. But I was 24 and really wanted a full-time culture-writing job, so when I got the offer I took it. I was also eager for the trust of an editor who would allow me to write deeper, reported stories rather than opinion-based pieces. Reporting was my way to correct my own...let’s call it “informed ignorance”...because my food knowledge coming into this industry was, like, sub-zero.

You didn’t know anything about the food world coming into it?

I knew who Julia Child was. I had kind of heard of James Beard. Reporting these pieces was my very public crash course in culinary education. As I said before, I think there’s this notion within our industry that you must love cooking or going out to restaurants to be able to do this for a living. I'm like, “Well, I fall into neither category so...” The thing is: There are other ways of telling stories about food. That's what’s going to make this whole world of food open up to broader audiences. I realized it's a real asset to come into this industry without knowing anything, because a problem I've noticed is that the more time you spend within it, the easier it becomes to speak to a very certain kind of reader—someone in the know—and as a result, food writing becomes siloed from the general culture and you really limit your audience in that regard. Approaching stories from an angle that is both sensitive and also kind of stupid is actually very helpful for the average reader.

How do you choose what and whom to write about?

During my early months in food media, I felt very alone because everyone around me, at least the people who were highly visible, were white. I was the only person of color on an editorial team of 10—all people whom I love dearly—but I really stood out in that milieu. I was writing from a different center of gravity—not only as someone born and raised in suburban Jersey, but also a queer, brown, child of immigrants. It was tough to relate sometimes, or feel as if I belonged, and I also had to deal with a readership who could be quite nasty to me because they saw this unfamiliar face and name on their beloved cooking site. There are so many inequities embedded within the media and food industry—especially from a race and class perspective. I definitely got a taste of that. No pun intended. So early on in my food writing career, I turned my gaze to figures in the food world who also came from marginalized communities. These were people of color, women, queer people, immigrants...sometimes people who fit under all those umbrellas. Seeking out their stories helped me make sense of my own place within this industry, because unfortunately it still is quite racist and discriminatory. It's not an easy place to be visible. What I aspire to do in my work is to impact the way that the general public think and talk about food.

And how do you want the general public to think and talk about food?

In my five years as a food writer, I’ve come to understand food as a form of creative expression that allows someone to articulate their identity. Many people see cooking as an apolitical, anodyne activity. Everyone cooks. Everyone eats. There's this very tired, worn trope of “food brings people together” and that may be true, but I want people to understand that food can also be a tool for political expression, or even resistance.

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Can you explain that idea of “food as political expression or resistance” a little more?

One of my main motivations for writing my book is that I really want to disrupt this notion that “success” for immigrants in this country, especially in culinary terms, should equate to assimilation. Something I’ve heard from peers in my corner of the industry is that they want their people's food to be considered “American food.” And though I understand that impulse, I don't necessarily subscribe to it. I find that that sort of positioning just reinforces white supremacy in the sense that you are so passionate about servicing and satisfying the white consumer and gaining their approval. My question is, why does that even matter? Speaking in terms of my own identity, why does it matter if Bengali food is considered American food? Does it have to be? What does that even mean? A lot of the women I wrote about in my book resisted that idea very strongly. They were like, no, my food is not American. It's Jamaican. It’s Iranian. They wanted to preserve their identity through their cooking. One of the women I wrote about came to America during a time when people from her country of origin were vilified within American culture. Her whole project was to express her people's humanity through her cooking, and she really succeeded.

I really want to disrupt the notion that ‘success’ for immigrants in this country should equate to assimilation.

Ah, perfect segue. Tell us more about your new book.

It’s a group biography of seven different immigrant women who were chefs, food writers, cooking teachers—a few of them were all three. Upon coming to America, these women celebrated who they were and where they came from through their cooking. This was a way to proudly own their identities, but many also faced discrimination and pressures to make their food palatable to an “American” audience, really meaning “white and affluent“ audience. Some really tried to placate the food establishment and play by its rules and then change the rules to some extent. Others acknowledged, “I can't really ‘succeed’ in this industry because I don't look like anyone. I don't have material advantages that make it easy, so I'm just going to do my own thing independently.” I find both trajectories aspirational, but I'm more interested in the latter.

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What’s one thing you want people to take away from Taste Makers?

There’s this idea of America as this glorious culinary melting pot—one where you can get a taco on one block and pakora on the next. My book does tell that story to some extent, but I want to shift people's understanding of how that came to be. I want to show that immigrants laboring to feed a supposed “us”—again, that “us” really being “the affluent white consumer”—faced enormous challenges in an industry that was designed against them. This idea of “immigrants feed ‘us’” and “immigrants get the job done”—it’s like, who are you centering here? I want to shift this consumer-focused gaze of food media to the actual people doing the work. The way that power looks within food media is static. And it needs to change.

This may be a stretch, but does your relationship with clothing at all relate to your relationship with food writing?

Definitely. I don't want to draw too much attention to myself with what I wear and the same goes for me in my writing. I’m never trying to be like, “Well, here's what I think!” because that's not what matters. What matters is telling a person's story in a way that is honest and true. I try to write as selflessly as possible and mute my own presence and perspective so it’s just my prose coming through. Back in 2018 when I was writing this book and won the James Beard award, I felt like a very public person in a way that I realize now was quite uncomfortable for me. That evaluation manifested an evolution in my personal style: I used to wear bright, bold patterns and now I feel confident and at ease in these kinds of outfits—like I can move through the world as my best self.


How would you describe your personal style?

This is going to sound cliche and maybe cringe, but my goal when I step out of my apartment is to be “visibly invisible.” My uniform is a grey, black or white T-shirt or sweatshirt with straight jeans, and if you open my shoe closet, it's just a cloud of white sneakers. I’m not a shorts person, so I stick to my 501® ’93 jeans even in the summer and they’re still super, super comfortable—very breathable and not too hot. Sometimes I go crazy and wear navy, olive or beige! But overall I dress very quiet and low-key.

Last thing: We see your bookshelf full of cookbooks, even though we’ve established you don’t spend a ton of time in the kitchen. Do you just love collecting them?

Yes! I have so many cookbooks. How many do I cook out of? Probably best left unsaid. How many do I read? All of them. I love the way cookbooks can be a window into someone's mind. So many cookbook authors use these as a way to tell the world who they are, where they come from and how they express themselves. It’s fun to read their words and imagine if I were a really able cook, what I would create to fill all those pages. It's nice to dream a little bit. I hate being all like, “Food is so serious.” Food can be so joyous too, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.

Photo Credit: Daniel Dorsa

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