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When the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this spring, the Indian-born chef Garima Kothari saw business at her Jersey City restaurant, Nukkad, evaporate overnight. Yet she found little time to despair. Instead, she strategized.
She started selling DIY dosa kits. She tried curbside deliveries. She offered discounts. When we spoke over the phone on April 9, Kothari said that her numbers continued falling, yet she tempered her concern with hope. She laughed nervously when I asked if she feared that the restaurant, just five months old, would have to close for good. “I hope not,” she said. “I have plans.”
Just two weeks later, on the morning of Sunday, April 26, Kothari died in an alleged murder-suicide at the hands of her partner, Man Mohan Mall. She was 35. According to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, authorities discovered Kothari with multiple upper body injuries in the apartment the couple shared, eventually concluding that her death was a homicide. A day after her death, an autopsy revealed that Kothari was five months pregnant.
I had spoken to Kothari as part of my reporting for a short piece on the impact of COVID-19 on small, immigrant-owned restaurants. Though our conversation only lasted nine minutes, Kothari talked candidly about the challenges of operating a tiny, newer restaurant that focused on Indian cooking, which still struggles to gain high regard in America despite the valiant efforts of gifted chefs. She had applied for many relief funds and grants, but feared that the nature of her restaurant, coupled with its relative infancy, would make capital elusive. “For a very small restaurant like mine, especially a restaurant that’s not doing Italian and French food, I don’t know if I will ever get a single penny,” she told me.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the food and restaurant industry has stretched digital food publications thin, forcing journalists to dedicate all their resources to coverage of a rapidly shifting landscape. Stories that seemingly bear no overt relation to the pandemic — like, say, Kothari’s brutal death — have consequently fallen by the wayside. Such circumstances may explain why the tabloid and celebrity media covered the death, but few food publications in the country dignified Kothari with so much as a blog post, barring a short article on Tuesday morning from Grub Street (owned by Eater’s parent company, Vox Media).
But the response to Kothari’s death raises enduring questions: Who gets spotlighted by the food media, and how do such decisions determine who publications choose to remember?
Kothari’s death may be the first time that readers will hear about her, an embarrassing truth that suggests her demise will eclipse her accomplishments. She bid farewell to the life of investment banking in her native India (she’d later call the corporate world “too cold”) after realizing her life’s great love was food. In 2010, Kothari entered MasterChef India, making the top 15. Following that experience, she decamped for Paris and attended Le Cordon Bleu, where she received her pastry diploma in 2013. She then moved to America, working as a pastry chef in Jacksonville, Florida, before heading north to New Jersey in 2015. Kothari managed her own catering and events business; she was also an occasional writer, having contributed to such sites as Food52, the Kitchn, and the Michelin Guide.
Coverage of Kothari was so scant in her lifetime that some may reason that she wasn’t yet “famous” enough, that her restaurant was too young, to justify immediate reporting on her death. This argument is precisely the issue at hand, one that exposes the inherent bias of a food media whose narrative gaze skews towards white, materially advantaged, cis male chefs, who also tend to have aggressive public relations teams that help to guarantee media saturation. Such privileges also dictate access to capital, like the kind Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park has gotten from American Express. Without them, few aspiring restaurant owners stand a chance of catching the mainstream food media’s attention.
Given the sheer number of restaurants that open each year, and the fact that Jersey City is flush with Indian restaurants, you may wonder what made Kothari’s restaurant so special. At Nukkad, she was trying to do something different with her native country’s cuisine; she saw street food through the prism of her own nostalgia, filtering childhood staples through the culinary techniques she’d picked up throughout her career. This approach resulted in dishes like butter chicken mac-and-cheese and pizza dosas filled with mozzarella, as well as fare one might consider more typical for a nominally Indian restaurant, such as idlis, chaats, and biryanis. Kothari didn’t care about being slapped with the dreaded “fusion” label, much less about the distinctions between north and south Indian cuisines. Like many chefs before her, she worked strenuously to push people past their worn perceptions of Indian cooking, and fought this battle in a highly individualistic way.
Viewed from a purely editorial standpoint, in other words, Kothari’s approach to food — and her winding path to it — made her a compelling character who should have been more famous prior to her death. But she operated at a distinct disadvantage within the restaurant world as a condition of her womanhood, her race, and the fact that she was not born in America. Her creative impulses, like the self-described “Indian soul food” she cooked, likewise put her on the fringes of the industry. In death, food journalists have further pushed her to the margins.
As such, Kothari’s case speaks to a rot in food coverage that existed long before the pandemic illuminated its fissures. While American food publications are infatuated with celebrity, they too often seem to impose a higher barrier of entry for figures like Kothari, an immigrant woman of color who didn’t quite have the resources (nor, eventually, the time) to become a media darling.
Critics may gripe that I’m reading these outlets in bad faith (or that Jersey City is too far from the food media’s pulse in New York City, but I’d point to stunningly consistent coverage of its critically acclaimed pizzerias). They may also charge that such intense scrutiny is unwarranted at a time when a pandemic has food journalists operating under unprecedented duress. But the muted response to Kothari’s death reveals a fundamental imbalance that Grub Street’s Chris Crowley illustrated in his sensitive piece on the April 1 death of Jesus Roman Melendez from complications of COVID-19. Melendez was a long-time cook at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Nougatine — the “backbone” of the restaurant, as Crowley wrote. In eulogizing Melendez, he gave flesh to a man who’d usually remain nameless in stories of Nougatine’s success, and simultaneously questioned the mechanics of a food media that deifies a man like Vongerichten.
Crowley’s posthumous profile of Melendez feels exemplary because it’s an outlier, pointing toward a future for food journalism that honors talents who so often remain unseen. But a piece like his shouldn’t be so unique. Two weeks elapsed between Melendez’s death and that piece’s publication; once the wound of Kothari’s loss begins to heal, I hope that other outlets will make room for a story that gives Kothari similar narrative consideration, framing her not in terms of erasure but instead focusing on what she achieved. Letting her story dissolve into the ether would merely confirm the anxieties Kothari expressed to me about the eventual fate of Nukkad: a fear that gatekeepers would look right past her.
It’s no secret that the press has unique power to mold public opinion and inform our ideas of who we consider to be stars worthy of respect. Just last year, the editor of a major newspaper’s food section asked me why I’d pitched a profile of a small restaurant owner in Bushwick when I could write about a more established name like Nigella Lawson. The question revealed this publication’s reactive, not proactive, default posturing. So I now find myself wondering if the food media’s commitment to the status quo will continue, despite how unsustainable the pandemic is revealing that to be?
In an ideal scenario, publications will emerge from this pandemic with greater sensitivity for the stories of restaurant owners like Kothari who suffered acutely as a result of the pandemic’s financial strains. To be fair, scores of food journalists are already doing this work, and no longer just at smaller and/or more regional publications. Such coverage should appear with even greater consistency in mainstream, national publications. But in a more likely (albeit cynical) scenario, these outlets may very well continue to give real estate to the blandly familiar cabal of well-funded celebrity chefs, figures who’ve become poster boys of this uncertain moment for American restaurants.
What credentials would have rendered Kothari important enough for food publications, in both life and death? It shouldn’t have taken some arbitrary metric of success, be it a James Beard nomination or a profile from the New York Times, for writers to extend her the very basic courtesy of aggregating an article about her death. Such anointments have more to do with access than intangible variables, like talent and dedication. Those prerequisites shouldn’t determine whether a woman who devoted her life to food gets a fair remembrance.
Mayukh Sen is a writer in New York. He has won a James Beard Award for his food writing, and he teaches food journalism at New York University. His first book, on the immigrant women who have shaped food in America, will be published by W.W. Norton & Company in fall 2021.