A new posthumous memoir by beloved Pakistani American executive chef, restaurateur and television personality Fatima Ali gives readers a glimpse inside her family story, her culinary dreams cut short and how she still chose to savor every minute of life in the face of a rare cancer diagnosis.
"Savor: A Chef's Hunger for More," by Fatima Ali with author and food writer Tarajia Morrell, flashes between past and present, with contributions by her mother, Farezeh.
The book serves as an inspiring ode to the food, family and the countries Ali loved so much, spanning her childhood in Pakistan to winning viewers' hearts as the Bravo "Top Chef" season 15 fan favorite.
Ali was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, before the show aired and although the star chef vowed to spend her final year traveling the world and eating delicious food, her worsening condition abruptly sidelined those plans. Instead, the dynamic, boundary-breaking chef used her bright voice to make her final days count and worked to tell the story of a brown girl chef who set out to make a name for herself, her food and her culture.
Mohammad Ali, her brother and CEO of The Chef Fatima Foundation -- a nonprofit organization based in Lahore, Pakistan -- told "Good Morning America" that seeing his sister's life story retold and put into print has been a powerful journey of promises fulfilled.
"This book, and the experience of having this book written has, at times, been an elixir for the soul," he said, adding that it was "nourishing" for their family that gave them "a path which we could use to channel our indigestible loss." But, he continued, "At other times [it was] like a heavy weight hanging over us, reliving playback reels of various parts of Fatima's life, the most excruciating being her illness and end days."
"It was a promise we made, however, and a dream we dreamed with Fatima -- that no matter what her cancer had to say, and no matter what the doctors had to say, it was Fatima that would have the last word," Ali said. "She wanted to do so much good in the world and enrich every life she came across. And she did. With this book, she and her story will outlive us all. That makes us proud. Fulfilling our promise to her makes us proud. Her story needs to be shared far and wide and this book is part of that plan."
Ali added that it's "a living story and telling it has taken a tremendous amount of courage and faith."
The story of their mother reveals an intimate look at the pivotal moments, intertwined with her own daughter, which Mo called "a deeply unenviable task."
"I don't think I would recommend that this be an exercise one does after watching their own child suffer unimaginable pain, and ultimately death. Only she knows the depth of the pain that comes with living with Fatima's loss, nobody else can," he explained. "To wade through all of it, over and over again so that we could craft together a book worth publishing has been an extreme experience. When the times got tough though, all we had to do was think about how much Fati had to endure, and so we kept at it."
He continued, "As far as my sister's life and story being retold, I don't think there is anything that we as a family find more joyful than to watch Fatima being championed. She deserves every bit of it."
Ali admitted he's a bit biased when it comes to a favorite part of the book -- chapter 9, titled "Tepid Milk and Silken Salmon."
"[It] is the chapter in which she speaks about our relationship and shares memories which are still very vivid in my mind," he said. "Our childhood together and the memories we made have taken on a whole new meaning for me since her illness and passing."
"I have too many good ones," he said of his favorite memories with his sister. "But I will always remember her love for food as a child. When we were children, she would make a happy noise when she liked what she was eating. It was like a 'noim noim noim' sound -- and if you would have looked over at her, you would have seen someone clearly out of space somewhere. That joy, and moment in her face, in her eyes, will always be my fondest food memory of her."
Ali called their grieving journey "a sad conundrum" because "we may find it difficult to give each other the relief we feel the other needs," but explained "our shared language in honoring Fatima and her memory is almost always through food."
"My wish is that readers see themselves in Fatima and her family -- warts and all -- to ultimately understand what it is in life and being alive that is truly important and meaningful," Ali said. "An extremely disturbing amount of us are on autopilot -- me included. We simply do not realize just how fragile everything we build our assumptions on are."
He continued, "Fatima was a 28-year-old who was about to set the world on fire. She found herself reflecting on her life and making a bucket list she hardly got the chance to go through. What will you be doing if you found yourself in her position? Anticipate those regrets, and act now. Love, compassion, forgiveness. My sister's mantra."
Dive into "Savor: A Chef's Hunger for More," right now with an excerpt.
About the author: Fatima Ali received her education from the Culinary Institute of America and was a chef in New York City. She competed in and won an episode of "Chopped" on the Food Network at 23 and was later a contestant on "Top Chef," season 15, where she was voted "Fan Favorite." She wrote several essays for Bon Appétit, one of which was posthumously awarded a James Beard Award after she died in January 2019.
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Start here with an excerpt:
Ch. 10 Hunger at the Market
We often accompanied our mother to the market to go grocery shopping, which I already understood as the first phase of every meal. We sat in the back of our rickety, dinged second-hand white Suzuki Khyber and drove to Khadda Market with my mother playing a Stevie Nicks tape, singing along loudly to "The Edge of Seventeen."
As soon as we pulled up to park, I heard a sharp rap on the window and my head snapped up. Large brown eyes, the same size as mine or Mo's but seeming larger because of the sunken cheeks beneath them, appeared framed in our windows. A mil¬lion miles between a centimeter of polished glass. The children put their hands out for money and then motioned to their mouths. The universal sign of hunger.
"Hello, hello," my mother greeted them good-naturedly, as she and Mohammad helped my seven-year-old self out of the back seat of the car. "How many of you are there?"
"Well, us two and our cousins," a child said sheepishly.
"Go round them up," my mother told them, and off they ran, disappearing into the jigsaw of parked cars and crowds and child- size crevices between overflowing shops. Sometimes they whis¬tled to get each other's attention from afar, and suddenly there were eight, twelve, fourteen little and not-so-little people around us, shabbily dressed, hair uncombed, faces unwashed and thin.
My mother looked around her for the closest dhaba, a simple little local eatery serving big vats of food, where cabbies and market purveyors all buy cheap, good meals.
"We've got fourteen kids," my mother told the proprietor. "What are you going to give them and what is it going to cost?"
The proprietor made up big plates of daal, curries, and fresh naan for the kids, one plate for each, and named a price for my mom, usually around thirty or fifty rupees, which included Cokes for everyone. She paid and waited for all the children to be served their food, while my brother and I watched the kids our age laughing, poking each other in the ribs, playful and re¬laxed for a moment now that they knew their next meal was coming soon and that it was to be a fresh one and not foraged from a trash heap. I watched as this band of beggars' mouths watered, and instead of getting hungry myself, I felt my small throat go dry.
Certainly, I was not immune to the seductive scents of Paki¬stani comfort food being readied for consumption. My mouth watered as I smelled fluffy biryani warming on the stovetop or shami kebabs for dinner at home, but seeing these hollow-cheeked kids so giddy and ravenous, I realized I'd never truly known hunger. Though I knew that money was hard earned, not only could my mother always feed us, but she had enough to feed this small army of street kids. Fifty rupees is all it took, and every Sunday we were fifty rupees lighter and those little boys and girls had full bellies for once.
Not knowing how or when, I made a promise to myself that I would feed people.
Excerpted from "Savor" copyright © 2022 by Fatima Ali with Tarajia Morrell. Used by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.