Author-sommelier Sarah Thomas pricks kids' taste buds with little gal Kalamata

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Cooking could be the best life skill any parent can impart to children. Bake, roast, steam, fry, blend... are words that any kid would hear often but making them understand what all efforts go into making their tummies happy is also important. Here comes the role of food-books which can focus on developing a natural interest in kids to love and understand food. Such books have been widely popular abroad. And that is what is missing in India.

Indian-American Sarah Thomas, a sommelier at Le Bernardin in New York, is the co-founder and also the author of 'Kalamata's Kitchen', a book that nudges children to try new food. It tells about Kalamata, a little girl who loves food. She smells fresh veggies in the kitchen, watches her mama chopping them, and daydreams about food. Renowned chefs in New York often visit her, give her new ideas and help her in the kitchen by cooking new food. And that's 'Kalamata's Kitchen'. The book brand's mission is to create a more compassionate and curious generation of eaters. They inspire little 'Taste Buds' around the world to try new flavours and connect with each other over something delicious.

Author-sommelier Sarah Thomas pricks kid's taste buds with little gal Kalamata
Sarah Thomas, the author of Kalamata's Kitchen

Sarah has finished her third book in the series and hopes to feature more cuisines and chefs across the world.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with her.

How was the idea of 'Kalamata's Kitchen' born?

The idea of 'Kalamata's Kitchen' came to my business partner Derek Wallace. He wanted a way to connect his young son to the things that he really loves. He thought if there was a character that existed that teaches kids about everything else, why isn't there a character that teach kids about food. That's how we came up with the idea of Kalamata. After airing the idea of the brand, he asked if I could create this character and write stories. I loved the idea and it really resonated with me and that's how she, Kalamata, was born. We want every kid to see themselves in Kalamata and see that it's possible to see yourself in different kitchens in different places all over the world through food.

Author-sommelier Sarah Thomas pricks kid's taste buds with little gal Kalamata
The character Kalamata in the book Kalamata's Kitchen

You have written the third book in the series now. How would you tell parents to introduce these book to their kids?

Well, they're available currently through Amazon in India. A little easier to get in the States as one can get them on our website. But honestly when kids see Kalamata and especially her stuffed alligator pal Al dente, kids just sort of are drawn to her. The characters are there for kids to love them and the lessons come organically through the stories. There's nothing didactic about the stories.

As adults I think we forget how different, foreign and strange everything can be when you are a child. We grow out of that at some point and lose wonder. We don't know how the children see this world. This is an attempt to get back to the way the children actually digest information which is through stories and characters. Why trick a kid into eating a vegetable if you can just get them excited about it through something they already love. Introducing food through a character this way is just another tool and a parent's arsenal.

Author-sommelier Sarah Thomas pricks kid's taste buds with little gal Kalamata
Sarah Thomas with chef Eric Ripert

What kind of cuisines do you touch upon in this series?

We will try and touch upon every cuisine that we can. Each story is about a memory from a chef's childhood. So far we've had three different chefs, all extremely talented, accomplished people with really rich food backgrounds themselves. They all remember cooking, eating, smelling and tasting things as children. Kalamata goes on these adventures with each chef based on a childhood memory. In the first book our chef makes a cake based on a recipe from her Venezuelan grandmother and in the second a traditional American food and in the third a French cuisine by Eric Ripert.

Basically the story arc is that Kalamata is in her kitchen. She's looking for something to do. Sometimes she's a little irritated. Sometimes she's just dreaming of doing something exciting and one of her friends comes. We call them the professional 'Taste Buds'. They come up with an idea to go on an adventure. Kalamata believes that her kitchen table is magical and whenever she gets an urge to travel or she wants to eat something, she gets everybody to get into the kitchen table. In her imagination they go off on these adventures together.

Tell us about the Taste Buds events

Author-sommelier Sarah Thomas pricks kid's taste buds with little gal Kalamata
Kalamata's Kitchen Taste Buds event

Taste Buds are really fun tasting events. We make passports and VIP badges for kids and when they show up, whether it's in a market or a restaurant or wherever we're holding the event, we let them know that they are at the centre of it. They go on a tasting adventure. They stop at different stations and when they try a new dish twice we give a stamp on the passport. Through these events we tell them that trying is an adventure and adventures are fun.

Our goal is to get people to see that it's not just a book it's much bigger than that. It's a brand for families to interact with food together. We also have a Taste Bud travel guide. We have curated a list of restaurants that will make any kid's experience special.

Author-sommelier Sarah Thomas pricks kid's taste buds with little gal Kalamata

You did Masters in English Renaissance literature and then did Post-Bacc for Medicine. How did you end up in the restaurant industry?

I have been studying for so many years. I needed a little break and all of my jobs previously had been involved with teaching and related fields. I wanted to do something different. I've always loved food. And I thought I'd be a great bartender. There was no more thought to it than that and I started working in a really nice restaurant in Pittsburgh. I just really enjoyed being in that scenario. I enjoyed being the one to curate experiences in the restaurant. It was on me to not only make drinks for people but to serve them, to talk about the food, and to pair wines with it. I've just enjoyed making that experience for people.

Not often does one find a female sommelier. What challenges did you face?

Author-sommelier Sarah Thomas pricks kid's taste buds with little gal Kalamata
Sarah Thomas is also a sommelier in New York

Women in any industry may have to overcome a certain amount of barrier to get where they need to go. But I've also found that a lot of my mentors and guides, who have been really incredible women in the industry, exudes warmth, a different kind of hospitality. I have tried to make such women and men my icons and try to emulate what they do and how they take care of people. At the end of the day, if someone doesn't like me or doesn't want me to serve them because I'm a woman that says more about them than me.

Sarah's Kerala connection

My parents are from Kerala. Both are really great cooks. Many of my earliest memories are related to food because, I think, our food smells awesome. Our house always smelled really good. From several houses down the street, people could make out mom cooking. I really have strong memories of the roasting, grinding and frying of spices. They all smell different at different stages of cooking and Kerala cuisine is so layered.

Beef fry is my comfort food and I love mom's egg curry, appam and stew and others. But when I am in Kerala, I love to eat food from the toddy shop (kallu shaap), especially karimeen and chemmeen. You don't find that depth of flavour in other cuisines!

Author-sommelier Sarah Thomas pricks kid's taste buds with little gal Kalamata
Sarah Thomas reading her book for kids

Your favourite wine for the India palette?

It's really hard. White wine and sparkling wines are good way to go. I personally love champagne. It goes with everything. It is usually the white wines that go well with our Indian food but I would settle for champagne.

Your plans? Can we expect a new book in this series or an altogether new series?

Definitely more books. If I could just write 'Kalamata' everyday for the rest of my life, I would. But we want to see it in animation form and there are other possibilities too. Meantime, I have to keep putting out stories and also focus on what is behind the scenes of this industry like fishermen, urban gardeners and the like. Those stories are so powerful and important and they often go unnoticed.

Kalamata and her journey is intensely personal to me.

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