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Bon Appetit with Multicultural Culinary Artist Nira Kehar

As the afternoon sunlight streams into the kitchen through the window, chef Nira softly asks “Are you hungry?” Montreal-born culinary artist Nira Kehar has a unique background from opening her namesake restaurant in India Chez Nini to publishing books that spread her love for food and art. With her sincere devotion and endless curiosity for the process of cooking and art-making, Nira continues to produce works that reflect the values and cultures that she has been exposed to. Milk asked her about her journey, her new book, and what food spots she recommends across the globe.

So tell us a little bit about yourself!

I was born and raised in Montreal where I studied engineering in university. I had a debilitating injury and was laid in bed for almost a year, so my career in science no longer felt like the right way forward. 

Cooking school  was the first thing that came to mind because I was so fascinated to find ways in which I could expand my creativity and food was my perfect medium. So I went to a culinary school to really delve into the art of cooking. When I graduated, my mentor chef advised me to go to India for a three-month internship, but I ended up staying there for nine years being involved in numerous projects including opening my own restaurant! Now I’m based in Copenhagen, Montreal, and New York. I’ve published two books and I’m currently promoting my recent recipe book Ojas: Modern Recipes and Ancient Wisdom for Everyday Ayurveda

How do you think about food and art intersect? What is food design?  

I think food and art don’t necessarily need to intersect for everyone. Eating is the most natural and primitive experience, that not only provides one of our most important pleasures but in a very true sense, we are what we eat. 

I would not be qualified to really debate on food and art’s intersection more than to say that I think there is a way to be creative with food and the experiences you can create around eating. The true artist, with regards to eating and food, is mother nature. After cooking and feeding for over a decade, I have truly experienced how nature is perfect. As a chef, you can’t truly express yourself through the food you cook before you truly tune in to your ingredients and build the instincts on how to really use them and combine them uniquely. Imagination can only be reflected via your dishes if you’ve done enough practice, going through excitement, failures, and successes. I guess one important intersection is that in both art and food, you just gotta keep getting your hands dirty and be okay with making mistakes. 

How was your experience in India?

Even though I’m a child of immigrant parents from India, I felt disconnected from the culture growing up. But that all changed when I lived in India where I had amazing encounters and experiences despite the hectic nature of the country – it was challenging to adjust to a new language, temperature, people, ingredients, and everything else. I was very stressed at first to not be able to find the ingredients and the “right” materials that I was used to in Montreal, but after a lot of struggle, I surrendered and became more appreciative of what India had to offer and fell in love with her ingredients. 

That was truly when I realized that a good chef is one that can make the best with whatever is around them. I also worked outside my restaurant, like helping a company open up an art gallery, consulting for India art fair or even modeling for Vogue India. What India has taught me has truly impacted the person I am today. 

What is your philosophy on food and cooking?

Throughout my childhood, food has always been a language for love and way of connecting to a faraway culture to which I implicitly belonged to. After over a decade of cooking for others and many avatars as a chef, author and what I would like to now call an “eating designer.” I think I have come full circle in daring to add only hues of my personality to what nature has already created so perfectly. I make great efforts to understand what is local and seasonal around me, as well as how I can use herbs, spices and Ayurvedic knowledge to create unique, simple and whole foods. 

What is your new book about? 

The closest synonym to Ojas is the concept of ‘Chi’ from Chinese medicine. Ojas is the subtlest form of energy that is derived from all inputs made to your senses and is basically responsible for your being alive. That is all things you eat, feel, smell, experience, love, basically everything. 

It really encapsulates the concept of you are what you eat. Ojas is a cookbook with recipes for everyday foods we love to eat, but based in Ayurvedic principles and is divided into 12 chapters, one for each of the zodiac periods, as a more comprehensive representation of nature’s seasonality. The beginning of the book covers several key Ayurvedic topics in a visual text form I like to call “Constellations of Clarity.” These constellations allow for a beginner’s understanding of Ayurveda and the benefits of practicing its principles with our diets.  

What was the most memorable food installation that you produced?

I’ve done multiple food installations where I collaborated with sound designers, artists and musicians, but I think one of the coolest installations I’ve organized was Without Words, where people ate in silence with almost 30 other strangers. We often underestimate the power of the act of eating itself – it’s is an extremely sensual process. 

Actually, a lot of the participants were nervous, timid, and sweating because they felt exposed eating and interacting without the veil of words. But by the end, it sort of created an invisible connection among everyone, and actually, two different pairs of diners hooked up that night! 

Out of all the places you’ve traveled to, which culture or city inspired you the most?

It’s a hard question because each city and culture has given me incredible lessons. As a child of immigrant parents, living in French Canada, I never felt like I was from anywhere. It was a difficult reality at times growing up. When I went to India as an adult and was still always asked where I was from, I realized that it was a sort of freedom to not belong anywhere, because I allowed me to belong everywhere. 

I am a combination of all cultures that I have been exposed to. But India for sure had a tremendous impact on my life, values, and career. From resisting to the limitations that challenged me at first to accepting, appreciating, and embracing Indian culture transformed me into more creative and adaptive individual. 

What are your favorite restaurants in New York, Delhi, Montreal, and Copenhagen?

Prune in NYC, Bremner in Montreal, Mielcke & Hurtigkarl in Copenhagen, and Cafe Lota in Delhi.

Once I finish my book tour, I would love to go back to school to do a program in the arts or design in order to get more involved in food/eating design. I’m also working on another book at the moment continuing with a similar style and story to Ojas: Modern Recipes and Ancient Wisdom for Everyday Ayurveda. It will have simple recipes with ten ingredients or less and suitable for all Ayurvedic body types. I’m more than open to new opportunities and learning never ends, so it doesn’t stop me from going back to school regardless of where I am at in my life stage!

What is your future project?

As the afternoon sunlight streams into the kitchen through the window, chef Nira softly asked, “Are you hungry?” Montreal born culinary artist Nira Kehar has a unique background in how she has come to be today, from opening her namesake restaurant in India called ‘Chez Nini’ to publishing books to spread her love for food and art. With her sincere devotion and endless curiosity for the process of cooking and art-making, Nira continues to produce works that reflect values and cultures that she has been exposed to as an individual. Milk asked her about her journey, new book, personal favorites for good eats and more. 

Images Courtesy of Elizabeth Heltoft Arnby.

Stay tuned to Milk for more artists we love. 

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