Fatima Ali would have been crossing the halfway mark to her 35th birthday this year. She would have accepted the two James Beard Awards that she won in person. She would probably have her own line of name-branded cookware. She would definitely be a social media sensation whose name and face everyone around the world would know. We often think of the places she would have found herself, the accolades she would continue to collect, the new dishes she would have created for us to drool over. There is a beautiful microsecond when all of that is real.
But time’s arrow knows only one direction. January 25, 2019, five years ago today, Chef Fati was 29 years old and had spent her last 16 months in and out of hospitals as she waged war on a particularly punishing bone cancer. She passed in the early hours of the morning surrounded by her loved ones who had no choice but to surrender to the reality before them. Today, and every day we remember her.
When her teachers at Karachi Grammar School looked at her, they saw a high-achieving, intelligent and athletic student. They envisioned an Ivy League education for her, destined to follow a safe, prescribed, and predictable path. Fatima however, had her own vision. It’s easy to imagine your dreams. It’s much harder to believe in them enough to turn them into reality.
In 2007, she enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America and, years later, graduated as valedictorian. Fatima was just getting started. She jettisoned into some of the most competitive kitchens in New York City where her legend still lives on. These jobs were not glamorous, not comforting and certainly not for the faint of heart (watch The Bear to get a glimpse). Fatima also had the added disadvantage of being a Pakistani Muslim woman.
She could have guarded her spot, relishing her unique status. But Fatima was never interested in scarcity. She only wanted to add more places to the table that she had earned herself a seat at. Many women now occupying the same spaces will fondly recall how she helped them secure their first jobs in the industry, or inspired them to drown out the noise and pursue their passion. They’ll credit her for showing them that it could be done and done well. They mourn, like us, the loss of everything she could have done for Pakistani food on the global stage, and strong, beautiful, ferociously skilled young chefs had she more time.
It wasn’t long before Fatima’s undeniable star quality took her, at the tender age of 23, to the silver screen. She competed in and won an episode of Chopped on the Food Network — again, the first Pakistani and the youngest contestant to do so at the time. VICE invited her to star in an episode of Munchies. Another competition success with Chef’s Roll sent her to Napa Valley in California to work at the three Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood. Not long after, Fatima received her second call from Bravo’s Top Chef. Would she like to be the first Pakistani woman to participate in the global cooking competition sensation against formidable and established chefs from America? She did, and more people fell in love with her, voting her as Fan Favourite.
If time had stood still then, it would be glorious. If we could rewind to that part and press play to watch an alternative version we could see her voyage continue to become a global icon. But our world does not quite work that way — instead we must push on with what we have, and remain grateful and cognisant of the lessons she taught us along the way.
Even during her ordeal, that would have felled the spirit of many a great person — Fatima was planning trips to experience the best of what this world has to offer us. She was making recipes, soaking in any time she could with those she loved. When she was told her condition was terminal, she responded with the idea of writing a book; something that would outlive her, something people could use to talk to her when she was gone.
She spent her last days putting together the pith for what would become her award-winning memoir Savor: A Chef’s Hunger for More — published in October 2022. It is a necessary read for anyone fighting battles at home with their children, with their parents, with tradition, with illness, with love, with harsh bosses, with harsher lessons. Only Fatima could have distilled the pain of her experience into a helpful means to live an honest, brave and meaningful life.
As we continue to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts, we try to emulate Fatima’s, that was always brimming with love, grace and generosity. She loved putting smiles on faces, and we too try where we can to do the same.
One of her passions that she has passed on to us is feeding young disadvantaged children some of Fatima’s cherished comfort foods through the Chef Fatima Foundation. We try to spread her wisdom and share her story through book talks at Festivals, Museums, and classrooms. We bask in her love, which is ever present and protective. It is the only way we could have lived half a decade without her.