Culinary Therapy: Queer Folks And Their Relationship With Food

Cooking can be an incredibly therapeutic experience. While a lot of us shy away from experimenting with cooking, others find a unique solace in the kitchen. The ability to create something from scratch is a rewarding experience and cooking offers everyone a way to be more patient and mindful. The kitchen transforms into a sanctuary for those who are passionate about cooking, allowing them to feel accomplished and fulfilled. A report by the Wall Street Journal highlights how psychologists believe that cooking and baking fit into a type of therapy called “behavioral activation”. In this form of therapy, “activities alleviate depression by increasing goal oriented behavior and curbing procrastination.”

Irrespective of how skilled you are in the kitchen, culinary therapy can benefit your mental health by promoting mindfulness, offering you an outlet for creative expression and a way to raise your self-esteem. Cooking also helps you build a sense of community and connect with your loved ones through the dishes that you make. We got in touch with queer folks who have an intimate relationship with cooking to understand how the process has changed their lives and boosted their mental health. While some of them are accomplished food bloggers, others have begun small home businesses so that they can bring joy to more people through their cooking and baking. Read on to find out the many ways cooking can rescue you when you least expect it to!

Sauparnika Sajjan

26-year-old Sauparnika is a home baker extraordinaire. From delectable tarts to sumptuous cupcakes, artistic cakes and fresh bread, Sauparnika does it all. What started as baking for close friends and family for Sauparnika, soon evolved into a deeper passion for baking. She is now an accomplished home baker, successfully delivering delicious goodies across the country. Instagram has helped her find a platform to showcase her talent and has allowed her business to bloom, something she is incredibly grateful for.

What initially drew you to baking?

My mom was a great cook and I used to enjoy trying out new dishes along with her. She passed away when I was a teen and then I got into sports and forgot about cooking completely. In college, I hurt myself and had to be on bedrest for years and that’s when I found my way back to the kitchen and reignited my love for cooking and baking.

How has baking helped with your mental health?

I definitely see it as a way of destressing. I started baking when I was deep in the realms of depression and it gave me a sense of purpose and happiness. It became my glimmer of hope as I struggled with being bedridden and seeing my dreams crash in front of my eyes.

What is your relationship with food and how does baking help you navigate the world in more meaningful ways?

My relationship with food has unfortunately been a rocky one due to body issues. It’s funny that I’m a baker with an eating disorder, but feeding others brings me great joy and helps in feeling connected with my folks and other people who share a love for food. I’ve been able to deepen my bonds with my friends and family as cooking is my way of showing love, and sitting down to eat together and sharing love and lessons has been a great way of forging connections.

Who are your greatest influences?

I don’t think I can name someone in particular as an inspiration but browsing through the plethora of talent on instagram sure gets me driven. Also as I like to travel a lot, going to different places and finding new ingredients and ways of cooking sure helps my creative juices.

Dimple Gulrajani

Most of us are eternally grateful for the life skills we picked up in college. While some of us understandably spent our days getting by on a steady diet of anything we could find, others, like Dimple, discovered their love for cooking. Living in Munich on a student budget encouraged Dimple to experiment in the kitchen. She’s now an accomplished amateur cook who dabbles in a range of new dishes whenever she gets the chance.

What initially drew you to cooking?

Honestly just feeding myself on a student budget. I had to start cooking for myself in my second year of university, and luckily had flatmates and neighbours from different parts of the world who loved to cook together and share recipes. My mum had also equipped me with the very basics of Indian cooking and my very own masala dabba.

What’s your journey been like so far?

I cooked a lot during university, then didn’t get much of a chance after I moved back home. Not complaining about my mum cooking for me though, especially now that I have to feed myself again while also maintaining a full time job and adapting to a new country again. Right now, I’m enjoying experimenting with the staples from the grocery store and also some foods from local markets in different areas of my new city.

How has cooking helped with your mental health?

When I have time and space to cook, I can spend hours doing meal prep for the week with some music in the background. I also love cooking with other people – something I hope to do more after getting vaccinated. It’s de-stressing but it’s also instantly rewarding because you get to eat something amazing if you’ve actually put some thought and effort into what you’re doing. Some days, I need recipes and some days I like to be creative.

What is your relationship with food? Does cooking help you navigate the world around in more meaningful ways?

Cooking has definitely made me think more about local produce in the different places I’ve lived. It was also kind of what made me become vegetarian, I couldn’t even look at the raw meat section in the supermarkets in the UK because the sheer amount was so overwhelming. So, cooking it for myself was out, and then I just started ordering it less frequently from restaurants as well and my taste developed around that choice, I think. One of the things I love about moving to a different place is finding all the good restaurants, so right now I’m enjoying that!

Who is your greatest influence?

My mum is #1 in most categories, including this one.

Brad VanDyke

Brad’s journey with cooking began 7 years ago with a 30-day dietary experiment. Excited to take on a new challenge, Brad began his own Instagram page – ‘A Pinch Of Pride’ – which has transformed into both a creative outlet and platform to represent the LGBTQ+ community. Based in Portland, Oregon, Brad has spent the last seven years mastering the art of cooking and is now successfully running his own food blog and continues to conquer new frontiers in the culinary space.

What initially drew you to cooking/baking?

Several years ago, my partner Jon asked me if I’d be willing to complete a round of Whole30, which is a 30-day dietary experiment that focuses on your relationship with food. I was quite hesitant, but am always up for a challenge so, [I] decided we would try it. To hold myself accountable, I created an Instagram page, known today as A Pinch of Pride.

I wanted to build a space that both served as a creative outlet and to represent the LGBTQ+ community within this Whole30/Paleo niche of the foodie world. Visibility is so important and I wanted this platform to promote education, collaboration and serve as a safe environment for those within the community and their allies. Cooking and learning about new techniques and ingredients popular within other cultures quickly became a passion of mine.

What’s your journey been like so far?

Incredible. Years ago, if you had told me that I’d be creating content for prominent brands, have recipes published in a New York Times Best Selling cookbook and have thousands following along on this wild ride, I would have never believed you. The opportunities that have presented themselves have been so rewarding and fun. All this to say, it has been a lot of work but I look forward to what’s to come. The future is bright!

How has cooking helped with your mental health?

Cooking has definitely eased my mental health, especially this past year. Spending so much time at home, in a studio apartment mind you, has been challenging but cooking has given me a creative outlet to help pass time. One of my accomplishments during quarantine was the launch of my food blog,! I spent hours upon hours researching, taking online courses and talking to other food bloggers.

What is your relationship with food? Does cooking help you navigate the world around in more meaningful ways?

I’ve definitely learned a lot about food over the years. I try challenging myself to diversify who I follow online and learn about unfamiliar ingredients or cooking techniques. One thing that I continue to educate myself on is equity within the food industry and how access to food is systematically more difficult to certain groups of people. I consciously try to think about accessibility and affordability when developing recipes and incorporating the use of certain ingredients. 

What are your greatest influences?

I think my greatest influence is my passion for the LGBTQ+ community. Food is something that we all enjoy and I find it a great common denominator in promoting healthy conversation and education around equity and inclusion. Performative allyship, for example, is common among any industry. Companies and brands that slap a rainbow on their product during the month of June, only to tally their gains and move on in July. Being a voice to help challenge the status quo while working or educating these brands has been very rewarding. I think that’s what influences me the most to keep going.

How has social media helped further your ambitions as a chef?

Without it, I would not be where I am today. Social media has given me a ton of exposure and in turn, presented me with so many fun opportunities. (I don’t think I’d be participating in this interview today if it wasn’t for social media.) Furthermore, I’ve been able to connect with so many creative and unique individuals from around the globe – some of whom I talk to on a daily basis. I absolutely love being part of this incredibly passionate and kind community.

Beena Noronha

After working for 15 years in the fashion industry, Beena realised that her true passion had always been cooking. Deciding to make her passion into a full-time profession, Beena quit her job, did a culinary course diploma and is now the proud founder of ‘Makha Pao’ – a restaurant that delivers home style, authentic Mangalorean and Goan food across Bombay. Beena’s unconventional journey into the culinary space is an inspiration to everyone looking for that one sign to pursue the things they truly want to do.

What initially drew you to cooking?

Ever since I was seven, I’ve really enjoyed cooking and eventually [wanted to] become a great cook. But growing up as a girl, I was never encouraged to become a chef. It was assumed that a girl would only cook well for her family. I eventually took up fashion design and pursued it for 15 years. My friends always told me that I was in the wrong profession. I was always aware of the joy I got cooking for other people and I finally realised that this is what I want to do all the time. I quit my job, did a culinary course and worked at a Michelin star restaurant in France for a while and eventually set up my own brand, ‘Makha Pao’ in Bombay.

What has your journey been like?

To be honest, it hasn’t been very easy. The hospitality industry is not very well paid and I earn nearly one-third less than what I did when I was working in fashion. But I decided to do this for my own fulfilment, I’m not chasing money. It was difficult shifting from a traditional 9-5 job to longer hours. But if you’re determined, you can do anything.

Also, there are hardly women in the kitchen in the hospitality industry and I’ve faced [my] share of discrimination and [have] been subject to insensitive remarks because I’m a woman and a queer person. But I’ve found a way to navigate it in the best possible way, so it doesn’t get in the way of my aspirations in the culinary space.

How has cooking helped with your mental health?

Cooking is incredibly satisfying to me. Ever since I was a child, the feeling of being able to create something for someone else that brings them so much joy has been very rewarding to me. I want the people who eat the food I make to be able to have a unique experience, that’s what captivates me and brings me the most satisfaction.

How has cooking helped you navigate the world in more meaningful ways?

Food has taught me so much about people all over the world and their unique cultures. That has been extremely enriching.

Who are your greatest influences?

Chef Atul Kocchar, who was one of the first Indian chefs to receive a Michelin star has been one of my biggest inspirations. I have always admired how humble he’s been and the way he treats the food he creates. Chef Amninder Sandhu is another great influence, she fought against her family to become a chef and her journey really inspired me to pursue my dreams against all odds. Ultimately, I believe we are going to be judged by the courage we have to do the things that we want to do.

 How has social media helped further your ambitions as a chef?

I think social media gives you a lot of visibility. These days, because of the variety of great food pictures available online, people eat with their eyes before their mouths. Great pictures of the food you make creates curiosity and encourages people to try out your brand. It’s a great platform to get people interested and build a customer base over time.

This story was about: Community Employment Identities Sexuality

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Raavya is a pop-culture nerd who lives and breathes books and cinema. An unrelenting feminist, she hopes to change regressive mindsets through the written word.

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