Born and brought up in a South-Indian family in Pennsylvania, USA, Sarah Thomas grew up eating traditional South Indian food at home all the time. As a child, when Sarah would take her lunchbox to school, she was often made fun of by her peers for the food she brought. Reading was her escape and, now, with her book, Kalamata’s Kitchen, she hopes to create a confident character that other children of colour can see themselves in, while also encouraging all kids to look at different food and cultures with a sense of curiosity and compassion.
When Sarah’s friend Derek Wallace gave her the idea to create a character who could be an inspiration to kids to explore the world through adventures with food, she hopped on board instantly. The duo launched Kalamata’s Kitchen in 2016. Five years later, the brand has now evolved to include engaging online content including custom games, food videos, essays from notable chefs, and kid-friendly city guides, all of which encourage them to try new dishes.
The book has not only managed to grab the attention of celebrity parent Padma Lakshmi but also fostered collaborations with renowned chefs like Edward Lee, Einat Admony, Kristin Kish, Edouardo Jordan and Eric Ripert. In conversation with Sarah, she tells us all about the book’s inception, what she’s currently doing with the platform and how it has helped kids from different backgrounds.
Kalamata’s Kitchen And The Purpose It Serves
Created for kids aged between 4-6, the book features two animated characters, Kalamata and her stuffed alligator pal, Al Dante, who inspire kids to take their own food adventures. “It’s about teaching kids to try. If you believe that trying something new is an adventure and that adventure is fun— the unfamiliar becomes a lot less scary. We believe that kids who grow up knowing that ‘different is delicious’ will be more curious, courageous, and compassionate in their lives in so many different ways,” shares Sarah.
Leaning on her own experiences for the idea of the book, she shares, “If a character like Kalamata had existed when I was a child, I know that she could have helped me see myself, my food, and my culture as something to be celebrated in my rural town instead of getting suppressed. She would have helped the kids around me see this non-traditional, dark-skinned and big-haired little girl as a friend and hero. Perhaps they would have been more inclined to ask about my food at lunchtime instead of making fun of it. I believe that Kalamata can make kids more curious about food, instead of scared of it.”
Opening Minds, Hearts And Taste Buds!
Prior to going digital, Kalamata’s Kitchen held on-ground engaging activities (pre-pandemic, of course), in which Sarah witnessed how children truly opened up to various dishes. “We got to watch kids try foods that their parents swear they’ll never touch. We hold our Food Adventures at food halls, markets, or venues where we’re able to get vendors to bring in different types of food. Each kid gets a VIP badge and a passport with the foods to try on it, and then off they go on a tasting adventure. If they try each bite, they get a stamp. If they complete the passport, they get a prize. Driven by that immediate gratification, kids have tried Vietnamese, Indian, Korean, Somali, Mexican, Persian foods. Every time a kid tries a new food and realizes it isn’t scary to do so (and that it’s probably absolutely delicious), it becomes more likely that they’ll do it again,” she shares.
It All Makes Sense
One of the many aspects Sarah stresses is for kids to eat with all five senses. Elaborating on how it helps, she explains, “One of the easiest and most fun ways to be present is to really pay attention to what we are eating, in every way. Asking kids to describe the smell, whether it reminds them of anything, if they can pick out different textures, or what it sounds like when they crunch it up can prompt a whole host of more engaging conversations, and in my experience, heighten the enjoyment of the food in front of you. My ability to recall flavours and scents certainly came in handy professionally. But more generally, I think it has made my life richer, and more beautiful. I’m grateful that I was so in tune with my senses as a child because I really cherish the memories made around food and my mom in particular. The more you pay attention to anything you consume, the more you question, the more you discover, and remember.”
Kalamata’s Kitchen is all set to release a new book, which will show how Kal and Al can transport themselves anywhere in the world when they harness the power of their senses through food, but it doesn’t just stop there. There’s a lot more in store. “We are in the development of an animated show featuring the adventures of Kal and Al and many of their friends (or Taste Buds, as well like to call them) and we’re also interested in creating a live-action series. We’ll be rolling out a number of exciting new products to accompany the book, and of course, we’re all eager to get back to our tasting events,” exclaims Sarah.