In conversation with Zuri Camille De Souza, a true polymath with a unique lens on the culinary world, her passion for herbalism and ethnobotany, rooted deeply in her cooking techniques, her authentic and communal perspective on food systems, and her journey in giving birth to a project close to her heart, "Sanna Marseille"
1.We under stand that you have a unique approach to food and cooking. Tell us more about your passions-herbalism and ethnobotany.
Zuri: I started working with plants in the US, whilst I was on scholarship studying bachelors in Human Ecology. Leaving India for the first time at 18, the big city to a tiny island off the coast of Maine, was quite a shock, so many changes at once. I think plants were a way to familiarize myself and build a personal relationship to the new place I found myself in. I think herbalism also came from a desire to heal myself. I was a bit too wild when I was in my twenties and realized that I was pushing my body a lot with too many toxic habits. Throw in a realization that so much of what we consume is just nasty for us, and that’s where I wanted to take more control of my well-being. Also, I just find it fascinating that plants harbour such deep medicinal qualities within them.
2. You have a diverse list of countries and communities that you have worked in and with, how has this exposure to different cultures changed your perspective of food systems?
Zuri: It’s just made me even more confused! Really, first leaving college was one big realization with how complex the world actually is, especially when it comes to access to nutrition and sustainable food systems. Then , working in Palestine was both humbling, eye-opening and a big push to bring political ecology into my practice as a chef. And then coming back to India brought those realizations and learning closer to home. I now live in marseille and things are just as complex as ever but I’ve learnt that I want to change things through cooking, getting people to taste good products, bringing a narrative of sustainability into each and every act of cooking. Traveling has also made me realize the importance of diversity in food and the value we need to give to heritage culinary traditions.
3. How have your Indian roots contributed to your unique style of cooking? Share with us one anecdote or traditional technique that you hold dear.
Zuri: I think it’s more my Goan and Maharashtrian roots that make my food what it is. Growing up in two communities built around seafood, what I love the most is seeing how recipes change the further south we go along the konkan coast—how a simple fish curry changes in colour, texture and aroma. I’m deeply influenced by the complex and fresh flavors that I grew up with; the clear thread of chilly that underlines each recipe, the diverse grains used but also the very nuanced balance of acidity and sweetness that I find so satisfying!
4. What makes a dish brilliant? What according to you is the most important element to successful culinary practices. (Tips/tricks, flavour, cultural connotations, emotion-evoking components, etc.)
Zuri: Definitely balance, and sensitivity, but also love and caring—for oneself, for the products used, as well as the person you are about to feed. I’m not sure I have enough experience to speak about success, but I feel like people are happiest when I myself feel good about what I just cooked; a successful meal for me is when a person remembers what they are the next time we meet, and talks to me about it.
5. You lead a conscious life and are a firm believer of sustainable systems (both in your professional and personal life). Do you think the two industries of food and fashion stand in similar positions in the long road to complete sustainability? How can we do better?
Zuri: I think both fashion and food are very complicated when it comes to sustainability. Shouldn’t they be at the forefront of the ecological revolution? I think it’s time we had more transparency, more support for artisans and contemporary craft, more slowness, more sensitivity and a lot more humanity. Fashion and food are about pleasure and creation and inspiration and but also about competition and violence and image and ego. We need to work towards a future in which our consumption in food and fashion—because they are also deeply tied to consumerism—allows every bit of money spent to feed into a system working for positive change, to pay people well, to allocate money towards a radical shift in government policies towards climate change, to support better business practices. This sounds so dreamy, I know, but it helps me to keep going.
6. We want to understand your personal style and what fashion means to you. How do you translate your ideologies into your sartorial choices/practices?
Zuri: I wear almost exclusively vintage and second-hand or support labels whose practices I feel happy to support. I was also gifted a sewing machine and try to mend and alter a lot of my clothes. I believe very deeply in investing into quality and craftsmanship and love well-tailored pieces (my grandmothers stitched and crocheted so many of my clothes when I was young so I’m definitely fussy). I like pieces that are cleverly constructed and make you think.
7. Tell us a little bit more about passion project 'Sanna Marseille'.
Zuri: Sanna Marseille is the project I started after the second lockdown in Marseille, when the restaurant where I was chef de partie shut down and never reopened. I found myself without a safety net and realized the time was right to begin something on my own. I wanted to share where I came from with people here, to show them something beyond their ideas of India which are often limited to Rajasthan, Delhi and Kerala. Great, but there’s so much more, right? I’ve always felt this slight judgement when it come to “Indian food”, how it’s spicy and full of curry and heavy and just not sexy and I wanted to change that; to move beyond the readymade masalas and the Bollywood branding and Ayurveda lifestyle that had absolutely nothing to do with my lived experience. I began just making a lunchbox and posting the menu on Instagram, people ordered until 11am, I’d cook and then hop on my bike to deliver all over the city. It got quite popular and DEEP, a coffee shop invited me to use their space for a pop-up. That was followed by a series of condiments in collaboration with them, and then a lot of projects with galleries for vernissages, à wedding for a 150 people and a floating restaurant on a sailboat!
8. You’re a polymath-woman of diverse talents and professional practices. What’s the next possible turn in your career? Are there plans of adding another feather to your illustrious hat?
Zuri: I'm definitely enjoying where I am right now as chef. I think I have found the best way to bring together my love for plants, food, aesthetic and sustainability into one project!
9. Your style advice/favourite trends of the moment.
Zuri: That's a hard one for me. I definitely love coconut oil.