Sarah Thomas Wrote “Kalamata’s Kitchen” to Introduce Kids to Global Foods

In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Sarah Thomas.

If you’re a parent of young children, you might already be familiar with Sarah Thomas’s work. She’s the author behind Kalamata’s Kitchen, a hit picture book best described as Dora the Explorer meets No Reservations. The beloved title — as well as the accompanying digital content, tasting events, recently released sequel, and forthcoming animated series — introduces kids to global food cultures through culinary adventures.

Thomas needed a book like Kalamata’s Kitchen growing up in rural Pennsylvania with South Indian immigrant parents. She rarely saw children’s book characters who resembled her or ate the dishes that appeared on her dinner table. She ended up in academia, but her love of food brought her into the hospitality industry, where she eventually landed as a sommelier at Le Bernardin. That’s when her friend Derek Wallace approached her with the idea that evolved into Kalamata’s Kitchen.

It started as a blog, but with the help of a very successful Kickstarter campaign in 2018 and high-profile supporters like Eric Ripert, the side project turned into a book published by Penguin Random House, and a brand that also creates other resources, content, and products all designed to encourage kids’ curiosity about food. Now, fans include Padma Lakshmi, Chrissy Teigen, and tons of little readers. “Nothing [I’ve done] — from being a sommelier at Le Bernardin to co-founding Kalamata’s Kitchen — was ever part of a plan,” Thomas admits. “I think I was fairly good at recognizing opportunities and taking them from one point to the next.”

Here, Thomas shares her unconventional path to children’s literature, her struggles with imposter syndrome, and her belief that broad culinary horizons engender empathy.

What was your first job? What did it involve?

My first job was as a ski instructor. There really wasn’t much else to do in my hometown during the winter other than hang out on the (very small) slopes. I mainly taught kids, and of course you teach them in ways that are relatable: They shape their skis like pizza and french fries. I was always very fond of the very over-dressed little kids who looked like starfish in their snowsuits. After that, I was a teaching assistant in college. I always loved teaching in some form or another.

Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?

I got my undergraduate degree in English language and literature at Mary Baldwin College, then I did a master’s degree at the University of Cambridge. In hindsight, I might have taken more business classes. But if someone told me that I would be operating a business right now, I’m not sure I would have believed them.

Professionally, I did study within the Court of Master Sommeliers to the advanced level. Young sommeliers do not need to have any affiliation with the Court of Master Sommeliers in order to succeed in the industry today, though that isn’t how it felt when I started. I’ve been incredibly encouraged by how many more community-based opportunities exist, and how much more inclusive and representative these smaller educational bodies can be.

How did you get into the restaurant industry?

After so many years of academia, I just wanted to do something different. Bartending seemed like fun, so I decided to do that. How naive. Obviously nobody would hire me as a bartender with absolutely zero experience (or sense, apparently), but luckily my first boss, Brian Pekarcik of the [now closed] restaurant Spoon in Pittsburgh, was at least amused by my enthusiasm and offered to train me as a bartender if I’d start out as a host. From that point, I became fully enamored with restaurant life, particularly the adrenaline of service. I still had this mindset that if I wasn’t studying something I wasn’t moving forward, so I picked wine and dove in.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?

I struggled with imposter syndrome in varying degrees throughout my life, and certainly in the world of New York City fine dining. In hindsight, I think I was actually always fairly confident, and much of what I felt as imposter syndrome was internalized implicit and explicit bias against people like me existing in that space. There was a point where I was working at Le Bernardin and building Kalamata’s Kitchen and I was so physically exhausted I had no room to spiral over such things anymore, and it felt sort of like a mental unlock. As cheesy as it might sound, I realized that if I were to convincingly create a character who would inspire other kids to see the value in themselves, I had to see it in myself, too. Things started to become clearer after that.

Did you have any setbacks?

When we started, I thought I had no experience, so I listened to anyone who would offer advice. I sometimes wish I had filtered that a bit more, or at least not taken the extremely negative things so strongly to heart. A very early example was people questioning whether Kalamata should be Indian American like me, or “ethnically ambiguous” to “relate to more people.” It felt like the kind of identity erasure I had lived with — and swallowed — my whole life.

When you’re first starting out with the seeds of a creative idea, it’s easy to let prevailing attitudes, ideology, and negativity poke holes in it. Derek and I would ask each other, “We think this is a good idea, right?” Criticism is helpful. It’s required to grow. But you have to be strong enough to make something productive out of it. We have since turned that question into a statement: “We think this is a good idea.” We still say it to each other all the time.

When was the first time you felt successful?

The first time I read Kalamata’s Kitchen to a classroom, there was a little Indian American girl in the group. She was incredibly excited to see the cover. She pointed to Kalamata, and said to me, “Wow, she really looks like you!” I pointed right back to her and said, “You know what, I think she really looks like you!” and this little girl was so proud. She kept excitedly asking her friends if they had heard that Kalamata looked just like her.

I held it together while I was in the classroom, but almost immediately upon leaving the school, I burst into tears. I knew I had needed this character when I was a kid, and early on, I wondered if I was doing this for myself, or if little brown girls today still needed her. The answer, of course, was yes to both. The look on her face gave me so much energy to really push forward with our mission, and so much confidence to know that it was one that was very much still needed in the world.

What was the turning point that led to where you are now?

I gave chef Ripert one of the first copies of each of our self-published books. As I handed him the second one, in late 2018, he asked when he could be in one. Our third self-published book featuring chef Ripert came out in May 2019. Within three months, we were taking meetings with the biggest publishing houses in the world to develop a new book series, and with some of the most well-regarded production companies on the West Coast to develop Kalamata’s adventures into an animated series. We had our first national television appearance, and solidified partnerships with Penguin Random House and Imagine Entertainment.

Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?

I met Aldo Sohm of Le Bernardin and Dustin Wilson (who was at Eleven Madison Park at the time) on the same fateful trip to New York. They were both instrumental in my decision to move to the city in the first place, and they have both continued to provide support, business advice, encouragement, and friendship as I decided to transition my work as a sommelier into my work with Kalamata’s Kitchen. I appreciate learning from the experiences of people who have set out on their own, as well. Some of the incredible people I’ve spoken to and look to for inspiration are Pooja Bavishi of Malai Ice Cream, Jing Gao of Fly By Jing, and Sana Javeri Kadri of Diaspora Co., to name just a few.

What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?

As co-founder and chief brand ambassador, I’m responsible for the way the brand expands and reaches people. As the author of our book series, I work with our incredible illustrator, Jo Kosmides Edwards, to reach kids everywhere. And the best part of all of it is truly the interaction with kids and families: reading to kids, watching them try new foods at our tasting events, hearing about how Kalamata inspired a kid to try a guava or to share her food with someone at school. These experiences are so deeply nourishing in a way that makes lots of the general uncertainty of business ownership less intimidating. When kids are happy, we’re succeeding.

How did the pandemic affect your career?

I left Le Bernardin to work on Kalamata’s Kitchen full-time in February 2020. When everything shut down, what we had always believed about our mission was thrown into sharp relief on a truly global scale. Families at home needed ways to engage their children in meaningful activities. We focused more on our digital activities and extensions, making them free and accessible to anyone who needed them.

At our core, we’ve always believed that exposing kids to foods from cultures different from their own at an early age would lead to increased curiosity about the lives of others, and that that curiosity would lead to deeper empathy, and ultimately respect. The pandemic and the global reckoning of long-simmering racial inequity and injustice only served to remind everyone that, in order to create any sort of meaningful change in the world, we have to put in effort to understand the lives of others. Our mission was very clearly recognized as a need in the lives of parents looking for ways to speak to their children about culture, diversity, and respect.

How are you making change in your industry?

Chefs share their personal food memories with our audience, giving us insight into their unique experiences with food. Kids certainly don’t care about Michelin stars or James Beard awards, but they are deeply affected by compelling stories. There are so many voices that have been excluded from conversations in the food space, and I’m eager to share as many as we can. The more we hear from each other, the more we’ll see our commonalities and understand and appreciate our differences. The earlier we introduce all of this to kids, the more likely they’ll be to grow up as empathetic human beings.

What advice would you give someone who wants your job?

So many of the most important opportunities I’ve been given are because I asked for them. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the people you admire for advice. You never know what kind of doors those conversations will open. I also encourage people to reach out and speak to people in other industries to learn from their experiences. Your dream job might not exist yet. Mine didn’t before we started this business. Be open to being inspired by the missions of people doing any kind of work you admire.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.