Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Culinary Arts
Tejal Rao, the New York Times’ California food critic, comes from a rich immigrant background. Her mother was born in Uganda and grew up in Kenya, while her father was raised in India. Rao was born in London but, due to her father’s job, spent time in Kuwait, Sudan, and rural France before her family settled in Atlanta, Georgia, when she was a teen.
“Living as an immigrant is the only experience I know,” she says. “I can’t imagine living any other way.”
The skills she developed over a lifetime integrating into new cultures—including attending Arabic and French schools—have proven a boon for her career. “I often approach my work as a journalist from the perspective of an outsider, and I’m very comfortable with that unease,” she says. “It means I don’t assume knowledge about my subject or their backgrounds.”
Rao took an unconventional path to journalism. Both of her parents loved to cook and “show you that they care about you by cooking and feeding you,” she says. The Raos did not go out to restaurants often, but food culture was a vital bedrock, whether at big dinners with friends—Rao’s mother’s biriyani was always a highlight—or intimate family meals. From her parents Rao also learned the value of food as a means of connecting with strangers. When the family moved to France, for example, Rao’s mother spoke little French but quickly won over the neighbors by inviting them over for an Indian feast. “That’s how we tricked people into being our friends,” Rao laughs.
Rao was always interested in writing about food, but for a while, she did not consider it a viable career path. After studying literature in college, the writing industry proved so difficult to break into that she instead became a line cook in a small town south of San Francisco.
After several years of working in professional kitchens, Rao could no longer ignore her desire to write. She moved to New York City and began freelancing for The Atlantic, Edible, Gourmet, and other publications. To earn enough to live, she also took on side jobs, including copyediting and translating, and started hosting a supper club a couple times a month, serving 25 guests everything from “pretentious tasting menus” to fried chicken with hot buttered biscuits.
Her big break came in 2012, when the Village Voice hired her as a full-time food restaurant critic. She excelled at the job. “The more I wrote about food, the more I realized it was this kind of deep, endless, vast subject that I could explore through lots of different kinds of stories,” she says. The Voice eventually led to a job as a food critic at Bloomberg, and from there, she went to the New York Times.
Rao often finds herself drawn to stories that may seem inconsequential to some, but that she finds fascinating for the details they reveal about people’s lives and passions. “Everyone has a really interesting story if you spend a little time with them,” she says. There was the profile she did of Kabir Ahmed, for example, a Bangladeshi food cart vendor who makes chicken over rice and vegetarian kati rolls for Wall Street lunch crowds—and who dreams of taking his family on a cruise. Or Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota chef who aims to redefine and reinvigorate Native American cuisine in the Midwest.
Rao believes that food can be used to illuminate people’s stories—including ones of minority and immigrant experiences. “My goal is to make good journalism and write stories that make people see each other just a tiny bit more clearly,” she says. She also strives to capture the multiplicity of such experiences and is careful to steer clear of generalizations and clichés—which not only make for dull reading, but can perpetuate damaging stereotypes.
“I try to be aware of all the systemic inequalities that can make it so difficult for some individuals or communities to tell their own food stories and share their recipes,” she says. “I keep that in mind when I seek out my stories and sources and when I write.”
Though Rao has one of the most coveted food critic jobs in the country, she is generous with her time and always happy to do what she can to help newcomers to journalism—especially those who have not been traditionally represented in the industry. When she receives emails seeking advice or guidance, she shares what she has learned on the job to “make the road a little easier and show others that there’s space for them to do this work, too.”
Seeing them succeed, she says, gives her a sense of optimism about the industry. “I’m really inspired by and proud of all the up-and-coming food writers now who are contributing the Times and other publications, writing the kinds of stories that either haven’t been written before or haven’t been written from their point of view,” she says. “They’re stars—and they’re making food writing more full, interesting, and honest.”
Vilcek Prizes Gala
Browse photos from the Vilcek Foundation Awards Gala, honoring the recipients of the 2019 Vilcek Prizes.
2019 Vilcek Prize in Culinary Arts
Marcus Samuelsson, a native of Ethiopia who grew up in Sweden, is a James Beard Award-winning chef working to increase access and diversity in New York City's culinary world. Marcus received the $100,000 Vilcek Prize in Culinary Arts. Learn more:
2019 Creative Promise Prizes in Culinary Arts
Congratulations to fellow winners of the 2019 Creative Promise Prizes! Read more about Fabián von Hauske Valtierra and Nite Yun:
Nite Yun >
2020 Creative Promise Prizes
Are you or is someone you know eligible for a 2020 Creative Promise Prize in Biomedical Science or Literature? Check eligibility requirements and apply today!