Food is about more than just what we put in our bodies.
That’s the philosophy behind YouTube star Ingrid Nilsen’s new Tastemade + Facebook Watch series Cooking With Pride, premiering on November 8th. In each episode, Nilsen teams up with a different food expert to prepare a special dish. First season guests include everyone from artist and activist Erin O’Brien who teaches Nilsen how to make sausages to nutritionist Ariane Resnick who whips up some delicious brownies. But arguably more important than these recipes or even their yummy final products are the conversations that Nilsen and her guests have throughout the cooking process. No topic is off-limits as these conversations cover LGBTQIA+ experiences, cannabis, and social activism—all grounded in the recipe of the day. While the show is certainly a new adventure for Nilsen, it’s by no means outside her wheelhouse. The 30-year-old YouTuber regularly updates her channel, boasting 3.7 million subscribers, with recommendations for seasonal recipes and anecdotes about her experience as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. BUST caught up with Nilsen to chat about her favorite foods, getting creative in the kitchen, and how to stay healthy while living a hectic life.
What was your relationship with food like while you were growing up?
I grew up in a household with my mom and my grandma. Both of them are from Thailand so I grew up around a lot of different kinds of food. I grew up with my Grandma cooking a lot and with food being a very communal experience, whether that was going to temple and having a potluck there or visiting my mom’s friend and having a group dinner where everyone would contribute a dish or two. I was always surrounded by different kinds of food, even in the Thai culture there is different kinds of food from various regions. My mom has always been very curious about food, and I think that rubbed off on me. When I was young I was a picky eater, but around when I turned 12 or 13 I started becoming more curious about food especially because I saw my mom eating so many different kinds of food—the curiosity just naturally blossomed. Now as an adult I am so curious about any and all food that I come into contact with. I love knowing people’s stories around food because it did play a huge role in my upbringing.
In essence Cooking with Pride a cooking show, but it uses food as a jumping-off point for larger cultural conversations about LGBTQIA+ experiences as well as race. Why do you think food is such an effective medium for sparking these discussions?
Food is something we’re all familiar with even if we’re not familiar with the exact food that is in front of us. We all know what it’s like to have a meal or be around food. That is a common experience we share. Also, there is something really personal about being present for the making of a dish, being part of the process. You make something and then you are putting it into your body. When you are having that experience with someone else it is deeply personal because you are bringing your own life experiences into that shared experience of having the food together. It’s a super-powerful medium for having these deeper conversations. I think about how over the course of my life the conversations I’ve had have been over a dinner table or over a small meal or making something with somebody else common denominator for all of us.
The show gives you a behind the scenes process for making all kinds of interesting foods. In one episode, for instance, I saw you made sausages with Erin O’Brien, a food that isn’t known for being an at-home recipe. How does seeing the process of creating those foods affect the experience of eating them?
It makes me have a lot of respect for what goes into making food. Something just as simple as sausage seems so simple to a lot of us but when you actually are there for the process, you realize it takes so many steps. It takes so much intention to go from A to B and get to the finished product. I had no idea that sausage was so labor-intensive and required such large equipment. There’s also the skill of creating the sausage once it’s in the casing. I realized, “oh my gosh Erin clearly has muscle memory here because my hands can’t do the same things that her hands can do so quickly.” Now I can never look at a sausage the same way again because for so many of us we just see the finished sausage in a package or in links, we’re not really thinking about what it took to get to that point. And even knowing the thought that Erin is putting behind what’s going into the sausage as well like the seasoning she’s using and how that correlates to the story she is trying to tell. I just loved it. I loved being able to see that whole experience and now every time I eat a sausage I’m going to know at least part of the process and just have so much more respect for it.
Many of your guests, Erin included, look at cooking more as an art than just another task. How has working on this show changed your approach to cooking?
The thing that I was most curious about going into the show was just how everyone connected food to their creativity and [how] everyone had a different experience, but ultimately everyone immediately identified making food with creativity. Even if they were just making something that was very simple or that they make all the time, there was still an element of creativity and I really love that because that’s how I’ve tried to approach cooking now because before I just saw it as something I had to do or if I had people over that I was doing to impress [them]. Now I’m in a place where I’m in the kitchen for myself, for that experience because it really is a creative process. You’re not always completely in control of what the outcome is. You can follow a recipe exactly and it doesn’t always come out the way you expect. Or maybe you try something that’s not a recipe at all and it comes out incredible. I’ve had both of those experiences and everything else in between. That is something so special for me about being in the kitchen is that it feels like a space of play and freedom for me. Ideally, I would like to have something that is edible and tastes good, and now most of the time it is something that I can eat, but I think there is something so special about letting yourself have that creative process. I’ve learned to let go of the rigidness I used to feel around cooking. The kitchen just feels like my playground. I get to see what happens and just be present in the process.
If you were a guest on the show, what dish would you choose to make?
I would probably want to make Phat si-io (Pad See Ew) because that is one of my favorite Thai foods that I grew up eating as a comfort food. I recently learned how to make it from my mom last year because I’ve been trying to gather recipes from her now that I am older and I want to keep making the things that I grew up eating. I learned how to make it from her in the past year and I feel like that’s something that is so deeply personal for me, and it’s also really simple but flavorful. It feels nourishing to me. When I eat it I just feel taken care of and fed and loved.
You mention in your videos that you travel a lot. How do you manage to keep a stable and healthy diet through all the chaos of travel?
I definitely have boundaries with food. Especially as I’ve gotten older, my body has changed. So a rigid boundary that I have to have is that I can’t drink regular milk anymore because I feel sick when I do that, but I am still able to have other kinds of dairy in smaller portions. For me, it has ultimately been about understanding how my body feels when I eat certain foods and recognizing what’s happening with my body and being present in that experience. Also, I’ve learned that eating can be and should be an emotional experience. I always thought that eating as an emotional experience was a bad thing but now I’ve realized that I actually want eating to be connected to my emotions. I want to be connected to my food in that way. For me, it’s paying attention to how my body feels when I eat something and also paying attention to what my emotions are around that food, and letting myself have things that really spark a sense of happiness and comfort. Allowing myself to have those positive associations has been so incredibly powerful and freeing.
Photo credit: Ronald Justin Thompson
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Sophie Hayssen is a blog and newsletter editor at BUST. Her work has appeared in Rookie, Teen Vogue, and Women's Media Center. She is a born-and-raised New Yorker who currently lives in Brooklyn. You can find more of her work here.