Behind Closed Doors: Zarah Khan

Chef and fellow plant lover, Zarah Khan, is the culinary maestra behind our favorite L.A. women-owned restaurant, BOTANICA, and the brilliant formulator behind our newest pantry item, The Magic Spice. Inspired by her Middle Eastern heritage and an overflowing abundance of Southern California produce, Zarah’s playful and healthful twist on Mediterranean dishes elevates our senses while also encouraging deep nourishment. Her menu pays homage to the season and local farmers, connecting us to the land and all its offerings. We admire her thoughtfulness, from sourcing — to cooking — to plating. Read on to learn more about her food philosophy and the practices that she relies on for inner, and outer, vitality.

What is your food philosophy? 

My food philosophy is rooted in presence. I look at food as a way to ground us to where we are in the world, and my cooking reflects that. I want to know who grew the lettuce and who caught the fish, I want to know where it came from - and I want you to know too. Whether you LITERALLY know, or you know in a more general sense, this awareness increases our connection to place and ourselves. I know that there is a certain amount of privilege involved in this, and it is a goal of mine to break down those barriers. 


How did you get into cooking?

I got into cooking in high school for a few reasons. First, I became vegetarian (the only one in my family at the time) and my parents asked my sister and I to choose a night to make dinner for the family each week. And secondly, I had a boyfriend with Celiac, so I would experiment baking him gluten free treats.

In high school my friends would come over and hang out with me in the kitchen while I cooked for us. I didn’t see it then, but it’s so obvious looking back that cooking was what I wanted to do. In college, I would stay up late reading recipes and menus and drawing out dish ideas. I made a gallery out of gingerbread for an art final! My parents encouraged me to drop out and go to culinary school but I was too intimidated. After graduating, I threw myself into it. I started in pastry and learned on the job. Whole wheat pancakes with coconut yogurt, The Coconut Butter, blueberries, pecans and elderflower honey.

What's always in your fridge? 

I always have apples and peanut butter in my fridge. I grew up in Seattle, WA and I will always love apples. People say you can't find good apples in California, but Cuyama Orchards' are delicious. I like to mix Lion's Mane mushroom powder, cocoa nibs and crunchy CAP Pink Salt into my peanut butter. Also, a must have is preserved lemons. They are my cheat way to take any simple meal to the next level. I work a lot, so my fridge is typically pretty barren, but I always have fruit and some version of a shallot vinaigrette for quick and easy dinners on the weekend. I will make a salad with it or spoon it over veg such as cauliflower before roasting. I’m obsessed with bitter greens, typically I’ll grab a bunch of dandelion greens or a bag of arugula from the market to use over the weekend. 


What’s always in your pantry?

I am never without a jar of tahini from my homie Villa Jerada, it's the absolute best! Medhi makes tahini with sesame seeds grown in the US, resulting in the sweetest and freshest tasting tahini ever. I also always have his za’atar on hand, good olive oil from Shear Rock Farms, and dried mangos. I don’t eat sugar, but dried mango are my kryptonite. And of course dark chocolate is a must have; I prefer 70% or higher. The Salty dark chocolate from casa bosques is unreal. 


What do you turn to, to make you feel your best: food and all the other practices?

To feel my best I make time to exercise. I run, swim and do yoga, so it varies depending on the day. I taught yoga for several months after completing my teacher training in 2018 and I try to incorporate that at work where I can; we all do a collective breath together before service starts as a way to reset and collect ourselves.

I also love spending time with my friends. They are super important to me. We try to do “family dinner” once a week to connect and enjoy each others company. In regards to food, I try to focus on eating more vegetables. I tend to gravitate towards fruits and nuts because in California there are so many delicious varieties, but I don't want to forget about all the amazing vegetables here too! I love to roast a whole head of cauliflower and devour all of it and feel so strong and good. I have to remind myself on the daily — eat vegetables too girl!Sliced cucumbers, jalapeno, avocado and cilantro drizzled with plenty of lemon juice and tahini, sprinkled with The Magic Spice to finish. 

The Magic Spice is beyond delicious and electric! Can you share a bit about what inspired you when creating our beautiful collaboration?

The Magic Spice is inspired by spices/ingredients I love that I feel represent me (coriander, persian lime) and the current season (green garlic). I wanted to choose things that felt like an intersection between who I am and where I am. 


Who are the behind-the-scenes people that inspire and support the work that you do?

Everyone I work with at Botanica inspires and supports me so much! Coming out of the pandemic has been such a trip because there were days when it was just me making, shaping, rolling and firing all the laffa we make at the shop. Now I am able to delegate that to our prep/line cooks (thank god, haha). None of what we do would be possible without the amazing team I have, both front and back of house. My goal is to structure our team with people who connect to food the way I do and who are inspired by similar things. Then we can all riff and build off each other. For me, creativity doesn't happen in a vacuum. Often, it is the result of lots of amazing different energies coming together.

I love talking through ideas with my sous chef as well as the owners of Botanica, Emily and Heather, who have such beautiful sensibilities when it comes to food. 


What feeds you on a spiritual level?

On a spiritual level, time in nature is everything. If I’m not spending the day in the kitchen, I want to be outside all day. I am happiest when listening to music, learning about plants, and moving my body in the sunshine.

I also think it's super important to eat other peoples food! It's so easy to forget about this aspect and shut off on the weekends when working long hours. But it's important to experience the other side, and to be the diner. I try to organize team dinners out, so we can enjoy the experience and get inspired together. 


How does your love of music shape the way you compose a dish?

My love of music doesn't shape a dish, it shapes the whole menu. I think about the menu as an album. I ask myself questions like: Do the tracks make sense together? Are they distinct but relational?

You know that feeling when you've heard a song for the 500th time and it doesn't quite hit the same anymore? That's the feeling I have when it's time to change the menu. Not all dishes get to "play" for the same length of time, some stay on the menu for a few weeks and others stay on for months.


Your food is so visually stunning and sexy. Tips for amateurs?!

Thank you! I think about color and texture a lot. Elements of a dish should make sense together while also having a reason for being there, you know? If I'm looking for crunch there are so many ways to get it, be intentional about why you’re adding something to a dish. But the most important thing to keep in mind is, what do YOU want to eat? What would make YOU feel good?

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