Through the portraits, we share the rich and diverse personal stories of women, shedding light on their journeys and accomplishments. Using their contribution to the food industry as an entry point, we touch on their journeys, philosophies, and accomplishments—creating conversations with staying power.
Birmingham-born and Berlin-based Kavita Meelu defies categorization or labeling, much like the work she does, which stems from both her warm, inquisitive, and analytical nature and her ability to connect people. She produces food events and organizes social initiatives that highlight the food culture of diasporic people—who often are seen as “the Other” and do not have equal access to resources, support, and platforms within the local food industry. In doing so, Kavita has been instrumental in shaping the evolution of the city’s culinary scene.
Community has been at the heart of her curatorial and cultural innovation since she moved to Berlin, whether it was highlighting the food of matriarchs with Mother’s Mother, founding the democratically accessible and universally delicious Street Food Thursdays at Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg, or initiating the current project Smells Like Collective—which centers and celebrates food cultures from the global majority. Drawing on self-reflection and astute social criticism, Kavita creates inviting, engaging public spaces for the food experiences and conversations that are often held in the private realm—thus cultivating a community that is not defined by traditional Eurocentric and often white discourses.
Kavita moved to Berlin in 2009, and started working in food eight years ago, as a chef at the urban gardening project Prinzessinnengärten. She had always wanted to work with food in some way but found herself excluded from that world. “I couldn’t find my own place in the food world being a brown woman who wasn’t from a family of people who ate out or could afford to eat out for dinner. That world was removed from me but it was something that I thought was exciting.”
For me, food was always a way to connect to these ideas of what roots are: my heritage, my brownness, my Indian-ness, plus all of the things that were intangible to me but had a lot to do with my identity-making.
“I’m from this classic economic migrant story. For my family, food was not being a chef, it was tied to an experience they were trying to remove themselves from. Those were jobs that they had to do because they had no other choice, not jobs that they aspired to do. They were jobs that oppressed brown folk so my family’s association was not one of achievement—that’s why I know they had all of those feelings for it. [Initially,] they couldn’t find a sense of joy that their daughter had achieved or done that because for them it didn’t have that association.” In a way, leaving the UK and creating some distance from social and familial pressures freed Kavita to do food projects.
My interest [in food] is an actual physical tool that I’ve had to—and continue to—use to make my identity in relation to whatever context I’m in.
Through Mother’s Mother, a dinner club in which people who had immigrated to Berlin shared “stories of their migration through food and a meal that honored the matriarchs in their family,” Kavita connected and created an internationally diverse community of “people who were not traditional chefs and worked outside of the institution but had a great ability to create food and would love to make a business out of it.” This network of chefs formed the foundations for Street Food Thursdays, the first of its kind in all of Germany when it was founded in 2013.
“Back then, the barriers to entry were so high. If you weren’t a white man who didn’t wear a white jacket, your ability to be taken seriously in the world of food was nonexistent. There was no platform; there was no possibility for you to get your voice across. It was clear that the gastronomy scene [in Berlin] was so institutionalized and had so many borders that the Street Food market was a possibility to interrupt that and to say you don’t need to conform to some kind of culinary school or culinary way of being in order to share your food love and food skills. You can do it independently in another way.”
For Kavita the creation of Street Food Thursdays was not simply a food movement, “it was more of a democratization of those institutions.” But she is quick to add, “when there is a disruption and over a period of time, these sick systems and structures are so refined that they will find their ways of resurfacing in disruptive movements. Now we have a food scene with new borders and boundaries. Some people will never feel welcome to walk into Street Food Thursday for example and that has everything to do with the aesthetic, the prices, the dominance of English being spoken there, or the disconnect between what’s happening or the people that are visible and own the market space versus the people who live in the neighborhood.”
Looking back, she recognizes that “there was a moment and that moment has evolved into something else. There’s always room to disrupt those norms again. When I reflect on the work I did, I was focused on producers and makers. That was the community I was curating; those were the people I was looking out for and felt accountable to, less so than the audience. I didn’t think as much about the audience because I knew that good food at a relatively lower price point would attract masses of people. Now I realize how important it is to curate audience as much as it is curate producers.”
Kavita’s impact and influence on Berlin’s culinary landscape cannot be overstated. At some point she realized, “I kind of have done what I wanted to achieve—and I had the privilege to reflect on that as well because that is a privilege, sometimes. I was lucky that business was going really well and I started to reflect on what was lacking for me in the projects I was doing and what I would want to do. I decided to go to university.” She spent a year and a half studying Migration and Diaspora Studies at the SOAS- School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London. It was an exercise in self-care, and as she says, “therapy.”
Her thesis examined how people in London and Berlin who are of a diaspora “often use food in business as a form of cultural production and a form of negotiating place and identity. I realized that the anthropology of food is a white-privileged space and the conversations around ‘ethnic food’ […] sits in this really weird discourse that often doesn’t come from the voice of the people of color who are cooking. It comes from the point of view of the white academic and the consumer: being a consumer and what it means to be a consumer. So even though there are some arguments about neo-colonialism that happen when white middle class people go to restaurants and want to eat ‘authentic’ and there’s been some great discourse around that, there’s been very little discourse from the perspective of those who are creating [the food]. It’s a perpetuation again of the voiceless-ness of the ethnic body; the only thing the ethnic body can do is labor. They’ve got no creativity and innovation so even within that kind of academic discourse, they’re rendered voiceless again.”
What was really amazing about this course was that people were not there because they were studying the Other, they were there because they wanted to unearth or investigate their own histories, their context, their own heritages, and the power structures that impacted that.
Kavita returned to Berlin after completing her Master’s program in February of 2018 and returned to curating community and events, with a clarity and purpose informed by her work in London. Now more aware that even the most intentionally diverse projects can be co-opted and infiltrated by the mainstream, the patriarchy, she finds it essential to “make the food that I want to make and I’m interested in meeting people who want to tell the stories that are authentic to themselves and not performing to a white gaze. The patriarchy is fucked up and all-encompassing. In two of my business partnerships, one of them was with three white cis men and the other was with four white cis men. And I can tell you that is laboring. When I look back on what I did to get through that, I’m so in awe of my younger self. I’m proud of myself, and also I am angry with myself for allowing so much to be silenced and to be brushed under the carpet in order for me to go on.”
In the end, Kavita is less interested in discussing what is authentic, and debating what is cultural appropriation. “There are so many other things that I would like to talk about around food and history and heritage [rather] than whether or not that white man should be cooking this. If you just pass the mic on, you will see that actually folks of color are having other chats that could add a whole other layer of wow to the conversation around food.”