The pioneering master somm opened up about balancing and embracing both her Indian and American identities.

By Oset Babür
Updated June 11, 2019
Welcome Conference 2019
Credit: Evan Sung

Master sommelier Alpana Singh knows a thing or two about terroir, and at this year’s Welcome Conference in New York City, she talked about the importance and challenges of embracing one’s own terroir, especially as a first-generation American in the food and beverage spaces.

“My aunties and uncles warned me not to become a coconut,” Singh said of her childhood. “Brown on the outside, white in the center.” Growing up surrounded by compelling yet conflicting messages about her identity, Singh described a sense of never finding sure footing in her parents’ world on trips back to her mother’s village in Fiji, or on the playground as a middle schooler in sunny Monterey, California. “Food has always been my happy place,” she said. “As a kid, I would binge watch cooking shows on PBS and I would dream of traveling to all of those faraway places. Food was my bridge to experiencing other cultures.”

Ultimately, it was by watching “a sari-clad Madhur Jaffrey [tell her] that Indian food is worth celebrating” that Singh embarked on a long-overdue journey to understand her own terroir, which she described as “a unique combination of growing conditions, family climate, cultural exposure, and ancestral roots that can’t be replicated anywhere else.” Little did she know that later on in her career, she would become the host of roving restaurant show Check, Please! and serve as similar inspiration for generations to come.

As the youngest woman and only Southeast Asian person to ever pass the master sommelier exam, as well as the owner of Evanstown’s Terra & Vine restaurant, Singh explained how she finally feels considerably more at peace with her identity, and invited the audience to take a critical eye to how they present themselves in different settings, and how this kind of code switching can have long-lasting effects.

“We don’t need to shapeshift and deny who we are in order to follow our dreams,” she said. “There’s no place like home, and there’s no taste like home either.”