“I just hadn’t heard these stories before. I thought we should do something about it.”
Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed met at a party in Portland, Oregon. The two got to talking about race and gender in the kitchen (how women get pressured into becoming pastry chefs; how a restaurant owner once told Ho, a chef and food writer, that her food was “too Asian”), and Janmohamed, a journalist, suggested they start a podcast. “I just hadn’t heard these stories before,” he says. “I thought we should do something about it.” The pair launched Racist Sandwich—cheekily named after a school principal’s comment about how PB&J might not be culturally common for all students—in May 2016.
In each episode, they dig into complicated issues in the food industry, with guests like Jen Agg of The Black Hoof in Toronto, for a growing audience: Racist Sandwich now averages 30,000 downloads a month and just ended a wildly successful fund-raising drive. Janmohamed says he knew they had something special by their second episode. “I was listening to Soleil talk to Han Ly Hwang of Kim Jong Grillin’ food truck,” he says. “These two dynamic chefs of color were talking about being children of immigrants, and there’s no white interlocution. It was amazing.” Not that this is the point, he adds. “I get this a lot: ‘Why are you guys talking about what white people can or can’t do?’ But our podcast is about amplifying voices. People hear their experiences told in a way they haven’t before.” We caught up with the two as they prepared to launch their second season, now available through iTunes.
F&W: What role did food play in your lives growing up?
SOLEIL HO: For me, it was the easiest way to understand what being Vietnamese meant. I grew up away from extended family, which stopped me from being able to speak the language. [Food] was the link that I knew I couldn’t forget.
ZAHIR JANMOHAMED: My family is Indian, but from Tanzania, and we kept our connection to India through food. I always enjoyed eating it, but I was embarrassed as a kid at school when people were like, “Why aren’t you eating pepperoni pizza?” When I cook now, I’m having a conversation with my culture.
F&W: Did you always believe that about the power of food?
SH: I didn’t start thinking about it until college. I would meet new people, and they would ask where I was from. I would make them guess and eventually say I’m Vietnamese. They would go, “Yeah, I love pho.” I was shocked to be greeted like that.
F&W: Did you think Racist Sandwich would take off the way it has?
SH: I wasn’t sure if anyone would listen to it! In the beginning, we felt like food-media pariahs.
F&W: It’s been nearly two years since you first started broadcasting. How has the podcast changed, and what are you hoping to accomplish next?
SH: We’re making more of an effort to not talk to chefs. Everyone wants to talk to them. Who else can we talk to?
ZJ: There are so many stories that aren’t being told. I try to spend a lot of time figuring out what conversations are happening and which aren’t, and how we fill those gaps.