Create & Cultivate 100: Food: Michelle Tam

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At a time when everyone seems to have an opinion on gluten, nut milk, and general nutritional needs, it’s hard to know who to trust as a source of information and inspiration.

Enter Michelle Tam. The badass behind the Nom Nom Paleo empire started her paleo journey eight years ago with a blog, which quickly escalated into a New York Times bestselling book, a nod from the James Beard Foundation, and an active fanbase of “Nomsters.” The irony here is that Michelle has a degree in nutrition and food science, and her first dream job was to develop chemicals to spray on microwave dinners, giving the illusion that the meal was cooked and browned in the oven.

While her approach to nutrition has certainly changed since the 90s, she still approaches cooking like a methodical scientist. To listen to her speak about food and what fuels her family is to listen to a passionate chef who views health as the ultimate form of wealth.

Your recipes are often California-inspired. What are some of those Golden State touches that make them so unique and special?

I’m a native of the San Francisco Bay Area—an immigrant-rich melting pot of cultures that continues to innovate by fusing together different influences, tastes, and cooking methods, particularly from Asia and Latin America. Combine that with fresh ingredients from some of the best year-round farmers markets in the country, and you’ve got a limitless bounty of flavor. In fact, California cuisine is famous for focusing attention on the incredible flavors of local ingredients, rather than on heavy sauces or fancy techniques.

My recipes take a similar approach. My cooking is all about taking shortcuts to deliciousness, while emphasizing the amazingly fresh flavors of real, whole foods. I also take plenty of inspiration from the dishes I’ve grown up eating here in California, from hearty Cantonese home-cooked classics to spicy specialties from my favorite taquerias.

You majored in nutrition & food science in hopes of becoming a flavor scientist. How have you transferred the things you learned in the classroom to your cookbook recipes?

In some ways, I’m doing the exact opposite of what I learned from my Nutrition and Food Science professors in the ’90s. Back then, it was all about “better living through chemistry”—artificially enhancing cheap foods to be more palatable, pushing empty carbs and low-fat diets, and promoting the agendas of agri-business giants. I totally bought it at the time—so much so that I wanted to move to New Jersey to learn how to develop chemicals to spray onto microwave dinners to make them look like they browned in the oven. Paleo is, obviously, a very different take on food and nutrition.

That said, I still use a lot of what I learned in my studies. With a deeper understanding of how food chemistry works, I feel like I’m better equipped to figure out how to make my recipes work optimally, as well as how to create killer flavor combinations. In addition, I approach recipe development meticulously and methodically, like I’m running a science experiment. After all, just like with lab results, recipes need to be replicable! I use my family and friends as taste-testing guinea pigs, and I write up my methods and results—only in recipe form.

What inspired you to try the paleo lifestyle?

It was ten years ago, after popping out two kids, that I noticed I was tired, cranky, and had a muffin-top poking up out of my waistband. I wanted to ditch the loose flesh—and get stronger, too. So I did what any crazy-busy working mom would do: I subscribed to fitness magazines and ordered a bunch of home exercise videos. For well over a year, I did heart-pounding cardio moves in the garage every night. I counted calories. I lost weight. But I was also starving and miserable. I wasn’t any stronger, yet I was achy all the time. My bathroom scale told me I’d shed some pounds, but my food cravings were off the scale. And my muffin-top didn’t go away.

In the meantime, Henry, my better half, had embarked on a mission of his own to improve his fitness, and stumbled upon the paleo diet. He gradually transitioned to a paleo dietary template, while I sat back and scoffed. I knew better—after all, I’m the one with a nutrition degree! To my surprise, however, he didn’t just survive on the paleo diet—he thrived. My husband exercised three times a week and ate paleo, and was in better shape than he was in college. His blood work and body composition were much improved, and he was savoring all the stuff I secretly wanted to eat.

I had to give this paleo thing a try, so in the summer of 2010, I made the decision to go paleo—and when I decide to do something, I commit all the way. I immediately cut out all grains, legumes, sugar, and processed food from my diet, and read everything I could about the science behind the paleo diet. I quit doing all the crazy cardio and starting doing CrossFit. I was all-in.

And you know what? I feel great! After working graveyard shifts for more than a decade, I’d been mentally and physically lagging—but once I changed my diet, I found that my energy levels improved significantly, and my moods were sunnier, too. I was a nicer mommy. Paleo’s the only approach that managed to improve my body composition and fuel me with enough energy to chase after my two boys, hold down a full-time night shift job (which I quit in 2014 after 12 years of working graveyard shifts at the hospital), cook for a houseful of hungry eaters, lift heavy(ish) stuff in the gym, write cookbooks, and maintain a food blog.

If you could have a meal with someone, living or deceased, who would it be and why? What would you eat?

I grew up in the same house with my grandparents and they helped raise me when my parents were at work. Sadly, they both passed a few years ago. I’d love to share one last meal with my paternal grandfather to thank him for shaping my personality, sense of humor, and outlook on life. We’d dig into some fish and chips (mine would be gluten-free) and papaya because that was his favorite meal.

What do you crave in life?

Experiencing joy in all things—especially when it comes to food and family.  Also, I could always use more sleep.

What about your job makes you feel the most fulfilled?

I love the constant interaction and feedback from my readers (a.k.a. Nomsters)—whether it’s immediate comments on new recipes that I post or hugs at book signings. I am really proud of the community I’ve built at Nom Nom Paleo and I really do feel like I’m friends with all my readers!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Do stuff that scares you. I used to avoid things that I didn’t immediately excel in or was afraid of failing at, but these days I love tackling scary new projects or experiences because the payoff always outweighs the risks. Even when I fail, I end up with some lessons learned and a great story to tell!

Do stuff that scares you.

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What’s been the biggest surprise or highlight of your career to date?

I think the success of our first cookbook, Nom Nom Paleo: Food For Humans, was the biggest surprise of my career to date. At the time my first cookbook was published, I was still working full-time as a night shift hospital pharmacist, and Nom Nom Paleo was just my passion project side hustle. When our cookbook hit The New York Times best seller list and was nominated for a James Beard award, I couldn’t believe it.

Where does your passion/drive come from?

My passion and drive definitely come from my parents. When my parents immigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. and settled in the Silicon Valley of the 1960s, their shaky grasp of English limited them to blue-collar jobs: my dad worked as a technician in a factory, and my mom took orders at a fast food joint. They shared a house with my grandparents, even after my sister and I were born. All six of us lived squashed together in a little house.

My parents pushed me to work hard at school and pursue a respectable career—and I did that. I was valedictorian of my high school class, got a pharmacy doctorate, and worked as a hospital pharmacist at a teaching hospital. I was happy being a cog in the wheel…until I wasn’t.

For years, I worked nights at the hospital while my husband and I worked on our side hustle, Nom Nom Paleo. Our blog eventually led to a Webby Award winning cooking app and two New York Times bestselling cookbooks. It was enough to bring me to a crossroads: Should I quit my hospital job and embrace Nom Nom Paleo as a full-time gig—giving up the financial stability and predictability that my parents worked so hard for?

That’s when I realized that no matter what immigrant parents tell their kids about the importance of stability and security, they’re actually the biggest risk takers of all.

My mom and dad had the courage to venture to an unknown land, to start a new life not knowing the language or customs, to face discrimination and longing for home—all without a safety net. In comparison, giving up a steady paycheck to write about food isn’t especially daunting.

After working twelve years as a hospital pharmacist, I hung up my lab coat for good, and threw myself into food writing and online entrepreneurship. I now work relentlessly on Nom Nom Paleo because I want my kids to follow my example—I want them to take risks and pursue purpose-driven work.

I want my kids to follow my example—I want them to take risks and pursue purpose-driven work.

What keeps you up at night?

Not much, because I’ve done my utmost to hack my sleep! As a recovering night-shift worker, I have to make up for over a decade of horrible sleep habits. These days, I have blackout panels on my windows, orange lights for bedtime reading, weighted blankets, a white noise machine, and strips of painter’s tape covering the little pinprick of light that emanates from the ceiling-mounted smoke alarm. I even have a pad under my sheets that keeps my body at the optimal temperature for sleep, and wear a sleep tracker to make sure I’m getting good ZZZ’s.

Of course, I still sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, dreading some impending deadline or worrying about the effects of climate change.

Whose career really inspires you?

I’m incorrigibly unfashionable, but I really admire Eva Chen’s career. As head of fashion partnerships for Instagram, she’s able to balance being a badass boss, fashionista, working mom, and now children’s book author, too. On top of all that, she remains super funny and relatable.

What has been your biggest opportunity or biggest challenge as a woman in the food industry?

It’s always hard being taken seriously as a woman in the food industry, let alone a woman of color. When you tack on the fact that I’m not professionally-trained and started off as a food blogger focusing on a special diet, I face even more skepticism from those who have come up through more traditional means.

I’ve tried to carve out a space for myself and others like me—home cooks who have something specific to offer, whether it’s comfort food recipes for those with certain dietary needs or cooking tips and techniques for harried working parents.  Luckily, the free and open internet allows “my” people to find me. I don’t need to rely on traditional food media to build my brand and make an impact.

What is the most challenging part about writing a cookbook?

All of it! We have a unique agreement with our publisher where my husband and I do just about everything ourselves, from writing and photography to book layout and design. Henry does all the photography, cartoon illustrations, and graphics, while I focus on recipe development and writing. Every square centimeter of each page of our books was designed by us. For us, putting together a cookbook is a lot more involved than turning in a manuscript. Despite all the work, we wouldn’t do it any other way because we love the creative freedom and knowing that the final product is truly “our baby.”

When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you find a new road + switch gears to find success?

Nom Nom Paleo has given us the opportunity to chase after things that we think are fun and interesting, without worrying too much about challenges or roadblocks. Ten years ago, I would have never thought that we’d have the chance to publish cookbooks, produce a podcast, design a cooking app, or design action figures—so all of this is gravy. Besides, my husband and I run Nom Nom Paleo as a mom-and-pop shop, so we’re nimble and can adapt to changes quickly and pretty seamlessly. Also, Nom Nom Paleo is fairly diversified, in that we don’t rely heavily on a few partners or sponsors for our success. We’re able to dive into things that we’re passionate about, and keep learning and growing in new directions.

What are you most excited for in 2019?

Professionally speaking, I never know what’s around the corner—but I can’t wait to see what’s in store! As for what I’m personally excited for, we’re taking a family trip to Italy this summer to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and my father’s 80th birthday. I’m looking forward to chilling with my whole family in a little town in Abruzzo, taking cooking classes, and eating lots of gelato!