At 32, Ayesha Curry has built a food empire. She’s written cookbooks, hosted food TV shows, released a cookware line, and opened restaurants. Her cookbooks are influenced by her Jamaican heritage, her teenage years in North Carolina, and raising a family today in the Bay Area. This week she talks with Dan about her advice to young entrepreneurs, why people still underestimate her, and how she really feels about cooking with her kids.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Sun So Sunny" by Calvin Dashielle
- "Soul Good" by Lance Conrad
- "Trippin" by Erick Anderson
- "Party Hop" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Back At It" by Bira
Photo courtesy of Erik Carter.
Dan Pashman: So, Ayesha, I thought we'd start off with a lightning round, if that's OK.
Ayesha Curry: Oh, I love that. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Number one, you're stranded on a deserted island and you only have access to one type of hot pepper.
Ayesha Curry: Oh.
Dan Pashman: What pepper do you pick?
Ayesha Curry: A scotch bonnet/
Dan Pashman: Yes! I'm so happy to—Ah. I love the scotch bonnet pepper. I bought Melinda's Scotch bonnet pepper sauce and it was pretty good, but it didn't quite have that like—you know? That...
Ayesha Curry: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Hits you down deep kind of spice.
Ayesha Curry: You've got to just go straight Jamaican and get the grace.
Dan Pashman: OK. All right. I'm gonna get that like as soon as we finish.
Ayesha Curry: Perfect.
Dan Pashman: Next up in the lightning round. You grew up in the Toronto suburbs until you were 14. I gather you're a big fan of the classic Canadian snack food, known as ketchup chips.
Ayesha Curry: Oh, my God. Yes. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: These are—for the folks who don't know, these are ketchup flavored potato chips, which for some strange reason, have not caught on down here. What is your favorite brand of ketchup chips?
Ayesha Curry: Oh, the Lays. I remember growing up at the time, it was the only one that I ever ate.
Dan Pashman: How would you describe a ketchup chip to someone who's never eaten one?
Ayesha Curry: Tangy, sweet, with a little tomato back-end
Dan Pashman: Got it. Is it better than actual ketchup?
Ayesha Curry: Yes. Yes. I just—Oh, my God. Like, you can't—you can't just have a handful of chips. You're definitely eating the whole bag.
Dan Pashman: Final lightning round question. I understand you're famous in your family for your deep fried Oreos.
Ayesha Curry: Ah, yes.
Dan Pashman: What's your secret?
Ayesha Curry: Pancake batter.
Dan Pashman: Oh!
Ayesha Curry: Bisquick. It's so easy, but it comes out pillowy and delicious.
Dan Pashman: This sounds like the kind of thing you want late at night after a few too many drinks.
Ayesha Curry: Facts. Yes, absolutely.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. At 32, Ayesha Curry has built a food empire. She’s a cookbook author and TV host. She’s launched restaurants, cookware lines, and a Napa Valley wine company. Last summer, she debuted a new lifestyle magazine called Sweet July, that also has a store in Oakland. She’s got 7 million followers on Instagram, where she often features pics of her family.
Dan Pashman: I was excited to talk with her to hear the story of the making of a major food entrepreneur. Was she always so ambitious? How did food come to be her path? And what don’t people understand about how she’s gotten to where she is?
Dan Pashman: As you heard, Ayesha grew up outside Toronto. At school she was given the nickname “United Nations” because of her Jamaican-Chinese-Polish-African American heritage. Her mom ran a hair salon in the basement of their house. And as a kid, Ayesha was put to work.
Ayesha Curry: Just imagine, Saturday, women coming in to get their hair done. The place is packed up. It's the basement of our house. There's people waiting, people inevitably showing up late, and it just backs up the whole system. I would help my mom on Saturdays, like answer the phone. It was called Sisters with Scissors. So I'd be like, "Good afternoon. Sisters with Scissors. This is Ayesha. Can I help you?" So, what happened was our babysitter at the time, Dora, made the most—she’s from Trinidad. And she made the most amazing rotis. So on Saturdays she would actually make potato rotis upstairs and I would run up and bring them down for the clients and nobody would complain about having to wait. It was incredible.
Dan Pashman: Oh got it. Yes.
Ayesha Curry: So it just worked. People knew they would come and get fed. People would linger after. For sure.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right. Like, oh, I'm still in line. I'm still waiting to. Do I get another roti?
Ayesha Curry: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Dan Pashman: Tell me more about those rotis.
Ayesha Curry: Oh, just delicious. And she did it like super yard style. So in the thin like traditional skillet pan on the electric stove top, like just really old school.
Dan Pashman: The Jamaican foods that Ayesha grew up with would become a big part of her cookbooks down the road. She features recipes for her grandmother’s escovitch fish and Jamaican curry chicken and Fried Dumplings. Then there’s her mother’s brown sugar chicken.
Ayesha Curry: It's so nostalgic to me. It is my, we used to call it sweet chicken, so I kind of re-named it brown sugar chicken. It's like a stewed chicken, Asian style wing hybrid.
Dan Pashman: Oh.
Ayesha Curry: Soy sauce is the base and then the brown sugar and you kind of make a sticky—really sticky, yummy sauce. And it just cooks in the oven. The chicken skin gets like candy. It is just so delicious.
Dan Pashman: Oh, my God.
Ayesha Curry: But we could quadruple the the batch and there's still never any leftovers.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Ayesha Curry: Like it's incredible. I won't even post on Instagram anymore when I make it just because I'm very selfish with my brown sugar chicken.
Dan Pashman: You're afraid someone's going to show up at the door.
Ayesha Curry: Yeah! It's so good though.
Dan Pashman: When you were 14, your family moved from the Toronto suburbs to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Ayesha Curry: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Which I would suspect involved encountering some new foods.
Ayesha Curry: Yes, it was a culture shock for sure, for me, coming from this place, that's like a cultural melting pot. And you have every type of food, every type of culture you could imagine on any given block to then move to Charlotte. It's actually Waxhaw, North Carolina, the land of like chicken and biscuits and pork chops and gravy. It was definitely...bojangles. Mmm. Yum. Definitely new to me. But yeah, I grew a love for it and fried chicken and all that. So, yeah, definitely a culture shock though.
Dan Pashman: Is there a moment that you recall when that culture shock really hit home?
Ayesha Curry: I just remember being in the cafeteria during lunch one day watching everyone dip their pizza in ranch. So just that. That was a moment for me, just seeing the cultural differences.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. Did you ever come around to pizza and ranch dressing?
Ayesha Curry: No, it's not my thing.
Dan Pashman: This is going to be sacrilege to some people. But, yeah, I just never loved ranch dressing.
Ayesha Curry: Me either.
Dan Pashman: I'm sorry. There's just something about it. Like, maybe, I don't know. Maybe I just haven't had a really—is there such thing as a high quality ranch dressing? Maybe I'm only eating the bad ones. I don't know...
Ayesha Curry: I just—I mean it tastes good. It's just a thought for me of dousing what's supposed to be this healthy, lively salad or whatever in buttermilk. Like, I can't wrap my head around it.
Dan Pashman: And I know you've said, like growing up, you watched a lot of food TV.
Ayesha Curry: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: You saw Rachael Ray, Emeril...
Ayesha Curry: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: What did you learn from from them?
Ayesha Curry: Those those shows raised me. They're like my Saturday morning cartoons for sure.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Ayesha Curry: I learned so much. I feel like I learned the way, you know, Emeril or Rachael would have their hand on the knife and like how they—like their knife skills and how to chop and how to take nothing and make it into something. So that, I think, is how I grew my love for it. And, you know, at the time, Emeril did Emeril live. And so seeing the joy in the audience on the people's faces, I think was really cool to me.
Dan Pashman: What are some of the things that you feel that you maybe picked up on from those shows you just that have gotten better out over the years?
Ayesha Curry: Umm, the taste that tasting moment is really important on camera. Like people need to see that. It's the moment that everyone waits for. Like, what's the verdict?
Dan Pashman: I’ve done a bit of food TV, and I find that I always get too excited to eat and then I take too big of a bite of food. And then they're like, all the cameramen are just sitting there pointing the cameras at me, waiting for me to swallow the food so I can talk again without being disgusting.
Ayesha Curry: Then you got to get the sauce off your face.
Dan Pashman: Right? Right. They're like, cut, cut. Hose down the host again.
Ayesha Curry: Oh, goodness.
Dan Pashman: It was in North Carolina where Ayesha met her future husband, Steph Curry. They were teenagers, met at a church youth group. They wouldn’t start dating for a few years, but she writes in her first cookbook that they bonded over their shared love of Canadian candy, especially fuzzy peaches. When he was 23 and she was 22, they got married at the same church where they first met. By that point, he had become an NBA star, playing for the Golden State Warriors. They were living in San Francisco. That’s where Ayesha’s relationship with food began to shift.
Dan Pashman: And so you took cooking classes in San Francisco in part to learn how to poach eggs, you said, which you said was a lifelong fear—which Ayesha, this is a safe space, no judgment. I have never poached egg in my life.
Ayesha Curry: Well, there we go.
Dan Pashman: But I'm curious, like, what was what was scary about egg poaching for you and where are we at now with the egg poaching?
Ayesha Curry: It was weird because it's something I never tried. It just seemed intimidating to me, oddly enough, like I can fry the heck out of something and I can sear and I can chop—but poaching that egg, like, I just—I don't know. And so one of the whole assignments, like one day of class, was like all about eggs. And so I was like, oh my gosh, like my yolks going to break. I'm not going to do this right. What's the proper method? And then I realized, oh, my God, this is so easy. It is not that serious. But something can look so intimidating and be like, very easy. So it was nice to get over that fear.
Dan Pashman: Do you remember the moment you decided to turn your passion for cooking into a career?
Ayesha Curry: It's always something I wanted to do. I just didn't know that I could.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Ayesha Curry: I didn't really have any examples of anybody, like me, doing that. So I didn't know it was in the realm of possibilities for me.
Dan Pashman: Ayesha struck out on her own, creating a blog and YouTube channel called, Little Lights of Mine. She posted cooking videos and exercise routines, but also videos of her family life. Then 2014, Drake released the huge hit song "0 to 100", which includes the lyric, “I been Steph Curry with the shot,” then turns to a cooking reference…
[CLIP DRAKE "0 to 100"]
I been Steph Curry with the shot Been cookin' with the sauce, chef, curry with the pot, boy
360 with the wrist, boy...
Dan Pashman: Ayesha remixed the song and put up a video of her performing it in the kitchen, while cooking...
[CLIP AYESHA CURRY WITH THE POT]
Dan Pashman: The video went viral. To date it’s got over 5 million views. Ayesha’s profile started getting bigger. She’d already debuted a line of aprons and olive oils, which are helpfully featured in that video. But she says she still hit road blocks as she tried to move up in her career.
Dan Pashman: It's interesting that you said that you kind of always knew you wanted to do it, you just didn't know you could.
Ayesha Curry: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Was there ever a moment when you were starting out on this path that you doubted yourself?
Ayesha Curry: Yes. It was definitely the first time I went into — I hope I can say this. It's the first time I went into Food Network to pitch my show. And it was like a hard no the first time because they said I was too young. I didn't have a demographic there, but it was, like, really my dream. You know? It's all the people that I watched growing up. I was like, I think I can do this. So that was—that kind of that kind of put a damper on my confidence because it made me feel like I wasn't in the right space. Right? By giving me those confines and telling me I didn't have a demographic.
Dan Pashman: What did that mean to you?
Ayesha Curry: I don't know what that meant. I'm still—I still actually question that to this day. But fast forward like a couple of months. It just took, like one person to change the whole narrative. And this woman at Food Network had just become a mom. And so she started following along with my recipes and my blog. And she was like, no, I see it—She does have—I guess that's what she meant by demographic, like this young mom. She was like, no, she definitely does. Let's give it a shot.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Ayesha’s career starts to take off, and she has to deal with assumptions people make, because of who her husband is. Plus, we get into the pros and cons of cooking with your kids. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. On last week’s show, we consider the lobster. In colonial times, lobster was routinely served to prisoners. It was called “the cockroach of the sea.” So what changed?
CLIP [TREVOR CORSON]: There’s one story that the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst was one of the first people who started to make lobster into something special when he ordered a bunch for a dinner party in Colorado. To get the live lobster all the way to Colorado for his dinner party was a sign of how powerful and wealthy he was.
Dan Pashman: It’s a deep dive into the fascinating history, and biology, of these crustaceans. That episode’s up now, you can get it wherever you got this one. OK, now back to my conversation with Ayesha Curry.
Dan Pashman: When you did get your Food Network show in 2016, you were shooting it in your home kitchen, not on a set. What was that like making a show in your own house?
Ayesha Curry: Chaotic. Chaotic. I would not recommend it because it was chaotic and my kids were so little at the time. So I was just trying to find balance to be able to nurse and feed them and be present with them while still filming the show. Bad idea, like...
Dan Pashman: That's a lot.
Ayesha Curry: Can you imagine how many times we had a hold for sound? Like just nuts. So silly.
Dan Pashman: The same year Ayesha’s Food Network show debuted, she released her first cookbook, The Seasoned Life. It blended the Jamaican food of her youth with the other pillars of her food experience. The southern cooking she picked up in North Carolina, and the diverse California cooking she was surrounded with. So alongside jerk turkey, there are recipes for things like Carolina chowder and prosciutto egg cups with asparagus.
Dan Pashman: Ayesha partnered with the chef Michael Mina on a pop-up in San Francisco called International Smoke, with a menu featuring regional and international barbecue. In 2017, she turned it into a full-fledged restaurant, and over the next few years they opened locations in Houston, San Diego, and Las Vegas.
Dan Pashman: I have not had the opportunity to eat at International Smoke.
Ayesha Curry: Oh!
Dan Pashman: I love the concept of it.
Ayesha Curry: Thank you.
Dan Pashman: And I mean, as a as a big fan of gochujang...
Ayesha Curry: Oh yeah.
Dan Pashman: I very much like the Korean style gochujang ribs.
Ayesha Curry: They're so good.
Dan Pashman: You also have the Mexican style chipotle ribs. I'm curious to hear more about the actual nitty gritty details of the process of developing those menu items.
Ayesha Curry: Yeah, I would say our menu is extremely collaborative and it was intentionally done that way. So like if we have like a really awesome Pakistani chef, he like will bring in a recipe that his grandmother passed down and we'll put it on the menu. We had one amazing Jamaican chef and she brought in her her two cents and we put it on the menu. We did it that way on purpose. We wanted it to feel like family. And we said, what's more family than a barbecue? I can't think of anything more family than a barbecue. And then we said, anywhere you go in the world, that culture has their style of grilling.
Dan Pashman: And I especially like—I mean, to me, yes. You're right. Grilling exists in many places. I think that in the U.S. we tend to think of barbecue as this as this American thing. But the truth is, like, as we've discussed on this show with the culinary historian, Michael Twitty, like barbecue, itself, was a combination of European meats with cooking techniques and spices brought by enslaved people from West Africa and the Caribbean.
Ayesha Curry: Yeah. Yup.
Dan Pashman: So like barbecue itself really is an international dish, even as it is cooked and served in America
Ayesha Curry: Truly.
Dan Pashman: So I like the idea of taking that concept and like blowing it up to the next level.
Ayesha Curry: Truly. Thank you. My next hurdle and something that I'm really excited to dive into is I'm going to try and create an all-vegan offering at the restaurant. So I don't know how I'm going to do it, yet.
Dan Pashman: OK.
Ayesha Curry: I'm probably going to revolve around jackfruit somehow.
Dan Pashman: I see. [LAUGHS]
Ayesha Curry: I, actually, used to sell vegan soul food at a farmer's market when I was 18-years-old.
Dan Pashman: Really? Tell me more about that.
Ayesha Curry: I would sell Brazilian nut meat chili at the farmer's market, and it was just like my Saturday gig to get some extra cash.
Dan Pashman: So were you making the chili?
Ayesha Curry: No, not at all. I wasn't even vegan. I wasn't even eating the food. Half the people would be like, "Are you vegan?—Yes, absolutely! It’s delicious."
Ayesha Curry: But now I'm into it.
Dan Pashman: What did you learn from that experience? Selling the the vegan Brazilian nut meat chili at the farmers market?
Ayesha Curry: That there is a market for it!
Dan Pashman: Throughout Ayesha’s work, from her blog to her cookbooks to her social media, her kids make frequent appearances. She's got three of them, ages 8, 5, and 4. She often cooks with them, as I do with my kids. So, I thought we should compare notes...
Dan Pashman: What are the pros and cons of cooking with your kid?
Ayesha Curry: The pros I feel like it instills kitchen confidence in them from a young age. If you start implementing it from a young age, those healthy eating habits and allowing them to see that they can prepare meals for themselves, I think, you know, it gets embedded and ingrained in there and it carries through, hopefully, we'll see, through their adulthood. Another pro is the memories you build. I just feel like it's just some of my best memories are with my mom and my grandma in the kitchen. And so I hope to build that with them, as well. Big con, the mess. Like I—sometimes I feel like I just want to pull my hair out. I—like it's just gets so messy. And now they're at the age where, like, I'll catch them in there by themselves, like trying to make microwave cakes that they saw on YouTube. I'm like, oh my gosh, this mess. And now, this fake dough is stuck on this container. And I get it off. It's like, oh my goodness.
Dan Pashman: I think you summed up all the pros and cons very well. I would just add, for me, I don't know if this is true for you. Like, you know, I try not to be too much of a perfectionist, but like I'm still cooking the thing and I want it to turn out well.
Ayesha Curry: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Like you want it to look nice.
Ayesha Curry: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: Right?
Ayesha Curry: They're like, "Can I garnish?" And I'm like, "Ahhh, it's the last step and somebody is coming over!":
Dan Pashman: Right.
Ayesha Curry: Oh my goodness.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. You know, like these kids, they can't—I mean, they can't even butter an English muffin without it looking like an ax murderer took to the English muffin.
Ayesha Curry: It really does. It really does.
Dan Pashman: It looks like the English muffin was attacked, you know? So...
Ayesha Curry: But it brings them so much joy and confidence. And then almost always they eat whatever they've made. So it's a great way to sneak attack them to like get them to eat.
Dan Pashman: In the years since Ayesha started her blog, not everything has taken off. The Food Network show only lasted two seasons. A delivery meal kit didn’t pan out. But as an entrepreneur, she’s definitely had more hits than misses.
Dan Pashman: She created a successful wine brand and a cookware line that’s in stores across the country. Her first cookbook hit the New York Times bestseller list. And she launched a charity with her husband called Eat Learn Play. Just a few weeks ago, she testified before Congress on the issue of childhood hunger.
Ayesha Curry: I'm super sensitive about my work. [LAUGHS] So I take everything seriously. Nothing is ever fly-by-night for me. I really—like quality is key and it's something that I've had to learn over time because I was so grateful for a lot of the opportunities that were coming my way. And it got to a point where I was feeling swamped and swarmed in my business and not necessarily doing exactly what it was that I set out to do. And so now I've really scaled it back and I truly believe in quality over quantity. So I've gotten really good at saying no. That has allowed me to have some sort of balance.
Dan Pashman: Are you aware of something that the changed for you that allowed you to make that shift?
Ayesha Curry: I just had to realize that I could be grateful and have graciousness without always having to say yes, because I was losing my lust and brightness for what I was doing.
Dan Pashman: I would think some of it may also be just sort of getting a little older and getting more confident.
Ayesha Curry: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Like you need a certain amount of confidence to be able to say no to an opportunity to believe that there's going to be another opportunity around the corner.
Ayesha Curry: That is true. That is so true. And I guess now that I think about it, I did start my career relatively young at 23. So yeah, I kind of grew into my business as I grew into adulthood. [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: Right.
Ayesha Curry: I've learned, honestly, to make sure that I have all of my hands and eyes and ears on the things that I'm doing. To read everything. To like young entrepreneurs, that would be like my main point of advice is read every contract, top to bottom. So just like stay on top of your stuff and be trusting, but don't trust too much.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Ayesha Curry: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Do you always feel like you were going to be the kind of person who would have been an entrepreneur starting your own businesses? Like like wherever life had taken you, do you feel like you would have ended up in this doing something like this?
Ayesha Curry: I, personally, think so. While a lot of people would disagree, that don't know me. I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Especially, the women. My mom had her business for 40 years. And it's all I really know. I just know, like hard work and starting something yourself.
Dan Pashman: One of the realities of Ayesha’s life is that as her profile has grown, so has her husband’s. He became an all star, an MVP, a World Champ. When she would make TV appearances to talk about her work, the first thing people asked about was Steph.
Ayesha Curry: I would say the struggle for me is in people realizing how hard I really do work. I think that that's a big thing for me. Everybody thinks things just happen and they don't. And there's like a lot of behind the scenes. I'm a very behind the scenes worker. So I like to work silently and then have the work speak for itself. And oftentimes what ends up happening is people just think that it pops out of nowhere and it doesn't. And so I think that's where my struggle comes in.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right. Is that what you're referring to earlier? You sort of said that certain people have the wrong impression.
Ayesha Curry: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Yes. I can't say this for sure, I don't know your experience, but I would suspect that those kinds of, "Oh, it just came out of nowhere," thoughts and accusations are leveled more often against women, perhaps, than men who are successful.
Ayesha Curry: I would say so. Yes. It's my politically correct answer. I would say so.
Dan Pashman: And you were talking about kind of your approach to your business on an interview on Nightline. And you said one thing that my mom always told me was to never lose yourself inside of your marriage. Can you tell me more about that?
Ayesha Curry: Yeah, I had moved out to L.A. very young and was working and doing my thing, and so I always felt like I needed to keep that part of me. And it can change to some capacity. But I always felt like it was something that made me who I am. Me being able to exercise my creativity. And so I've always just wanted to make sure that I keep that and have that to bring to the table. And that might change over the years, which is fine. But for right now, I think that's a huge part of me and makes me who I am. So I never want to lose that.
Dan Pashman: Ayesha Curry’s new cookbook The Full Plate: Flavor-Filled, Easy Recipes for Families with No Time and a Lot to Do. Next week on the show, my guest is Chef and Top Chef star, Tom Colicchio. We'll talk about how he and the show have changed since it launched 15 years ago. That's next week. While you wait that one, make sure you check out last week's show, in which we consider the lobster. And please make sure you connect with our show so you don't miss future episodes. In Spotify and Stitcher, Follow. In Apple Podcasts, Subscribe. Thanks.