Five years ago, Sarah Thomas — a sommelier at one of the best restaurants in New York City — left her job to launch the children’s platform Kalamata’s Kitchen, which includes videos, travel guides and a new book. Her goal? “I want to teach kids empathy and open-mindedness by learning about other cultures through food.” Here, Sarah shares her confidence secret, her wedding look, and the two products that changed her skin…
You’ve said that your childhood helped shaped your work. Where did you grow up?
My parents are both from South India, and I was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania. Our small town wasn’t the most welcoming or diverse place to grow up for a kid who looks like me — big hair, big eyebrows, sideburns. My mom would pack my school lunches, and classmates would make fun of the smell. And I was like, ugh, I don’t want to eat it, I’m going to try to get a Slim Jim.
That must have felt so confusing.
I remember not feeling comfortable in my own skin. It took me many, many years to celebrate the things that make me me. As a kid, I never felt pretty; I never seemed to fit in anywhere. Born and raised here, I wasn’t fully Indian, but people weren’t considering me fully American.
How did that affect your work today?
Nowadays we’re on a mission to inspire kids to learn about the world through adventures with food. We do that through an adorable character, Kalamata, and her stuffed alligator pal, Al Dente. It was important to me to represent Kalamata the way she is because I remember how insecure I felt as a child about things that are absolutely wonderful and special now. And I never want a child to feel that way.
The words that they live by are the words of the Taste Buds Pledge: ‘I promise to keep my mind open and my fork ready to try each food at least two times and share what’s on my plate when others don’t have enough.’ Different is delicious, the unfamiliar is an adventure.
Did you create it, in a way, for your childhood self?
If characters like Kalamata had existed when I was a child, who knows what confidence I might have had? That kind of character also would have impacted the white kids I grew up with — to see a girl who didn’t look like them become a leader, an inspiration. People ask if I’m Kalamata, and I always say, she’s the little girl I wish I had been. She owns her big hair! She embraces it with reckless abandon! She wags her eyebrows and rocks her sideburns.
How do you take care of your hair today?
When I was a kid, my mom oiled my hair regularly with coconut oil, but recently I tried Shaz and Kiks Scalp + Hair Prewash and I love it. The neem comb is great. I also love the Desi female founder story! I don’t do much else to my hair. I typically let it dry, tie in a bun, and maybe put on a fun sari-scrunchie by HoliChic, another Desi female-founded company.
What about your brows?
I’m obsessed with having my eyebrows threaded and have missed it desperately this past year. It hurts my soul when I can’t get it done. It’s soothing for me even though someone is ripping individual hairs out of my face.
What do you love about it?
South Indian women tend to have thick hair and a lot of it. When you have hair on your face as a teenager, people don’t let that slide; I got teased all the time. I begged my mom to let me do something about my face. Two older cousins finally took matters into their own hands. They were like, ‘Hey, Sarah, come upstairs,’ and they went at my brows with tweezers. It was weird but I was so grateful. Now I get them threaded, and it feels like an auntie community. They give lots of unsolicited advice and comment on my collarbones and whether I’ve gained weight. I love it. It feels very familiar.
Tell us about your wedding makeup.
It was the most makeup I’ve ever worn in my entire life! I was like, are you sure this won’t look crazy? It was fun to get dressed up like that. It’s the most glamorous I’ve ever felt.
What about your hair?
I knew that the rest of my look was going to be a lot, so I wanted my hair to be simple. My mom had a simple bun at her wedding, so I went with that.
And your henna was beautiful!
Doing the big Indian wedding thing was very important to my mom. She planned everything. I didn’t know what to do, and she was like, I got it. The henna ceremony was such a fun, happy environment with all these women I loved in one room. Later, my book’s illustrator Jo Edwards saw the photos and was like, would it be weird if I incorporated some of these patterns into our book?
What was it like to be a sommelier? I’ve always been curious.
After grad school, I was burned out. I was like, I need to do something that’s not academic. I got it into my head that I’d be a bartender.
How did you get into wine, specifically?
Well, because I’m addicted to studying, I realized wine was the most academic part of the industry. So, I decided to pursue wine — instead of being a doctor, which my parents were thrilled by! The studying part was there, the food part was there, the service part was there. It all laddered up to help someone else have a nice experience; honestly, I got an adrenaline rush every night. I became a sommelier and ended up at Le Bernardin where I worked for six years. It was a very steep learning curve coming from rural Pennsylvania to a three-star Michelin restaurant in Manhattan. I like diving into things, though, and I like when things aren’t easy for me at first.
Let’s talk about skincare.
I’ve always had troubled skin, but in the past two years two things have made a big difference: Herbivore Bakuchiol serum and Herbivore Lapis face oil. Within two weeks, my skin looked so much better. I’d catch sight of myself in the mirror and think, oh my god, my skin looks healthy!
What about for your body?
Palmer’s Cocoa Butter. I have a theory that the scent makes dogs like me a lot!
I love your eye makeup.
I use Sephora Collection Long-Lasting 12-Hour-Wear Liquid Eyeliner. A cat eye takes maybe 20 seconds. Dark eyeliner, to me, makes me look and feel more Indian.
Any other products you swear by?
Nars Bronzer in Casino — I just swipe it on my cheek. My mom has beautiful high cheekbones, but my face is rounder like my dad’s. So, I try to fake cheekbones.
What small things make you feel beautiful?
I never leave the house without earrings. I have a great collection, mostly from my mom. They make me feel connected to my Indian-ness, even if I’m just wearing jeans and a T-shirt and big jangly Indian earrings.
Do you have a beauty philosophy?
I just want little girls with big hair and big eyebrows and big sideburns to love how they look and feel proud of where they come from. I hope that lots of kids see themselves in Kalamata. I hope that she inspires them for the rest of their lives.
Thank you so much, Sarah!
P.S. Many more women share their beauty uniforms.
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