Life has always been a layering of cultures for Aliya LeeKong. The daughter of Indo-Pakistani and Tanzanian immigrants, Aliya grew up in Winter Park, Florida where she was as easily inspired by making brownies for school bake sales as by cooking East African curries with her mother. “My parents spoke different languages, so I was never quite sure to which side of my family a particular dish or word belonged, but everything about food was celebratory and joyful in my home. The idea that cultures can blend with one another to create amazing food is one that is instinctive to me,” she says.
After studying at Brown University and Columbia Business School, Aliya went on to work in corporate America in Manhattan, but found herself stealing as much time as possible to travel and cook. She quickly came to realize that cooking was what truly fed her soul and would be her life’s work. She first grounded herself in technique, training at the International Culinary Center, and then traversed the globe to become a student of home cooks in global kitchens. She traveled to over 30 countries in the past 10 years alone, including Brazil, India, Thailand, Turkey and South Africa. “Travel is truly how I learn authentic traditions. I consider it a ‘culinary grad school’ and a necessary part of how I develop myself as a chef,” she says. Aliya honed her resume by staging and working on the line at such reputable restaurants as New York City’s Jean Georges, Devi, and Per Se, and has most recently and prominently served as Chef and Culinary Creative Director of the renowned Indian restaurant Junoon, also in Manhattan. First and foremost an entertainer, Aliya has always spent the better part of her free time in the kitchen, cooking for friends and testing recipes that are inspired by her personal travels and family’s heritage -– both her own and her husband’s, whose family is from Trinidad by way of Venezuela, Spain and even China.
This Fall 2013, Aliya introduced her first cookbook, Exotic Table -- Flavors, Inspiration, and Recipes from Around the World –- to Your Kitchen (Adams Media; November 2013; $35). With over 100 recipes, Exotic Table is an exciting expression of Aliya’s passion for bringing international spices, ingredients and traditions into American cooking and making them accessible to the home cook.
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