Since time immemorial, people have heard the same maxim repeated over and over again: “do what you love, and you’ll love what you do.” The problem is, what if you have no idea what it is that you love? Or, what if you love two (or more) things equally that don’t seem to fit together at all, like crocheting and quantum mechanics? And what if you discover that you have a gift and passion for building furniture, but you’re already sixty-seven years old and you spent your entire life working that data entry job you hated so much, and the doctor just broke the news that you have arthritis? It’s enough pressure and confusion to make the average person want to forget they ever wanted to pick up a new hobby.
But, for some people, there’s no confusion, just a this-is-what-I-love that’s so certain and concrete they can almost reach out and physically grasp it. For Laila Said, one of these very people, her passion involves the world of food and the experience of eating. She’s been documenting her culinary love affair for a few years now (one that took her to a balsamic vinegar factory in Modena, Italy for three months) and sharing her journey with the rest of the world on her blog and Instagram account, which both go by the name of The World On Your Palate.
And she’s good at it. Armed with just an iPhone 4S and an adventurous appetite, she’s amassed over two thousand mouthwatering photos of all kinds of cuisines and a considerable following of people who want nothing more than to eat vicariously through her. And while the photos are beautiful in and of themselves, what stands out is the emotion that emanates from each of them. You can tell that there’s no place Laila would rather be than where she is at that moment, about to dig in to whatever delectable treat she’s going to savor.
I had the opportunity to speak at length with Laila about her passion for food, how she started The World On Your Palate and the experience of documenting the food she eats.
How did the idea for The World On Your Palate come about? When did you start documenting your culinary adventures?
LS: I started the blog in 2009. The year before, I traveled to Rio de Janeiro for a month. It was one of the first times I had ever traveled by myself, and I was so fascinated by the culture and essence and flavors of the city, that I wanted to capture them somehow. So I started taking all these pictures of food. Later, when I studied abroad in France, I went to places like Italy, and London, and Brussels, and I kept taking pictures so when I got back from my travels I had all these pictures of food, to the point where I asked myself, “What am I going to do with all of these?” I started thinking, “I can document this somehow,” to organize them. I had heard that blogs were starting to get popular, so I put them up on Blogspot, and I wrote what the dishes were and where the pictures where taken. It was initially for my own use, but then I noticed that people were actually starting to show interest in it so I tried to make it more “professional,” you could say. Because the quality of photos on Blogspot wasn’t that great, I made the move over to WordPress last year, which I feel suits me better, and now I’m in the process of transferring all the posts. The Instagram account came later, but I post on that account more often because it’s much quicker and easier.
So what’s your process of documenting food like? Does it affect how you enjoy a meal?
LS: I go out to eat with a lot of the same people, my friends and my family usually. At first, I felt a little bad because when food is on the table you obviously don’t want people to wait to dig in. But they understand that I take pictures of everything I eat so now they give me a little bit of time before, they’re used to it, and I try to take a few very quickly. I don’t move things around, it’s just a quick thing, so if [the photos] come out, they come out, if not, then they don’t, because I don’t want to affect anyone’s eating experience. And it’s as much as about documenting my personal experience as it is about capturing images. So you’ll notice that there aren’t many pictures of meat dishes, because I’m a vegetarian. If I order an interesting dish and I can envision it being a cool photo, I’ll take my time photographing it. But there are times when I just want to eat, where I won’t even pull out my phone so I can just enjoy the experience–usually at places we’ve been to before. So I find myself looking forward to those moments a lot, eating at those local places.
Did you say you’re a vegetarian? Have you always been?
LS: No. I guess it started when I moved from Mexico to the US seven years ago. I suddenly started gaining a lot of weight, which surprised me because I never used to pay attention to what I’d eat, I never noticed. And I asked myself, “What’s going on here?” So I started becoming conscious and paying attention to nutrition. My best friends are from Argentina, and they’re vegetarian. Hanging out with them so much after school, I’d notice how they’d have the most amazing vegetarian dishes with the freshest ingredients, and how healthy they seemed. And I just started having less of it. I’m not strict about it, it’s not as if my rice can’t touch the juice from a meat dish. If there’s a dish with meat being offered I’ll have a small bite of it, because I’ll try anything. But it’s like my body’s got used to not having it, though I’m open to the possibility if I need to in the future.
Do you cook for yourself a lot?
LS: Definitely. Now that I’ve started working at a culinary school in San Diego, I’m surrounded by so much good food all the time, it’s almost overwhelming. But when I’m at home, I cook for myself. When I was in college, I tried to cook as much as I could because I didn’t want to have to eat fast food. It’s hard to cook elaborate things when you’re always rushing around, so most of the time I would throw stuff into a bowl and make a quick dressing. Which is why I love appetizer-style dishes. Grilled zucchini and vegetables, couscous with feta, kale and lemon- dishes made with fresh ingredients that can be quick but also delicious.
You definitely seem to have developed an awareness of the role food plays in your life. When would you say your passion for all things “food” first developed, and how?
LS: Well, I lived in Mexico until I was fifteen, and all those years I never thought about it. Yes, I loved eating, but it wasn’t a fact that I consciously thought about. When I came to the US, I started noticing the differences between food and distinguishing the cultures different dishes came from. Then, when I started eating more vegetarian dishes with my friends, I started noticing that the quality and types of ingredients you use really affect the experience of eating. So there was that. At University, I lived in international student housing for two years, and it was all about the dinners: the French students, who would have us over for cheese and wine, or the girl from Hungary who’d make goulash. I would make guacamole for everyone to try, or hummus, because I’m also of Lebanese descent. So it was that experience that pushed me to hold on to my cultural roots and to highlight them, through food. So we would all have these parties, where it was all about the food and what you could offer to others from your culture. Food became a way for me to connect with other people and cultures, especially when I studied and traveled abroad.
Where do you see this passion taking you in the future?
LS: There’s this master’s program in Italy that revolves around gastronomic sciences, which is the study of the links that exist between cultures and food. I definitely want to pursue it, because that’s something that I’d love to explore, the theoretical side of it. So when I found out this existed, I realized that this obsession with food and the experience of eating didn’t just have to be a hobby, but an actual profession, something I could dedicate my life to and love. Which is why I love being able to post on Instagram and my blog; it’s like I get to be part of a community of people who love food in the same way I do. I can’t really say where I’m going to end up, but I’m happy being immersed in the world of food for now.
Perhaps the most important question of all: what’s your favorite dish to eat?
LS: Oh, my god, I have so many dishes running through my head right now… I guess the first thing that came to mind is this place, here in San Diego, it’s called TJ Oyster Bar. It’s basically Baja food: ceviche, fish tacos, fresh seafood. That comes up to me because I love having a michelada, which is cold beer prepared with lime juice, chili, and salt. A michelada with a tostada covered with fresh ceviche- that, I love. I’ll eat it anywhere, any time of the day. When I traveled, I even craved it, that’s how much I love it. ~
Yum. Who’s down for a road trip to San Diego?