New York based designer Naeem Khan’s name is synonymous with vibrant colors, rich embroideries, luxe eveningwear and for those who know him best, entertaining. Khan’s biggest fans and devotees are ladies of the night and ladies who lunch–those who look for any reason to dress up and seek to find the sophistication and luxury in even the most mundane of activities. You can spot a Naeem Khan woman from a mile away; she’s the one in an embroidered suit sitting down for an espresso rather than grabbing it on the go, the swan-like socialite who opts for a brightly printed dress featuring loads of intricate threadwork to browse the racks at Bergdorf Goodman, and the ladylike fixture at a black tie affair who captivates the room from the center of the dance floor and understands that black tie means black tie (cocktail dresses are better suited for…well, cocktails).
And so, when we heard the affable, down-to-Earth and multi-talented designer prefers to cook lunch for his team and sit down to a meal at a properly set table to exchange stories, jokes and ideas over organic, seasonal dishes (rather than pop out and grab a sad salad or sandwich to eat at his cutting table or desk), we invited ourselves over for lunch. Over a healthy meal of marinated pompano fillets and Naeem’s signature salads, we got some delicious insight, easy recipes and entertaining tips from the fashion world’s most elegant foodie. Scroll down for recipes.
Harper’s Bazaar: How did you start cooking? And when did you begin the tradition of cooking for your team?
Naeem Khan: “I grew up in a large family in India and we all got together every so often for dinners; it was almost like a compound,” Khan explained. “I’ve [always] had a fascination with the ability of food to bond people, sharing a meal has this ability to bring people closer together. Just like with fashion, cooking allows you to come up with your own ideas of mixing flavors and creating. So, when I moved into my new studio in the garment district [in midtown Manhattan], I decided to build a full gourmet kitchen in the office, thinking I’d be working late and could have a chef come in and cook for me–I never got a chef. About five years ago, I was working late and had planned to host a dinner party for 18 of my friends. I got home at 6:15 and prepared a 4-course meal in 45 minutes, and I realized how easy it could be to cook and eat well if it were organized. So now, my team comes in and we plan lunch in the morning, so it’s organized and cost effective. Sitting together and sharing a meal creates so much love among my team. We get together, we bond, we share stories and we work together; it’s primal, really, but this feeling is so fantastic and the people who work with me have been with me for so many years–and it all starts with me cooking for them and creating this home and this bond for us.”
NK: I entertain a lot at home. In the office it’s not as complex–and it’s always super healthy. In New York, you usually grab things that are processed and not super fresh for lunch. In the office, we get organic, we go to the market. Since we need to be conscious of time, it’s about being organized and efficient. If we decide that tomorrow we’re going to have white bean soup, then someone needs to go and soak the beans today. The beans don’t even soak for that much time, but because of that preparation we’ve simplified the process. Cooking at home is more complex, it’s more refined and it’s all about presentation. Often I am entertaining my family and friends from the industry, like Linda Fargo, who is one of my closest friends.
At home it’s about experimenting, and since I travel so much in Asia, South America and around the world, I am exposed to such a mound of diverse foods and flavours. As a designer, I try to create my own version of those flavours. Food is all about years of experimentation; you need to know your temperatures, your acidity levels…but I have experimented so much that I’ve honed down some amazing recipes and created my own signature dishes. Presentation is also important at home because the way you serve the food enhances the experience, and then the evening becomes really amazing. I’ve been doing these dinners with Krug where we have the best champagne and the music compliments the meal and each dinner is paired with the proper drink. I invite my closest friends and it creates this truly amazing experience for us all.
HB: Since you’re originally from India, are all of your flavours typically interpreted through the lens of Indian cooking? Or, are you often cooking cuisines you didn’t grow up with?
NK: I do tend dig into my Indian background, because that’s what I know best. I have such access to India, so my spices are ground in India and can be sent to me within 24 hours. I can make an Indian meal with the freshest of spices any day I want. My sauces and marinades are not bottled–not that it’s bad to use bottled sauces, but there is something great about it being fresh. My mother has a great team of cooks who can grind things for me, or bake traditional flatbreads and ship them to me frozen and they can be on my table fresh the next night. Indian cuisine is so complex; just like with Chinese food, the food in India is so different than the American versions of it. What I learned in India in my mother’s kitchen is to deconstruct Indian flavors and think ‘what if instead of making a slow cooked curry, I made a steak and spiced it this way and put the sauces on the side…?’ India plays an important role for me when I’m cooking, but I am always cooking different things and different cuisines.
HB: What are your favourite dishes to prepare?
NK: I like healthy, fresh foods. Here, we made pompano in banana leaves, to preserve the moisture, and blended cilantro, dates, chilies, garlic, olive oil salt and pepper in a blender to make a marinade. You simply pour it over fish, layer it in the leaves and steam it. Then you serve it over cauliflower risotto [or with a multigrain salad]. I don’t like meat too much, but fish I like. There’s a shrimp curry I make from Goa– you sautée anchovies, Indian curry and then mussels are thrown in to create the sauce. You sauté it all with tomato and it’s fantastic over a little rice. It’s tangy, sweet and has complex flavors. I also love mangos; I found a farmer in Miami who grows 75 different varieties of mangos and she’s become my dear friend! When the mango season starts, I start working with her and I have a mango tasting evening where you can taste 30 kinds in one sitting. Food is about sharing and discovering.
HB: Does your design skill set play a role in the kitchen?
NK: In fashion, I am working with so many different materials, hundreds of fabrics and embroideries and in my case, I create my own fabrics and design my own prints. I draw and paint–like in this [upcoming] collection I handpainted these little flowers by taking spatulas and just spreading the paint and then photographing it. In embroidery, there are so many different fabrics and threads so you’re constantly working with all these senses (where they are placed, how it’s applied, how the weight of the fabric will affect the shape and scale of the garment, how it fits the body). With food, it’s all about senses as well: how it tastes, smells, the textures, how it makes you feel–and [like fashion], it tastes better if it’s presented properly. When I’m in Italy, and I’m sitting in a vineyard having a glass of wine, it just tastes fantastic. Then, I have the same wine in New York and it just doesn’t taste the same. Its all how you present the food, the experience and how it pairs with the music—it all comes through fashion.
HB: What are some easy tips to upgrading your table and food’s presentation that you have learned over the years?
NK: My go to is keeping in simple. My placemats are always interesting. You can go to some of [your local] Chinese or Japanese [markets] and find placemats with bamboo. Or, use something from Muji with simple white plates from Crate & Barrel–keep your colors in mind and keep it simple. You don’t have to use fine crystal to make it fantastic. Really colorful, creative food on a white plate looks fantastic–and my food is so colorful. If I want a look that’s more cool, I collect Elsa Peretti and so Ill do a whole Peretti table from candles to silverware. I used to work for Halston and so I love that look–it’s modern and organic and simple.
HB: Do you dine out often? Where do you go and what do you love to eat?
NK: I do, I have big social life. And when you entertain often, people invite you out [to dinner in return]. I love trying new foods and new restaurants. Last night I was at Prune, and it was so simple, but the food was so amazing. The other day we went to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which was delicious, but it’s so minimal. EN Brasserie is my favorite Japanese restaurant, where they make tofu by the hour. The last time I was there we had tuna ribs—they bring a whole tuna to your table and you’re scraping the tuna ribs with a spoon. It’s a little barbaric now that I think of it, but it was so delicious.
HB: Are you as good of a mixologist as you are a chef? What are some of your go-to drink recipes?
NK: Summertime is my favorite time to make cocktails– since you get herbs and fruits in season. I used to infuse vodka with herbs but I haven’t done that in some time. One of Linda Fargo’s favorite drinks is one I make with coconut water, tequila, a dash of tonic and lemon. I use Mojo natural pure coconut water, it’s a little sweeter. It’s also about how you serve these drinks—I like to serve mine with crushed ice in silver glasses, because when you’re holding the glass, the experience of coldness of it with the crushed ice sends the message to your mind that your about to enjoy something really refreshing.
To make all of Naeem’s signature studio lunches, follow the easy recipes below.