Cool Friends: Nilou Motamed    

June 9, 2023

Meet Nilou, an Iranian-born New Yorker who you might know from her illustrious career in food media and as a founding member of #CookForIran: a global campaign raising awareness for human rights in Iran through food. Nilou was the Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine, and Epicurious, before launching her own brand consultancy and a second career as an Emmy-nominated TV personality (Iron Chef, Chopped, Top Chef.) We caught up with Nilou to hear how her career has been shaped and inspired by her life in New York City.

What led you to start your career in the food industry?

Back in the very early aughts, I got an amazingly plum gig: Food Editor at Travel + Leisure. The magazine had never had a Food Editor on the masthead before — it was the dawn of the “Serious Food” Era — so I was able to shape the role and our coverage as I went. As people were becoming obsessed with exploring the world through food and ingredients, I assigned stories about “traveling to the source”—phô in Hanoi, rosé in Bandol, artisanal shoyu in Japan. There was hardly a single food quest or destination we left undevoured. That role at T+L set me on the path I’m still on, which is really about finding the intersection of food, culture, and travel. That’s the sweet spot, right?

Can you tell us a little bit more about #CookForIran's mission?

We founded #CookforIran to raise awareness of Iran’s human rights movement, which obviously has been a concern for years but especially now. Our idea was to celebrate Iran’s rich tradition of hospitality and of course the amazing flavors of Persian cuisine. We’re trying to shift the lens from politics toward Iran’s cultural contributions.

We’ve found a remarkable partner in the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, which has provided mental health support and trauma-relief training in areas of conflict, such as Syria and Ukraine. They’re now doing the same on the ground in Iran.

The good news is we’ve got amazing chefs like Marcus Samuelsson, Ayesha Nurdjaja, and Yotam Ottolenghi amplifying our message. And anyone can participate. You can throw a dinner party or informal gathering, or simply try your hands at a classic Persian dish and tag your creation #cookforiran on social media.

What’s your favorite part about the New York creative community?

Travel is such a big part of my life but I’m always drawn back to NYC and the inspiring community I have here—or should I say communities, because I’m lucky enough to have a foot in both the media world and the food and restaurant world. A lot of people left New York during and after the pandemic, but my husband and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

People throw around the word “tribe” too often, but that’s what we’ve nurtured in this city for 25+ years. I love that New Yorkers live their life very much “in public,” with the whole city as our collective living and dining room — in other places so much of life and work happens behind closed doors, but here it’s on proudly on display day and night. That creative energy is what sustains us.

What’s your favorite place in NYC?

We’ve lived in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn for 23 years now (I can’t even believe how time has flown) and I can’t get enough of the small-town vibes. Sitting on our stoop taking in the ebb and flow of the neighborhood gives us a nice respite from NYC’s frantic pace. If you haven’t visited Carroll Gardens, I recommend finding a perfect spring day when the lilacs and cherry trees are both in bloom—you can easily criss-cross the whole neighborhood on foot or on Citi Bike. Have lunch in the shady garden at Frankies 457 Spuntino (our de facto town hall), and don’t miss the fantastic masala chai ice cream at Malai.

What’s inspiring you right now?

The women of Iran.

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