Jainine Jaffer only started cooking professionally a few years ago, but food has been a life-long passion.
After earning her degree in business management and owning and operating businesses, she realized she wasn’t happy. She packed up her things in Los Angeles and moved back home to Las Vegas, got her culinary degree and started doing what she knew she’d love: cooking.
Beyond her own passion for food, she views food as a gateway to cultures and helping expand people’s minds.
When and how did you start cooking?
I was probably still in training wheels. I literally always had a love for the kitchen. I was at my mom’s feet as a baby, always in the kitchen. I made my first meal for family when I was 8. I have a love of food and flavors and creating.
Do you remember the dish?
I could never forget. I made a traditional Pakistani curry, like a meatball with a tomato sauce and yogurt curry with pita bread.
Has your heritage always been your influence?
Because of my heritage, there is always a little influence in what I do, but I’m very much known as a fusion chef; I have an affinity toward fusion.
When did you realize you wanted to be a chef?
I went through a whole gamut: doctor, lawyer, firefighter and astronaut. I think I always knew I would love it and thought I would be. When I was 17, I wrote up a business plan and drew up blueprints on a sketchpad for a bakery and café. I had no money or collateral, so that didn’t work. Eventually I went to college and got my degree in business management and digital media marketing and I owned and operated hotels. Everything I’ve done, it’s been fun, but I never truly loved it.
So how’d you end up back in Las Vegas cooking?
I was living in L.A. for a brief five years, and one day I looked up and asked myself, “Do you love what you do?” And the answer was no. The follow up was, “What are you going to do about that?” So I moved back to Vegas, went to culinary school and finished in 13 months.
How was that adjustment from the business world to the kitchen?
It was definitely an adjustment, a good one at that. I didn’t have to sit in front of a computer screen and the creativity was unleashed at crazy depths.
Do you have advice on how to unleash similar creativity?
I would honestly say stop trying to fit into a box and make your destiny. That’s how I’ve always lived. When I grew up, there was a lot of racism. As mixed culture, I was never brown enough for the brown kids, never white enough for the white kids. So I had to learn to be comfortable in my own skin at an early age, so I don’t take s#!% from anyone, don’t question myself. I do what I feel is right and cool and I don’t care.
How has the Vegas dining scene changed since you were growing up?
It’s definitely diversified a lot from the early 90s. As the city has grown, it opens the doors for other people, other cultures, other cuisines to come in and you just find your niche. There’s a lot of opportunities for this city and people have realized and started to capitalize on it. I love that this city is becoming a food destination. It’s well deserved.
You mentioned you travel a lot. How do you find food?
I definitely do like to do research before I go anywhere, a place I’m not familiar with. Also, trust the whole follow your nose instinct. I’ll never forget a time in Denver I was just driving around trying to find the botanical garden and caught a whiff and it smelled good. I literally drove around until the smell got closer and I found a hole-in-the-wall cranking out Filipino food. I like to find what’s not so popular. I look for quaint little dark spots. As much as I love going to five-star dining places, that’s not my forte or for the majority of people. We just want good food made from love. That’s my niche, that’s what I go for, the whole David Chang, Ugly Delicious. It’s true, the best food is probably the ugliest.
What are your 2019 goals?
Obviously to create and present amazing dishes in a way to kind of bring about awareness of my own culture. As a Muslim, I cook only halal, and within the realm of food, people are a lot more open to hearing things. People come in and ask what does halal mean? And that’s opening the gate to promote understanding.
I’ve always been exposed to diversity, and even though a lot of people have a common misconception of what Muslim and Islam are, we’re just as normal as you and everybody else. Life is all about accepting people as they are and not putting labels on them. In a way, my fusion cooking is promoting unity as well. Just like people of different cultures live in harmony, so can flavors.