“I was about 7 or 8 years old the first time I saw Star Trek (The Original Series),” Natasha Sawyer tells me, “Somewhere in that episode, Mr. Spock used the Vulcan neck pinch, and I immediately tried it on my little brother. It didn’t work.”
You don’t need an excuse to love Star Trek but for Sawyer, a self-professed Star Trek fan, the Vulcan Neck Pinch was a great excuse to keep her brother at bay. Now a professional chef, avid forager and Trekkie, Natasha draws on her rich cultural background from the Caribbean, native ingredients found in Canada, and her imagination to create some weirdly wonderful Star-Trek-worthy dishes.
Although Star Trek did not play a role in her career choice, it definitely influences and perhaps heightens her creative talent in the kitchen. More than just dyed soup or neon-colored cocktails, Natasha creates truly delicious foods you actually want to eat and not just serve them for dramatic effect during Halloween.
Drawing on inspiration from her favorite episodes, ‘alien’ foods are invented in her head using a bounty of fresh vibrant and sometimes out-of-the-ordinary ingredients she finds in her current hometown of Vancouver, Canada. In a nod to her Bahamian heritage, Tash loves working with exotic fruits which work perfectly for Star Trek dishes she conjures up in her head and sharing them with her fellow Trekkie-friends. We talked to Sawyer about her favorite Star Trek dinner guests and how you too can host a delicious Star Trek dinner without making it gimmicky.
StarTrek.com: What should we know about Natasha Sawyer?
Natasha Sawyer: I am a chef, a nerd, a writer, a forager, and a seafood lover who relishes the challenge of vegan cooking. I was born in Toronto to Bahamian parents, and have lived in 3 Canadian provinces. Traveling is my second love, and I draw inspiration from every place I’ve ever visited.
I’ve been cooking professionally for 12 years now. Prior to cooking full time, I used to do occasional catering gigs for friends and family, and sometimes bake sales at Christmas craft fairs. Even when I had a horribly boring job in a call center in university, I was taking orders for party platters and canapes on the side. I am not vegan, though that’s mostly what I eat at home. I love vegetables, and I love being able to make them the star of a dish. It’s easy to impress people with a huge steak on a plate. I think it’s far more interesting to prepare vegetables in a way that impresses.
Who got you hooked onto Star Trek?
NS: No one in particular. At the time, there wasn’t anyone in my life that loved sci-fi, so I felt a little weird about liking it.
I've loved Star Trek since I was a kid, when Star Trek: The Next Generation came on the air. I wasn't a chef yet, only a high school student, but even then, I was interested in cooking. The first thing that struck me about the show was their food replicators, a machine that materialized food from thin air. The fact that there was no cooking on the Enterprise was fascinating.
During your everyday chef activities - do you use Star Trek for inspiration? If so, how?
NS: I think a lot about Star Trek when I cook, because I like to imagine how my very hands-on profession will change in the far future. Will there still be professional cooks 300 years from now? Will people still cook at all? Will climate change limit us to eating laboratory grown algae protein? Will the world become vegan like the Vulcans? What would an alien consider comfort food? What would alien plants look like? How will kitchen technology change? I’ll tell you, when I’m in the middle of prep, my hands are busy, but my brain is usually busy with something else.
What is the process of making delicious Star Trek foods by Tash?
NS: I start with the assumption that everyone wants delicious food, including aliens. I imagine that if I was an alien far from home, and wanted to make something that reminded me of my planet, what would I do? The ingredients from my homeworld aren’t available, so I use the next closest thing. I want it to look appetizing, and be delicious, even if it’s unrecognizable from its original form. That’s my overarching goal for everything I cook. Good technique, good seasonings, enhancement of that food’s inherent good qualities.
What are examples of some cool Star Trek inspired foods you have made?
NS: As a tribute to Star Trek, I often imagine what the alien foods would be like. If you watch episodes, the props department often uses "exotic" fruits like dragon fruit and lychees to represent all kinds of alien cuisine. That's fine for tv, but I like to make something that I think would be a whole dish, not just a piece of fruit. Usually I start with a description of the alien food — if there is one — and go from there. Sometimes there isn't even a description, so I make it up!
The first Star Trek food I ever made was plomeek soup. It’s from Vulcan, and therefore vegetarian. Plomeek is mentioned at least three times on Star Trek, so I assume it’s a common food there. It's interesting with that dish, because it's also a different color in each episode. I knew I wanted it to be a lovely color, and it had to be vegetarian because those aliens are vegetarian. I ended up making one of my favorite vegan soups, squash, coconut milk, and ginger. Visually appealing, and vegetarian. It was beautiful and delicious. I’m sure Vulcans would love it.
The coolest I’ve made so far — because of the technicality involved — were the Inaran algae puffs. They’re never described or pictured, which is awesome, because it then becomes whatever I imagine. I made a green flatbread dough colored with chlorella (a dietary supplement) and followed the technique for Indian poori so that it puffed when it was deep fried. Getting the raw dough to just the right thickness and getting the oil the right temperature were both challenges with that dish. I was very happy with the results.
For [another] example— I posted a recipe of a dessert, Osol Twists, on Instagram. In the show, it's described as a tart dessert, but we never see them, and never find out what an Osol is. I knew I wanted it to be a pretty dessert, though not complicated because I'm not a pastry chef. I used homemade marmalade which was beautifully sour, and frozen puff pastry, and a technique I'd seen online somewhere. [I] was very happy with the outcome.
You also work at LUNCHLab in Vancouver, can you tell us more about your work? Have you met young Star Trek fans? Or do you encourage them to also share your Star Trek passion?
NS: LunchLAB is a pilot program that focuses on access to good food in schools. I love my job! The best part is that I get to share the joy and process of cooking with teenagers. Twice a week, myself and 6-8 student sous chefs work together to make a hot, delicious, healthy lunch for the student body. It’s a small school, only about 80 students, and we end up cooking for about 45-50 of them. We make mostly vegetarian dishes, with the kids doing the majority of the prep. I have, of course, mentioned my love of Star Trek, and a few students have admitted they like it too.
Will you make Star Trek inspired dishes for Canada Day? Can you share what ideas you have?
NS: It’s the perfect time of year to make a new Star Trek dish! I’m a chef who is inspired by what fruits and vegetables I find most attractive at the market. It’s early summer, and there is so much available. As for what I make, the ingredients come first, and the dish follows. I’m leaning towards a dessert though, perhaps Icoberry Tart or Uttaberry Crepes, since berry season is starting.
You have such a bounty of great ingredients - you seem to love foraging for beautiful colors, berries in Canada - does this help with Star Trek dishes since they look out of this world in appearance?
NS: It really helps to have so many amazing ingredients in British Columbia. Anything unfamiliar can be an alien food. Sea asparagus can stand in for an alien vegetable, kelp can be cut into strips and called Alfarian hair pasta, and sunchokes make an excellent substitute for Delta Quadrant Leola Root.
What cast members would you invite over for dinner if given the chance?
NS: Character? I would invite Captain Picard, because he’s my favorite captain. Guinan, because she’s a mysterious alien that no one really knows. Cast members? Patrick Stewart, because I’d want to see how much like Captain Picard he actually is. LeVar Burton and Marina Sirtis because I hear they both have a wicked sense of humor. In both cases, I would make food from Earth, from my Bahamian background.
What will you make with your friends for the next Star Trek foodie gathering?
NS: The latest series to air was Star Trek: Picard, and Romulans played a huge part in the series. We’ll pick a few Romulan favorites; Viinerine to start, Osol Twists for dessert, and everything washed down with Romulan ale.
Finally, do you have any tips for Star Trek wannabe cooks?
NS: You don’t have to create something gimmicky. It isn’t all about dyeing something bright blue with food color. Remember flavor, and remember texture.
Michelle Tchea (she/her) is a Food and Wine Research Innovator. She has 5-bestselling books, her latest being Chefs Collective: 50 of the world’s greatest Asian chefs to watch. Twitter (@somethingmich)