I had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie Sparks.
Jamie Sparks graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, Paris in 2006. Since then she has worked on some of the largest and most luxurious private yachts in the world, in well-known Michelin rated restaurants in France and Las Vegas and, most recently, a camp in one of the most sought after safari destinations on the African continent. She is the author of the soon to be published book, “Tchad: Cooking for Conservation,” whose proceeds will benefit conservation efforts in Africa.
What is your “backstory”?
I knew I wanted to travel and work abroad from a very young age. In 2014, just before I turned 19, I left the United States to move to Costa Rica, never having been to the country before and with a bit of high school Spanish behind me. I craved big adventures and was curious about other cultures. From there I moved to France to go to culinary school – the Parisians really hated me! A young, naive American who would speak random Spanish words in the place of French words she didn’t know! After almost two years in France and significantly increasing my French language ability, I skipped over to Las Vegas to work for Thomas Keller at Bouchon, which didn’t last long! My travel bug bit hard and, at that stage, I found my sea legs, working on-and-off for seven years on private yachts ranging in size from 60’ to 390’, which offered me a “free ride” to destinations all over the world; New Zealand, Tahiti, Galapagos, the Caribbean Islands, the Mediterranean coastline, East and West Coast USA and Alaska. During that time I met one of my dearest friends who introduced me to Africa and the organization I would eventually work for in Chad: African Parks Network. Working for this organization awakened a passion in me for conservation and it has inspired me to try and “make a difference” the only way I know how – through cooking!
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
The most interesting story that happened to me didn’t actually take place in a kitchen but did happen when I was working in the bush at Camp Nomade in Zakouma National Park, Chad. In the middle of the night, near the end of the 2017 season, I had returned from the restroom and crawled back into bed. I was drifting back to sleep when I heard what I thought was a buffalo slowly plowing through the bush near my tent. It kept coming closer and closer, very slowly. Then, all of a sudden, it stopped and I heard a deep, raspy panting noise. I knew immediately that it wasn’t a buffalo. I grabbed my torch, flipped over onto my stomach and pressed my face up against the mosquito net. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I turned on the light; a leopard, standing over its kill, looked back at me from just six feet away from my pillow. I quickly turned off the light, expletives sounding in my head, and curled up in my bed as far away from the netting as I could get! To my astonishment, the next thing I heard was crunching of bones. Instead of moving off, she made herself comfortable and started eating her dinner right there by my bed! She was very relaxed and not bothered at all when I turned my torch back on and watched her. I observed her for an hour and a half before she moved off into the bush, just before the sun came up. Only when the euphoria wore off did I come to the realisation that she had probably watched me walk to and from the bathroom not only that night but many more before it. She brought her kill to my tent because she knew I wasn’t a threat; she knew me better than I knew her!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My most exciting project is the book I’ve just completed, “Tchad: Cooking for Conservation.” It is a cookbook/travelogue about my experiences working in the canvas tented kitchen in the middle of the bush. I’ve decided to donate $100,000 of the profits from the sales of the book to African Parks to help aid in their conservation efforts on the African continent. After that initial goal is reached, 25% of the profits will continue to flow to them.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
There are too many to list so I will give you two – one who is still alive and one who has passed away.
Ellen Degeneres because I believe she takes kindness to a new level, she’s always giving, supports the underdogs, and she just started a wildlife fund! I find her comedy is full of positivity and hope – something the world needs more of!
Nelson Mandela because I think everyone could learn from the tolerance and forgiveness he displayed after he was released from prison in 1990. After he won the presidential election in 1994, he could have easily turned around and divided South Africa through hate, but he didn’t, he successfully brought that country together and worked with the very people who had had a part in his imprisonment.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
When it comes to cookbooks, I absolutely love the Ottelinghi books. I think he has found the perfect balance between storytelling and recipes – plus beautiful photography.
Otherwise, I tend to read non-fiction books, which focus mainly on psychology and human dynamics. When I do read fictional books I really enjoy Neil Gaiman’s work.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
One of my goals with “Tchad: Cooking for Conservation” is to show people a lighter side of a country that otherwise gets mostly bad press. On top of being a cookbook, the book sheds light on what it’s like to live in one of the wildest parks on the African continent and praises the efforts of not only the African Parks Organization, which manages the park, but also the local Chadians who work tirelessly and with an obvious sense of pride while protecting their national heritage.
There seems to have been an increase in xenophobia in recent years and, to combat that, I think it’s important to try and draw people out of their bubbles in any way possible; to expand awareness of otherwise unknown worlds will increase tolerance and acceptance – I think that’s one of the most important things an author can do and I hope that in some small way my book does that.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?
The first month of writing was the most difficult for me. I found the project so daunting in the beginning that I allowed myself to procrastinate. I would advise people to just sit down and start writing – even if it is not something that is going to go in your book! It will help get the creative juices flowing and once you start you should have an easier time transitioning to more relevant content to your project.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, unfortunately, this isn’t an original idea, but it’s a brilliant one and I would love to try and do something similar one day. I was browsing Kickstarter campaigns the other day and came across a campaign called, “Ugandan stories to support literacy and cultural awareness.” It’s a children’s book made up of Ugandan folklore which has been translated into English and illustrated by Ugandan artists. For each book you buy, you will also be supplying one year of reading books to a child in Uganda. So not only does it have the potential to teach a young child about the culture of a place that is so incredibly different from theirs, but it is delivering reading materials to a child who needs it. I guess this idea goes back to my response to an earlier question, about expanding people’s awareness. If we start educating our children at a young age about different cultures and people, society will evolve into a much more accepting place.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
The book will consume your life.
For nine months, all I thought about was finishing the book. I treated it like a job, sometimes working on it 10+ hours a day and, many times, if I wasn’t working on the book, I felt guilty. But this may have more to do with my type A personality than anything else!
No matter how thick you think your skin is, if someone criticizes the work, it’s going to sting.
During those nine months, I didn’t give myself any distance from the project, so when I started showing friends and family the first draft, even an innocent, “You should think about changing the format,” felt so critical that I shut down. I wish someone had told me to pull away once in a while.
Getting people to care about the book’s subject matter and/or mission is going to be much harder than you think.
I compare this one to starting a business, which I did back in 2014. Every person who has an idea for a business believes it is going to be great and that other people are going to find it equally as great. Most of the time that doesn’t happen! Finding your niche market and then approaching it from the right angle is important.
This is not a project you will one day tick off your “todo list.”
I love todo lists and, even more than the list itself, I love ticking things off my todo list. Because I am self-publishing, I have to get used to the idea that this is a long-term project and I may never get that gratifying “tick!”
Start promoting way before the book is even finished!
As I was writing, I had not even considered the need to start promoting the book. How could I promote something that wasn’t finished? I had this list of things I “needed to do” before I could start on the others. Next time the order will be reversed!