Lately, one of my favorite Instagram accounts is that of Peter Som, a fashion designer who has been in the business about as long as I have, and who recently pivoted to share his other talent, cooking. I like to cook, sort of, meaning if it’s easy-ish, but upgrades my mundane go-tos, I’m all about it. Peter’s recipes are just that–delightfully simple to make, visually stunning and delicious. Peter is the second man I’ve interviewed on TFI, but because I’ve watched him become an established designer and am personally obsessed with what he’s doing now, I wanted to talk with him. Here, he shares what he loves most about fashion and food, the five essentials every woman should have in her closet and the recipe that makes anyone look like an accomplished chef.
You’re pivoting into the lifestyle arena, but for those who don’t about your years as a successful fashion designer, can you give us a brief background of your career to date, and then how everything has evolved to where you are now? I had my own line for a very long time, Peter Som. It was fashion shows, selling at Bergdorf Goodman and Saks and the like, and dressing notable women such as Michelle Obama and others. To be a fashion designer was my dream since I was in fifth grade. And, I was lucky enough through hard work and support of a lot of amazing people to do it. The funny thing is, for me, cooking was always in the background. Just growing up in the kitchen with my grandmother and my mom, and then especially when my career in fashion was taking off, cooking was a way for me to keep my feet on the ground.
When I stopped designing my line, I dove into cooking because it was a natural extension of how I try to live my life. For me there were a lot of parallels in terms of my approach. I wanted my clothing to always be crisp and clean and effortless. I would always want my customer to say, “Oh, I love that dress. I want to wear it again.”
In the same way, I started doing recipes. I wanted the recipes to be straightforward, effortless, beautiful, great to eat, hopefully much like my clothing was also comfortable to wear. The kind of recipe that somebody could turn to over and over again. So it’s been really exciting to delve into the food space and just think about how people live their lives–what you wear, what you eat, and not in this sort of hierarchal, snobby way. It is more about what makes you feel good and what feels good to you. It’s not about perfection either. It’s about the food being perfectly you. It sounds cheesy, but that’s kind of the feeling.
You learned to cook from your mom and your grandmother, when did you really start concentrating on it?Probably when I was designing my line, I had so many dinner parties then. I also think for me it was watching the Food Network, anywhere from Ina Garten back to Jacques Pepin. I started wanting to learn how to make things and to understand what flavors went together and why. It’s like in fashion, you have to learn the basics before you can take risks. Not that I’m a trained chef, I’m definitely a home cook.
For me, it’s not about fancy belabored food. It’s really about delicious, fresh, easy food. I think I’m an impatient person. I grew up in fashion. It’s on to the next season, on to the next show. I want instant gratification or close to it. So for me it was always about recipes. I’m like, “Okay, I love this idea. Can I make it a different way? Can I do my take on it? Can I make it simpler? Can I edit some steps or something like that to achieve the result that I want?” It was really just the process and last September, I relaunched my website to really reflect not just my fashion background and what I’ve done in fashion, but also my love of food and lifestyle.
What has been the biggest surprise about doing this now? I think it’s funny, I’m maybe not surprised, but just super grateful when I see people making my recipes and posting them. I feel such a sense of awe and humility; they’re feeding their family with a recipe that I made. It’s actually quite similar to when I would see a customer wearing my dress, walking down the street, whom I did not know.
Tell me about your collaboration with Anthropologie. I had done some previous collaborations with Anthropologie. Their aesthetic and my aesthetic are somewhat similar. We love print. We love color. We love pattern. We like what I like to call “happy clothes”. So I was thrilled to get to work with them again and for me, this was a great way to dip my toe back into fashion with things that I’ve designed in a way that made sense for where I am now. It’s universally sized, and of course I love that the price point is much more approachable.
What do you love most about fashion? The creative part. At heart I love designing, I love patterns, and I love the process. I also do love the collaborative process with a team. For me, that’s the exciting part. And like anything, that is a tiny sliver of the pie of everything else that one has to do in fashion, between the business side, production, purchase orders, shipping–all that stuff which is all necessary for the ship to keep moving. So for me, definitely the actual part of designing and putting pen to paper, which I still do and just sketching. It’s something that’s second nature to me.
What do you like least? I’m at this point where I try not to think about what I don’t like. Fashion is a huge machine. It’s changing a lot. In the last 10 years, every aspect of it has shifted. There are a lot of moving targets and I think brands are trying to figure out the best way forward. It’s not a one size fits all. When I started, you did a collection, you sold it to these key retailers, you got mentions in certain publications and then you just kept going that way. It’s totally different. Nowadays, there are so many different ways to define success and how to get there.
What do you love most about food? Everything. I think it’s really, again, a similar way with fashion. For food, I love the brainstorming of the recipes, looking at ingredients, trying things out. Really just being in the kitchen. I love chopping. I mean I love chopping. There’s nothing more therapeutic than a nice sharp knife, a cutting board and lots of vegetables. As a visual person, I enjoy photographing my things; that’s my fashion show.
What do you like least about food? The calories, just kidding! But if I ate all of what I made, I would need to go to the gym every single second. I have lots of great friends who will willingly try things out for me. I am happy for my taste testers.
Five items every stylish woman should have in her closet: I think the items are evergreen and season-less in a way. A great menswear white shirt can be the sexiest thing ever and they’re versatile. Any kind of animal leopard print shoe, whether it’s the heel or a ballerina. For me leopard is a neutral. Some sort of great outerwear piece. I think maybe I’m influenced by living in New York where everyone’s walking down the street and your outerwear is your statement piece.
For sure, a great jean, whether it’s high-waisted, whether it’s pleated, carrot-legged, there are so many different kinds now, but I think a jean is really important, whatever suits your silhouette. And finally a sweater in a bright color. Every once in a while it’s great to have that one bright color like a pink or bright yellow. That being said, for me heather gray, navy and black and white are the chicest colors that will take you anywhere.
Five items every person who likes to cook should have his own kitchen: One of them has to be investing in a great knife. I like an eight-inch knife which can really do most anything, but it has to be sharp. The reason why people cut themselves is usually because the knife isn’t sharp, it’s dull, and it slides off of the food on to your fingers. So a nice sharp knife.
I am a fan of a huge cutting board. I don’t want a 12 inch by eight inch cutting board, my cutting boards are 18 by 24. They cover the entire counter because I just spread out, and it’s just more functional. For sure, a great pan. It can either be cast iron, it can be non-stick. I have the one from Our Place, which is non-stick and amazing.
What I really do like are pinch bowls, little small bowls of varying sizes. They are great for everything like salts for the table, spices, whatever it may be. It’s the kind of thing where you don’t think you need them, and then once you have them, you realize you use them a lot. So a bunch of small bowls.
The last thing is an apron–back to clothing. I have mine on a hook in my little pantry and it serves a practical purpose, obviously keeping clothes clean, but also for me, when I put it on, I’m like, “Okay, I’m here to do something.” It has pockets, you can hang your kitchen towel from the waist tie. So I think a good apron is a nice…it gives a small sense of ceremony when you’re cooking.
Favorite spring ingredients: Any spring veg makes me so happy. I love ramps, spring peas….I start calling it “salad days” when it gets warmer because the farmer’s markets just starts bursting with great, beautiful, leafy produce, all the chicories and the radicchios and the endives and that kind of thing. My fruit love comes usually a little later when it’s more berries and stone fruit, but spring for sure it’s all about the vegetables.
What’s your favorite spring drink? There’s nothing wrong with rosé and the rosé season starting. Usually by end of summer, I’m like, “Okay, I think I need to have a rosé break.” But when it starts getting warmer and we can sit outside, a nice crystal glass of rosé is an easy drink.
What is an easy recipe that makes anyone look like an excellent cook? It’s this pea salad I’ve been making for years which involves basically frozen peas that you pour into a bowl and within five, 10 minutes, are pre-thawed. So you can start with frozen peas, then you throw in pesto, ricotta salata or feta, a splash of white wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar. If you’re feeling more ambitious, throw in some mint or basil and toss it around. It’s really quite delicious.
Three words to describe Peter Som, the company: I think it’s about just living well from food to clothes to fashion to living. It’s about just effortless, easy, delicious things. It’s about just going for it.
Three words that describe Peter Som the person: Creative. Hardworking. I like to think I’m super funny and very modest. I’m definitely an outgoing shy person. It took me a long time to feel like I could have a seat at the table, whether it was fashion or food. So I think realizing that I’m, “Hey, I’m okay.”
Outgoing shy–I like that description. I think I might fit into that.
It took me a long time to get there. When I first started fashion, I didn’t realize I had to be known myself. I just thought I could design beautiful clothes and let the clothes be out there.
One of your attributes that helped you succeed: Resilience combined with a touch of optimism, it has helped me a lot. It’s been a journey from my first collection until now. I just keep on getting back up and pushing myself.
What motivates you? I love creating things, whether it is fashion or food. It’s always been a part of me. I realize I’m in a very fortunate position where I am lucky to do this. My friends and family, they are constant motivators. Who doesn’t want their friends and family to be proud of them?
Role model: My mom. She’s a very strong women who’s been through a lot and who has supported me from day one. So yeah, go mom!
Life goals: Success. For me, how I define success has changed. I think as a kid maybe one defines success as money and fame, but I think success is being a kind person, being kind to others, being grateful, but also being proud of achievements. I always know that the journey will keep evolving and changing.
Daily goals: Being a good neighbor, which really just means the golden rule, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. I try to get to the gym. But I think just being kind to myself, realizing there are good days and bad days, and it’s okay. Those bad days don’t have to define you.
Daily rituals: I usually get up at 7:00 on the dot or 6:55. Coffee, almond milk, and a touch of sweetener. I wish I could say that I meditated or something, but I don’t.
I feel like we’re the only two who don’t.
I know. I have friends who seem to be like, “Oh, I’m just levitating right now. I’ve got to talk to you later.”
Favorite book: My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, by Ruth Reichl. For me, it was very moving and about how cooking is so central to her, not just as substantive, but as everything. That really resonated with me in a similar way; cooking has gotten me through a lot of crazy times. I think cooking is therapy. It definitely speaks to me.
How do you unplug? There’s something to be said for a really good night’s sleep. Weirdly cooking does unplug for me, and even just the thought about it. Right now, it doesn’t feel like work in a way. Normally travel has been a great way to unplug, and just being in different surroundings. Obviously, that has not been happening this year, hopefully soon.
Where do you want to go? Everywhere! Paris, Morocco, Japan. The list goes on, but I think the place I miss the most is Paris.
Hidden talents/hobbies: I’m a pretty good tap dancer. I took tap dance for about 11 years. I still have my shoes. Unfortunately in New York city, living in apartments doesn’t really afford you the luxury of tap dancing because of neighbors. I even asked the gym if I could use one of the rooms to tap in, but they said no because you need to have the right floors.
Favorite charity: A lot of what’s going on now with anti-Asian violence. There are some charities that are really important that are doing great work. Heart of Dinner started during the pandemic and they bring groceries and food to elderly Asian folks in Chinatown and in the city or, and in Flushing, and that’s amazing. That kind of relates to one of my other favorite charities, which is God’s Love We Deliver. For me food is life. It’s not just eating, but it is an act of love of giving food, cooking food and serving it to people.
Favorite small indulgence: Going to Li-Lac Chocolates, which is down the street for me and getting a few little chocolatey morsels like their almond bars, or a peanut butter cup, or a chocolate-covered Oreo.
Album currently on repeat: This probably relates to my tap dance thing, but I love Broadway. Weirdly enough, the musical that I’ve been listening to a lot is Spring Awakening, which was a great musical Duncan Sheik wrote. I think I put it on every spring. The title itself already pretty much says it.
Scent that brings back memories: The smell of steaming rice. Growing up in a Chinese American household, we had rice every night, whether it was Western food or Chinese food, rice was there. Usually my job as the kid who came home from school first to put on the rice.
Lucky charm: I have a picture of my grandmother on my bulletin board in front of my desk. She passed away a long time ago, but she was the first one to ever invest in my fashion business. I feel like she’s my lucky charm or maybe my guardian angel. It’s the same thing.
Favorite hour of the day: There’s so many good hours of the day. Now I love that moment in the late afternoon when the sun hits the brownstones of New York. That’s the view outside my window.
Follow Peter: Instagram.