By Madison Back
Sameer Sarmast has always had a ravenous appetite. But it was not until eleven years ago that his passion for food was made public. “There’s a lot [of negativity] in the media, and I try to bring out the positive side through food,” Sarmast said about his online restaurant review show, SameersEats.com, founded in 2000.
The site chronicles Sarmast’s journey to find the best halal food carts and restaurants all over the country, through videos and blog posts released about once per month.
The idea for the online show came from a joking remark made by one of his sisters. Sarmast, a Paterson, New Jersey native and Rutgers University alumnae, used to take photos of himself whenever he ate at a restaurant and would later post the photos to his Facebook profile. When his sister joked that he should start taking videos too, Sarmast took the suggestion more seriously than she had anticipated. “It actually would be a good idea because no one is doing it,” he said. And with that, Sarmast began doing what he enjoys most – eating – but this time, in front of the camera.
Unlike many restaurant reviewers, Sarmast’s dining abilities are limited by his dietary restrictions. Coming from a strict Muslim upbringing, Sarmast follows the Zabiha-Halal diet, which concerns the way animals are slaughtered. The Zabiha method of slaughtering animals is very similar to kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, and for this reason, Sarmast allows himself to eat foods deemed “kosher” as well. However, Sarmast does not feel held back by his dietary restrictions because he finds that there are “so many halal restaurants out there”, and he enjoys reporting on them and bringing them to his viewers. And in the case that a restaurant does not offer halal foods, Sarmast will simply choose a seafood or vegetarian meal.
Despite having a job in the banking field, Sarmast somehow finds the time to travel coast to coast to try out different halal restaurants. Though he has been to many great eateries, Sarmast finds himself returning to New York City whenever he can to revisit his favorite halal food carts. He endorses the famous 53rd and 6th Chicken and Rice cart, known for its late-night long lines. “There’s a lot of street vendors out there that are great, 53rd and 6th being one of them,” he said. It may seem like every halal cart on the street is the same, but Sarmast notes that it is a tough business and everyone is competing by offering their own twists to the traditional gyro or chicken and rice platters. One thing all of the vendors have in common, according to Sarmast, is the famous white sauce, used as a topping for various dishes. Sarmast’s personal favorite, however, is the hot sauce, and his impressive tolerance of spicy foods can be seen in many of his virtual reviews.
Sarmast does not make any revenue from his website or his webisodes. At a time, he was approached by Google to become a partner in their revenue-sharing program, but he declined the offer, fearing that interruptive advertisements would make viewers turn away. Sarmast says that he wants to inform people for free – and building his name up at the same time is not bad compensation.
In addition to influencing his viewers’ dining preferences, Sarmast notes that his lifestyle and dietary habits have influenced other people in his life. One of his coworkers, an Italian-Catholic woman, now only shops at halal meat markets, after discovering that she prefers the cleanliness of halal-style meat.
Aside from the immediate gratification he gets from the meals he enjoys while reporting on his website, Sarmast takes pride in the message he is able to send to his family, friends, and viewers: “With everything going on in the world, with terrorism and the negative views on religion, one thing we can all agree on is good food. No matter what religion you are or what culture you are, if you have amazing food, we can all enjoy and be happy over it.”
In the future, Sarmast hopes to write a book or open up his own halal restaurant. But for now, he is content with spreading his love of food one bite – or byte – at a time to the rest of the virtual world.