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On July 19, Outside will launch sales of the Outerverse Passport, a new product granting holders access to an array of NFT drops from creators who focus on the outdoors, adventure, and healthy living. Outerverse NFTs will include beautiful, original artworks, but also be linked to offline utilities and experiences. Think: Invites, special gear, exclusive content, and more. Because, while the Outerverse is built on cutting-edge technology, its mission is to use that high-tech platform to encourage users to get outside and spend time engaging with their real-world passions. Among the initial group of athletes, artists, innovators, and creatives developing drops for Outerverse Passport holders is Biju Thomas, a chef, cookbook author, and avid cyclist. Biju has been involved with the Outside network since the release of his first cookbook, published by an imprint now owned by Outside, and he’s penned stories and recipes for Outside magazine along the way. If you’ve attended any of our races or events, you might have spotted him serving hundreds of meals to hungry cyclists, runners, and fans. We thought it would be a great time to learn more about Outside’s resident chef and hear from him what makes the Outerverse such an exciting prospect for creators like him.
Finding a Passion for Food
I come from a really large family where food was such a big, important part of our everyday lives. We love talking about food, and we love cooking food. I’m from south India, where it’s very coastal and jungle-like, and there are really rich farmlands. We were surrounded by every type of fruit and vegetable. We have the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea meeting up and providing incredible seafood. And it’s an area with all these diverse influences dating back to ancient spice trading routes. Greeks and Romans came through and left bits of their food culture, and later the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Belgians.
From very early on, you could find me in the kitchen helping my mom and grandmom cook, or I would be on the farm, taking care of cattle or harvesting vegetables. Back then, if you wanted to have coffee in the morning, you had to go to the well, get water, come back, start a fire and make hot water for coffee. That appreciation of the ingredients, simple techniques, and particularly live-fire cooking really still informs how I cook today.
I also draw inspiration from the role food played in bringing people together. In Indian culture—most older cultures from anywhere in the world, really—we have a history of eating together or eating in big groups, whether it’s a family or the community. I grew up in a family where you didn’t stress about it if 10 extra people just showed up for dinner. There were always guests showing up, sometimes people just visiting the family, sometimes people who were in need of a little help and a meal, and they were all welcome to join and share the same food. That’s a really special gift and it’s actually helped me a lot working in restaurants and catering big events because I always know how to make things stretch.
The other thing about India is everyone rides bicycles. By the time I moved to the U.S., I had already been riding my bike everywhere for years. I was 10, fresh off the boat from India, and I was challenging the older kids in my new neighborhood with their BMX bikes to race me on the little bike I used for my paper route.
Soon after, I realized that if cycling was going to be a serious part of my life, I was going to need to cook for myself. It was the early 1980s in Colorado; you couldn’t easily buy pre-made energy bars. I started making my own drink mixes and things like that, experimenting with ingredients I could buy at the local Asian supermarket. The connection between the food we eat and how we feel, physically, mentally, and emotionally became a source of fascination for me.
The Meaning of Performance
In 1995 I saw a clip of the Tour de France, and in the background, you can see a chef getting off the Team Motorola bus. He’s wearing shorts and an apron and carrying this tray of food. I thought “Oh man, that guy looks awesome. I want to do that.”
Back then, it wasn’t that common for athletes to work with chefs. Maybe one or two superstar NBA or NFL players would have someone who prepped their food, but most of the team just ate whatever they served at the training facility cafeteria. But I got it stuck in my head and I started convincing teams and athletes to let me cook for them. By 2009, I was working with Lance Armstrong. There was a lot of attention on Lance and that became a game-changer for me. I was the subject of a big magazine article, and that led to my first cookbook.
When I think of “performance” and how the right food can enhance performance, yes, that can be for an elite athlete—but it’s really for everyone. Maybe you’re Kristin Armstrong, an Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist I’ve worked with, or a player on the Denver Broncos, or maybe you’re a bus driver. Whatever you’re doing, nutrition and what you eat can make a difference. Minor changes can have huge impacts on how you feel, how you sleep, and the overall outcome of your whole day.
There’s a man I met a number of years ago through a charity, and when we met he was about 150 pounds overweight. He got one of my cookbooks and started cooking for himself for the first time. And it made a huge difference in his life. He had this notion that cooking was too complicated for him, but he was able to look at the simple, approachable recipes in the book and start making his own food. He’s in his 60s now and when I saw him just recently he told me, “Dude, I’ve managed to keep all this weight off for the last 12 years because you helped me start cooking.”
What I do isn’t super science-y, sports-medicine-type food. It’s just simple meals that provide what people need to do what they want to do. But that kind of thing is really cool and rewarding.
Entering the Outerverse
As a teen in Colorado, Outside magazine was something I remember poring over. I would read about this whole world of outdoor adventures, many of them not that far from where I lived. My parents had six kids and I don’t remember us ever going on a vacation, but because we could read the stories and see the photographs in Outside we could get a glimpse of what that would be like. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there wasn’t this infinite library of online content or streaming TV or anything like that. If we wanted inspiration about the world beyond our immediate surroundings, we had magazines like Outside, National Geographic, and Esquire—and when we weren’t reading, we were out playing in the woods.
For kids growing up now, it’s so easy to have everything at your fingertips and just stay inside, staring at screens. And I worry about what that’s doing to us as we’re more and more isolated from real-world experiences and adventures. And that’s part of why I’m so excited to be involved with the Outerverse, because what we’re building is a sort of bridge between the modern, tech-heavy life and something a little more simple, beautiful, and connected to nature. It’s something that uses the tools and technology of today to encourage people to get out there and have real-world experiences, informed by the legacy of Outside.
As a chef and food content creator, my own contributions to the Outerverse are going to include things like NFTs that provide access to special dinners and events. Opportunities to get together in amazing, unexpected settings, gather around a fire, and share special meals with people we might not normally meet or connect with.
The Outerverse and Web3 in general are really about empowering creators, and I think there are a lot of ways that intersects with food. In the food and hospitality business, of course, there’s not always a whole lot of money to be made. When I started working in restaurants, I was also working construction and doing other gigs on the side. Sometimes I would work at a restaurant for free just so I could keep learning. Now, with NFTs, there are new ways for fans to financially support the chefs and creators they love. And there are new ways for people to assert ownership of their own recipes and creations and monetize that creation, all of which may make this a more sustainable way for people like me to follow our passions and still make a living.