She’s the first Indian female chef to win Chopped, a popular reality cooking show on Food Network, an American TV channel. No mean feat for a woman whose journey had begun at the humble kitchen of her parents’ in Mumbai.
Aarthi Sampath, who is currently Chef de Cuisine at Junoon, a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in New York City, has come a long way. Her passion for cooking lead her to seek a position in the Taj Hotel Group Management Trainee Programme, after her time at the Institute of Hotel Management in Jaipur. After 5 years with the Taj Group in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai, she moved to the US to attend Johnson & Wales University.
After joining Junoon in New York City (NYC) through an internship, Sampath’s was elevated to the role of Chef de Cuisine in recognition for her culinary skills, as well as her ability to combine modern techniques with traditional Indian cooking.
Tell us about your earliest memories of food and cooking. When and how did the desire to become a chef strike you?
My earliest memories of food are associated with summer vacations, watching my maternal grandma chase crabs that grandpa had just bought from the fish market — how she would grab them by their torso, butcher them, and create yummy pepper garlic crab masala.
My mom, on the other hand, was a health freak, so we would eat very healthy. I once browsed through her old cookbooks, decided to bake a cake, and saw the simple ingredients transform into a magnificent dark spongy cake. As a creative person who loved the fine arts and the visual arts, cooking drew me in. That chocolate cake urged me to try more dishes. After a lot of trials and errors, I wanted to become a chef.
What are the chief pleasures and challenges of your profession?
The challenges are the long work hours, no special days off. Unless your are truly in love with the art of food, it is very hard to survive in this industry. It is a male-dominated field, so it’s always a challenge for women to make remarkable leaps.
The joy that one gets when the customer appreciates your food negates all the long hours of work and tough working conditions. It is all creatively very satisfying.
As an Indian chef working at an international restaurant, what kind of modifications do you have to make to your food?
I strongly believe that it is about time Indian food kept up with today’s times. The world is getting more health-conscious, so the very creamy, buttery gravies are being modified to lighter sauces. The spice levels and the spices used are still very authentic. However, if these are used excessively, they may end up causing heartburn or kill the flavour of the base ingredients. A lot of emphasis now is on the key ingredient, other than just the masalas or the gravy, which, earlier, used to get more prominence.
The world is getting more health-conscious, so the very creamy, buttery gravies are being modified to lighter sauces.
What do you like to eat? Do you enjoy cooking for yourself or do you prefer someone to do it?
Like most chefs, I love my mother’s cooking. I can eat her fried fish, dal, rice and pepper lamb chops all day. I don’t like cooking for just myself. I love home-cooked meals, even if it is made by someone who doesn’t cook too well.
Being a chef is usually seen as a male bastion. Has the profession posed difficulties for you?
My journey has definitely not been a bed of roses. I knew the only way to rise above the chauvinistic industry is to prove to the world my worth. I have fought all these years for equal opportunities. I have tried to work harder, smarter, faster and in more creative ways than the next person, so that I’m not put into a bracket. It has been a tough tide, but I feel I finally rode it. This has made me realize that once you master your skills, you’re just considered a pro in your field, you’re no longer put in a category. So I urge all young chefs to push themselves by acquiring knowledge and skill sets so that they would never be subject to discrimination.