‘Indian food is having its moment in America’: Chef Aarthi Sampath

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Listed among the top 32 chefs worldwide, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and TV personality, Aarthi Sampath’s culinary journey “started a million summers ago” when she discovered her mother’s cookbooks, then watched her first cake rise in the oven, and was finally enrolled in a cooking class by her grandmother. Over the years, the chef has not only prepared a lavish dinner for The “Billionaire’s Club Dinner” hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Waldorf Astoria in New York, started her food truck — Kukree — in New York City, and judged and participated in cooking reality shows.

The soon-to-be-restaurateur is currently writing a cookbook and dreams of opening a restaurant in New York and Mumbai “honouring her heritage and showcasing her love for Asian-influenced cuisines.” In an exclusive email interaction with indianexpress.com, chef Aarthi talks about the many hats she dons, her experiences over the years, the appeal of Indian food, cooking with leftovers, and the tips and tricks she swears by. Read on.

You are a chef, restaurant consultant, food truck expert, and TV personality — which role do you enjoy the most?

If I absolutely have to choose one it would be being a chef. I love being able to be creative, mentor young talent, and create an experience for the ones who enjoy my food.

Tell us about your culinary journey; how and when it started, and how it has evolved over the years?

It really started a million summers ago when my grandma sent me for a cooking class and I fell in love and was so intrigued by the process. I started my career at Taj Hotels and those were my formative years, I had so much to learn, and then I came to America with those experiences and supplemented it with my learning in school and beyond.

You often experiment with Indian flavors and techniques in your kitchen. Would you agree with the fact that Indian food has undergone a massive makeover — if yes, in what ways?

I feel we are going back to how our ancestors ate! Using more ancient grains, healing our ailments through Ayurvedic food, appreciating a good sadhya on a banana leaf. Of course, there is also that Indian make-over, where chefs from around the world are incorporating western techniques and are using desi flavors to enhance an experience. Both are great.

You competed against the best chefs on Food Network’s ‘Tournament of Chefs, Season 3’. What was your strategy/what strengths that you played with?

On game shows, it’s important to be yourself, and bring your personality and food style to stay confident. I definitely highlighted South Indian food. Imagine I made ‘Thayir Saadam’ with beets, which is yoghurt rice, and Chef Eric Ripert who was one of the judges said that was genius.

In the last few years, owing to the pandemic, many people have opted for clean eating and plant-based meats. What has been your experience of cooking with the same?

I actually recently consulted for a plant-based restaurant called Bombay Sandwich Co. In NYC, I love it. I grew up eating mostly plant-based so it hits home. That’s what most of India grew up with, isn’t it?

Using leftovers to whip up new dishes also became a pandemic phenomenon. Have you experimented with any leftover dishes to create magic? Any recipe you’d like to share?

Last night I cooked whole wheat pasta and tossed it in a chickpea and rajma curry I’d made two nights ago. Finished it off with a hit of Parmesan and cilantro and it was fantastic!

Some tricks and tips you swear by in your kitchen.

Using lime at the end to finish a dish keeps people guessing what magic ingredient you’ve added. Being organized is the biggest trick to a quick meal – have everything easily accessible/labeled and ‘not expired’ to help you with a quick meal.

Do you feel that Indian cuisine has found its footing on the global food map?

Absolutely! Indian food is having its moment in America! Chefs are really honing their roots/ the whole ‘ Americanize’ your food isn’t happening anymore. Also the awareness about eating food that’s therapeutic for you is catching up rigorously. It was always the most popular cuisine in London.

The most versatile Indian condiment, according to you — and why?

I throw garlic chutney on anything. When I’m sautéing any vegetable, I can add some as seasoning. It goes great as a seasoning for any meat-based curries – gives it great depth of flavor. Also of course love it in Vada Pao.

You have been a judge on a cooking reality show. How much do such shows, according to you, help home chefs establish their careers? How can such a platform be used to its maximum capacity?

These shows are life-changing. In real life where does one get pushed to think outside the box, use ingredients you’ve never used before, and create amazing food! Nowhere! In reality shows – it’s evident. Also once the home cook goes back home, they often make drastic career choices by diving deep into the food world so it definitely boosts that confidence.

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