“Modern Indian cuisine means nothing”

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Chef Aarthi Sampath doesn’t like labels. She disapproves of the titles of modern Indian chief or, worse, female chief.

Two weeks ago, New York-based Sampath was nominated as India’s Culinary Icon in the United States. The first of these lists, an initiative launched by chef Vikas Khanna to recognize those who take Indian cuisine to different parts of the world, includes six names, from writer Priya Krishna of The New York Times to restaurateur Kamal Arora. The initiative, a hats off to 75 years of independence, is supported by the Consulate General of India in New York.

Sampath, a 36-year-old celebrity chef from a Tamil family in Mumbai, honed her culinary skills at the Taj Group in India before moving to the United States in 2012 to study at Johnson & Wales University, Rhode Island. After graduating, she worked with Khanna at her popular restaurant, Junoon, in New York for four years, becoming the first Indian chef to win the popular American reality show. Chopped, in 2016. During the pandemic, she lost her job at the upscale restaurant, Rainbow Room, at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. Last year she was one of the judges of Tamil MasterChef.

In a phone interview, Sampath discusses how nostalgia influences her cooking and the changing narrative of Indian cuisine in the United States. Edited excerpts:

What does it mean to you to be on the list of culinary icons?
The list should have been longer. There are other amazing Indian Chiefs in the United States doing phenomenal work. Sujan Sarkar has changed the game for Indian cuisine here with restaurants in San Francisco and New York. Hari Nayak of SONA in New York has brought South Indian cuisine to high-end restaurants, which is rare in the United States. I was just lucky enough to be on the list, and there’s a long way to go.

You often say that nostalgia is the key to your kitchen. How?
Nostalgia is everything. This is why I try to absorb as many culinary experiences as possible through travel and dining out, believing it will create new memories that I can mark for the future. My food is extreme nostalgia, whether it’s something from my childhood, my mother’s cooking, or lessons along the way. All this makes cooking moving. Another great highlight of my career was being able to showcase the cuisine of my grandmothers, who worked in the kitchen without complaining. They cooked because they had to, or maybe they felt it was a duty. I can’t even imagine doing anything without getting paid or recognized. I don’t mind cooking for my family and friends, but if I had to work as hard as them in the kitchen, I would do it professionally.

At that time, women had no choice, they had to cook.
Yes, I saw my mother despise the kitchen day after day. She tried to do everything from scratch. I really have empathy for women who do this even now.

How do you think the Indian food narrative is changing in the United States?
It’s such a good time to run an Indian restaurant or be a chef specializing in Indian cuisine here. People realize that if we didn’t, the West would rob us. For example, when I arrived there, I was shocked to see that yoga was being taught by non-Indians, and they were throwing around words like karma or mandala. I think this also happens with the kitchen, where non-Indians serve super bastard Indian food. I visited an Indian restaurant, Bollywood Theater, in Portland, Oregon, which served kathi rolls, played an old Hindi movie, and the decor was amazing. I was shocked to know that the owner was a non-Indian who had visited Mumbai, loved street food and decided to give it a go. This sort of thing happens often. I think it’s time to take back what’s ours.

For a long time, we weren’t proud of what we were doing, and terms like high Indian or modern Indian caught on in the United States. I refuse to use those words now because Indian food is already amazing. He is brought up in his own way. We can keep pace, like reducing the use of excess oil for health reasons, but that doesn’t mean the food isn’t high. I think Indian chefs take more pride in presenting their food without tinkering with it too much, and that has been the turning point of the last two years.

When young chefs ask me for mentorship, then share their ambition to work with famous chefs (French or Japanese cuisine), my response is to encourage, while reminding them that Indian cuisine is no less.

What does Indian food raised in the United States mean?
It does not mean anything. Maybe it exists to make us feel better and attract non-Indian diners. For years, I thought of myself as a modern Indian chef because I used new techniques or new ingredients. But the basic principle is the same. I use locally available seasonal vegetables, just like my mother would at home. But here I will not have lauki (gourd) and buy zucchini instead. That doesn’t mean my food is high. Maybe sometimes, as Indians, we overcook our vegetables or a protein, and I will adopt this technique from French gastronomy to cook better. It taught me how to cook my protein perfectly, but that doesn’t mean it’s fine Indian food. We also have techniques, like grounding our spices, including Haldi (Turmeric). This isn’t haute cuisine, it’s just good food.

What are your plans now?
I’ve always been interested in cooking for the masses and ran a food truck a few years ago. I’m currently working on a similar concept, but this time it’s a delivery platform where celebrity chefs or American chefs prepare a few affordable meals. My second plan is to have a restaurant where the focus is on finding connections between Indian cuisine and how it has traveled the world. For example, the Guyanese community here has its origins in India. I hope I will do a lot more TV. I want to be able to do a lot of things without being put in a box.

Would you say you are an Indian chief in the United States?
I’m trying to break down that barrier of just being “an Indian chief in the United States.” When you say Éric Ripert, you’re not calling him a French chef; he’s a fucking good boss. Titles like female chief or Indian chief are redundant. I aim to just be a good leader.

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