What happens when you give a Mumbai girl an American bread to cook with? Chef Aarthi Sampath just won the popular American reality show, Chopped, by making the most innovative bread upma you’ve ever heard of.
On popular American reality TV show, Chopped, chef Aarthi Sampath calls herself a “lioness in the kitchen”. And she is right. After competing in three rigorous rounds, the Mumbai-born Sampath (30) was declared victorious in the cut-throat competition that aired on August 9 on Food Network. Sampath is also the chef de cuisine at New York-based Junoon, run by Michelin-starred Indian chef, Vikas Khanna.
“Winning the top spot means that I can shut up my critics. It means that there is hope for women who want to pursue tougher career choices,” says the chef, in an email interview.
Sampath grew up in a conservative south Indian family of doctors and engineers. As a teenager, she was interested in fine arts and dreaming of a career in dance or theatre. But cooking came to her naturally when she tried her hand at it. “I loved how simple ingredients could transform into something beautiful,” she says.
After a course at the Institute of Hotel Management in Jaipur, Sampath bagged a placement at the Taj Group of Hotels. For five years, she moved around various properties in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai before shifting base to the US.
“Initially, I faced a lot of discouragement, especially because of the profession I chose. But I stayed strong, because that’s what Mumbaikars do,” she says.
On the show, Sampath showcases her true Mumbai spirit in the entrée round. “Chopped has been the scariest and toughest experience. It is truly mind over matter. The toughest challenges are those mystery boxes,” she says. Her mystery basket had elements such as tilefish, cookie butter cups, garlic knots, and chayote (a gourd) squash.
“At that moment, I thought, ‘who could think of putting fish and cookie butter covered chocolate in one basket’,” says Sampath. As a tribute to her mother’s cooking, she turned the garlic knots into bread upma, a classic Indian breakfast dish, usually made with stale bread in many Indian homes. She served it with masala-fried tilefish and chayote squash coconut puree, and a chocolate lemongrass reduction. For the second round, she cooked up Kerala butter pepper garlic with snails, orzo saffron pilaf, corn shoot salad and spiced, seared wieners.
Sampath’s personal culinary experiments, too, are heavily influenced by Indian flavours and nostalgia. In her version of the classic vada pav, the vada is stuffed with confit octopus; she uses lasan (garlic) chutney to marinate the octopus, and finishes the dish with fried potato foam. “Mumbai has a deep influence on my cooking,” she says.
Now, back in her kitchen at Junoon, Sampath is determined to push the boundaries and experiment with unknown ingredients. “I feel I have more responsibility now to do greater, more satisfying work, and I am coming closer to my goal of inspiring budding chefs in India,” she says.