Aarthi Sampath, the first Indian woman chef to win Chopped, serves nostalgia on a plate
Aarti Sampath remembers peering into the oven in wonder as the simple ingredients of flour, sugar and cocoa transformed into a luscious aromatic chocolate cake. Sampath was 13. She had just stumbled across her mother’s old cook-books. But she didn’t know then that it would be more than just a rendezvous with food. And that she would be the first Indian woman to win the third season of Chopped, the American reality-based cooking television game show.
Because cooking was never part of the plan. She only wanted to be an actor: “I loved dance and theatre,” writes Sampath in an email interaction. “I chanced upon food and it intrigued me.”
Sampath had realised at an early age that food brought people together. “My family would eagerly wait for me to try a new dish so they could devour it happily at the dinner table.” In their household, the emphasis was always on making healthier choices. “At the time I did not like that we had to always make healthier choices,” confesses Sampath, “but today I am grateful I was taught to choose a nourishing item over a packaged product.”
Food may have been an integral part of her growing up years but the decision to become a chef didn’t stem from that. The love affair began while watching her first cake rise in the oven. “Cooking put me in another zone. I could creatively express myself on a plate. It definitely took me a while to decide that being a cook is what I wanted but now, it’s the only thing I want.”
Aarthi’s first tryst with professional cooking began over nine years ago when she started as an intern at The Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur. “It was the first time that I saw how a professional kitchen operates,” writes Sampath. “It was tough adjusting to long working hours, the heat and the crazy cooks, but my passion exceeded the pressures of any obstacles.”
Then she worked at the Taj hotels for five years. Ananda Solomon, Corporate Chef from Taj Hotels inspired Sampath as she started her career. “His journey towards mastery of Thai cuisine, while bringing back regional cuisines is very beautiful.” But Sampath yearned for more. “The best chefs in the globe were either European or American. It seemed that the right thing to do would be to travel and explore the possibilities.” She wanted to explore the western styles of work. And so, Aarthi applied for the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University, got to Rhode Island and the rest, as they say, is history.
After finishing her course, Sampath started off as an intern at celebrity chef Vikas Khanna’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Junoon in New York. It was a step down, after becoming a sous chef at the Taj in India, but she soon worked her way up to executive chef and went to work at the restaurant’s branch in Orlando, Florida.
Things, however, were not always going swimmingly for Sampath. Being one of the few women in a field known to have churned out successful men can get tough. “We deal with inflated egos, lecherous men and inequality. It took me so many years to get by it all, because nothing beats perseverance. As Chef Vikas [Khanna] quotes, ‘it’s the last man/woman standing’.”
Working in the West however, has been a different experience for Sampath than it was back home. “The West has no barriers in terms of taking risks. They love R&D. The basics to cooking are set in stone but nothing else is, and that gives you the opportunity to be creative. French techniques are essential for the basis of any good chef and that is highly emphasized here. Easy availability of any and every ingredient from any continent makes cooking much more fun.” But what gives us an edge over the West is that “India has such a rich culture, and the food is magnificent in every little town or village. We are not too technical, which makes our food very soulful and comforting.”
Sampath remembers watching the American cooking show, Chopped, with her room-mate years ago. What struck her was that there were hardly any Indians on the show. “Being on this show will be revolutionary,” she thought then. And that’s when Sampath penned it on her vision-board.
Years later, once she was convinced that she had reached that stage of her career “when I wanted to prove to myself that I truly am skilled” she applied to contest in the cooking show that had always awed her.
Four contestants. Three rounds (appetisers, entree and dessert). A basket of mystery ingredients. And the fear of getting “chopped” after each round of 20 minutes – the competition was tough. Sampath calls her time on the show, “the scariest, toughest, and most adrenaline rushing experience of my life”.
The challenge was to create winning dishes in all three rounds – an appetiser in 20 minutes, an entrée in 30 minutes and a dessert in 30 minutes, using ingredients out of a mystery basket. Aarthi used her Indian influences on the elements given to her.
For the appetiser round, the chefs had escargot (cooked land snail) in their baskets and sprouts, which proved to be tricky to use, among other ingredients. Sampath took inspiration from Kerala cuisine to serve a dish of snails cooked in butter, pepper and garlic sauce with cilantro (recipe below). “The snails caught me off guard. It took me back to memories of the heavy Mumbai rains, the tiny snails that I would see all over our garden. I treated it like a clam so it wasn’t that bad after all,” writes Sampath.
For the next round, garlic knots seemed to be a favourite ingredient and she served an upma with garlic knots with masala-fried tile fish, again cooked Kerala-style, chayote squash coconut puree and a chocolate lemongrass reduction (recipe below). “This was an ode to my mother and her cooking. The garlic knots could be easily transformed into my Amma’s breakfast treat. At that point, I felt even if I lost, I had shown her that I am who I am because of her.”
For the final dessert round, Sampath did a Shahi Tukra (recipe below) version of an Angel Cake served with Grenadine Srikhand, Caramelized Almonds and Pomelo Mint Salad, winning her the title.
Apart from walking away with $10,000, winning the competition has made her realize that she has a bigger responsibility: “to continue creating good food”.
A scroll through her Instagram account will tell you that Sampath experiments a lot with her dishes. How does she create a balance between traditional flavours and contemporary presentation without taking away from the essence of the dish? “The balance is drawn by focusing on the qualities of the ingredients itself, on keeping the food light and flavorful, without a punch of the spice.” Sampath avoids lending one note to any dish. “It has to have a balance of sweet, salty, spicy, bitter, with enough crunch.” For presentation, she sticks to the modern European /New American styles.
How does she know when to stop with her experiments in fusing elements from different dishes together? “I do not like to infuse flavors from multiple cuisines. That causes confusion. Nostalgia is my strength.” Sampath believes that at the end of the day, it’s good food that sells. “We, as chefs, have to experiment more, showcase more regional flavours instead of doing the same run-of-the-mill abroad or in India.”
Sampath is currently the Chef De Cuisine (head chef) of Junoon. How is it like working with Chef Vikas Khanna, the face of MasterChef India? “Chef Viku is the most hard - working person I have known . It feels like he has 28 hours in his day, because I always wonder how he gets so much done. He motivates us with kindness but is also assertive… He has such a positive aura, I love being in his presence.”
The best compliment that she has received at Junoon is when a customer told her, “Your food reminds me of my mom’s cooking.”
Chef Aarthi Sampath brings us recipes of the dishes that won her the competition:
1. Angel Cake Shahi Tukra, Pomegranate Srikhand, Citrus Salad, Caramelized almonds (serves 4)
For Shahi Tukra
4 slices angel cake/ pound cake / any dry vanilla sponge cake
1 Tbsp butter
1 cup milk
1/4 cup cream
1 tsp green cardamom
1 pinch salt
2 Tbsp almonds powdered
1.Heat butter , toast cake till crusty and golden on both sides. Drain in a paper towel .
2.Heat the rest of the ingredients except the powdered almonds.
3.Simmer until thick , strain and fold in the powdered almonds.
4.Soak the cake with the milk mixture .
For Pom Srikhand
3 cups pomegranate juice
1 cup sugar
1 cup hung yogurt
1 pinch salt
1.Reduce the pomegranate juice to half, add sugar and make a syrup of 1 thread consistency . Cool completely .Save half the syrup for the caramelized almonds .
2.Fold in hung yogurt and salt .
For Caramelized almonds
1/2 cup toasted almonds
5 tbsp pom syrup
2 tbsp sugar
Reduce the syrup further with sugar and almonds. Once thick , fold in the almonds and spread out on a greased pan .
2-3 pcs Citrus like orange/ grapefruit/ sweet lime cut into segments
A handful mint
1.Chop or tear up the mint. Fold into the citrus segments .
To plate :
1.Use the Pom Srikhand as a base. Lay the soaked cake on top . Garnish with the citrus salad and almonds .
Masala fried fish , Chow chow coconut puree , Bread upma (serves 4 )
For Masala Fried fish
4 pcs, Any white fish like rawas / pomfret skinless boneless
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp chopped fresh coriander
3 tsp rice flour
2 tsp sooji
1 tsp chili powder
oil to fry
1.Make a batter with all the ingredients except the fish . Use a whisk to bring everything together .
2.Marinate the fish in the batter .
3.Heat oil till it is sufficiently hot , fry the fish till done . Drain on a paper towel.
For Chow chow coconut puree
2 pc chow chow sliced
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 tsp mustard seed
5-8 pc curry leaves
1 Tbsp oil
1 pc green chili chopped
1 tsp ginger chopped
1.Heat oil , crackle mustard seeds,saute ginger and curry leaves , sauté the chow chow for a couple of minutes.
2.Add the coconut milk, allow to simmer until the chow chow is tender.
3.Puree in a blender .
For Bread upma
1 cup Any kind of bread cubed , lightly oiled and toasted well .
2 tsp cilantro
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp butter or ghee
1.Heat butter, crackle the cumin , add the turmeric , chili powder, bread .
2.Add a few tsps of water to moisten the bread .
3.Season well and finish with cilantro .
Pour some of the chow chow sauce on a plate , place a couple of spoons of the bread upma , then place the fish on top .
From HT Brunch, September 8, 2016
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