When 3 of the 4 awards were announced at the Regional Finals of the San Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition in Cape Town earlier this year, 29-year-old Mythrayie S Iyer, Head Chef, Farmlore, Bengaluru says she gave up, thinking the odds were not in her favour. A few seconds later, Iyer won the regional title and was declared Best Young Chef for Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. She will now compete at the grand finale in Milan in October. Iyer speaks to Lounge about her culinary journey.
Decision time—IIT or chef?
“Right from the beginning I was told I was good in the kitchen. If anyone was hungry, I would always be able to rustle up something. Though I wouldn’t go the extra mile and read a recipe to make things correctly. It all just came to me naturally,” says Iyer. But, since her family was keen that she works towards an IIT degree, that’s what she did, clearing the entrance exam and securing an interview at BITS Pilani. “My mother always told me I was good in the kitchen and my first question to her was would it pay me well to be there?"
As luck would have it, in 2011 when the time came to decide her course of study, Iyer’s interviews for BITS Pilani and the Department of Culinary Arts in Manipal happened to be on the same day. She didn’t decide till the morning of the interviews on which one to attend. Though it’s now clear which one she ended up at.
Building up to head chef
Iyer secured a placement at ITC Grand Bharat in Gurugram via campus placement. During her second year of training there, she participated in the ITC Culinary Olympics – an all-India competition among ITC hotels, and was the only management trainee who signed up that year. She won third place in the progressive South Indian category and her confidence to step forward despite being new to the field was appreciated. It was only later that Iyer found out that one objective of the competition was to find talent for Avartana at ITC Grand Chola in Chennai. She was posted there as junior sous chef six months later. Iyer worked with the team for two years in the pre-opening stage and Avartana opened its doors in 2018.
“During this time, I liked that I could build more on my roots, learning to cook what I have eaten growing up, in a restaurant standard. We were a small team of four and went around for a year to different parts of Tamil Nadu for ingredients and created the menu. It was great in terms of learning about the region and how small cultural habits make a difference,” says Iyer.
She recalls how discipline and organisational abilities were drilled into the team. “Everyday Executive Chef Ajit Bangera would ask us what was new. We had to make a new dish every single day and present it to him. It was a lot of pressure but I got into the rhythm of it so well that I could come up with an idea every day. We may not have appreciated it then, but it is a learning that we could take forward and apply in our next place of work,” she says.
In 2018, during her four months at the celebrated Noma in Copenhagen, Iyer inculcated the work culture she saw there. Here, she found the first preference being given to the team at the restaurant and their personal development. “People were eager to come to work. There was pressure to perform, but not so much that you didn’t want to work there anymore. I also learnt about work-life balance at Noma. On a one-hour lunch break, you couldn’t go back to work till the hour was up and a bell run. I also saw how to take the learning and move forward when the restaurant had had a bad day,” she adds.
Pushing boundaries at Farmlore
Back in India, Iyer admits that when Chef Johnson Ebenezer, co-founder and chef patron at Farmlore, asked her to be head chef in 2019, she didn’t feel ready for the authority it would entail. But, Ebenezer was confident she could do it.
“It took the three of us (Iyer, Ebenezer, and Avinnash Vishaal as Junior Sous Chef) six months, with our varied backgrounds to come together with our strengths. When we found common ground, taste remained topmost and we found that we wanted to present the story of our food. Over time we developed a sense of how to stitch a story with a dish, going beyond flavours and looks,” says Iyer.
Today, Farmlore is a 18-seater restaurant, set in the middle of a farm, available only on prior online reservations. The 10-course dinner menu changes every month and the 5-course lunch menu changes weekly. All cooking at this fine-dine restaurant is done on a wood-fire. “I want to develop a clientele who has travelled and knows what they want to eat. And I would like it if my guests are a little bit overwhelmed with the courses and the stories we put forward through them. I don’t want us to be another restaurant that uses some foam on a plate,” says Iyer.
Onwards and upwards
Iyer will be in Milan in October for the finals of the San Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition. She will be cooking her signature dish (according to the rules of the competition, this dish remains the same through all phases of the competition for all participants). Titled Barter – Evolution of Indian Cooking Through the Age of Exploration, her dish demonstrates the huge shift in traditional cooking that has come about because of new ingredients introduced by global trade routes in the times of Vasco da Gama. One element uses only pre-trade indigenous ingredients like ridge gourd, millet, and aubergine and the second only new world imports (now staples) such as tomato, chilli, and lobster.
Crystal gazing into the future, Iyer has plenty of thoughts –a 4 AM to 9 AM only bread shop, or maybe an 8-seater fine dining restaurant, or perhaps a place dedicated to fermentation, something she loves and works a lot on.
Today, each day begins with some form of a fitness routine. When free, she diligently explores the dining-out scene and also ensures an annual trip somewhere in India or abroad. Iyer also manages her sister Maalavika Sundar, a professional singer’s calendar, sending out reminders each night and sharing an agenda for each day. “Twice a month I go back and meet my family in Chennai, my support system. And I have so many friends that I don’t have a minute to breathe,” she says.
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.