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'Modern Indian food means nothing'

How chef Aarthi Sampath aims to change the narrative of Indian food in the US, avoiding terms like modern Indian cuisine

Chef Aarthi Sampath
Chef Aarthi Sampath

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Chef Aarthi Sampath doesn’t like labels. She frowns upon titles like modern Indian chef—or, worse, female chef.

Two weeks ago, New York-based Sampath was nominated as a Culinary Icon of India in the US. The first such list, an initiative launched by chef Vikas Khanna to recognise those taking Indian cuisine to different parts of the world, features six names, from writer Priya Krishna of The New York Times to restaurateur Kamal Arora. The initiative, a hat-tip to 75 years of independence, is supported by the consulate general of India in New York.

Sampath, a 36-year-old celebrity chef who comes from a Tamilian family in Mumbai, polished her culinary chops at the Taj group in India before leaving for the US in 2012 to study at the Johnson & Wales University, Rhode Island. After graduation, she worked with Khanna at his popular restaurant, Junoon, in New York for four years, going on to become the first Indian chef to win the popular American reality cooking show, Chopped, in 2016. During the pandemic, she lost her job at the upscale restaurant, Rainbow Room, at the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. Last year, she was one of the judges on MasterChef Tamil.

In a phone interview, Sampath talks about how nostalgia influences her cooking, and the changing narrative of Indian food in the US. Edited excerpts:

What does being on the Culinary Icons list mean to you?
The list should have been longer. There are some other amazing Indian chefs in the US doing phenomenal work. Sujan Sarkar changed the game for Indian food here with restaurants in San Francisco and New York. Hari Nayak from SONA in New York brought south Indian food to premium dining, which is uncommon in the US. I just got lucky to be on the list, and there’s a long way to go.

You often say nostalgia is key to your cooking. How so?
Nostalgia is everything. That’s why I try to absorb as many food experiences as possible through travel and dining out, believing that these would create new memories I can bookmark for the future. My food is extreme nostalgia, whether it’s something from my childhood, my mom’s cooking or lessons along the way. All of these make cooking soulful. Another huge highlight of my career was to be able to showcase the cooking of my grandmothers, who toiled in the kitchen without complaining. They cooked because they had to, or perhaps they felt it was a duty. I can’t even imagine doing something without being paid or getting recognised. I don’t mind cooking for family and friends but if I had to work as hard as they did in the kitchen, I would do it professionally.

In those days, women weren’t given a choice, they had to cook.
Yes, I witnessed my mom despised cooking day in and day out. She laboured to make everything from scratch. I really empathise with women who do that even now.

How do you think the narrative of Indian food is changing in the US?
It’s such a good time to run an Indian restaurant, or be a chef specialising in Indian food here. People are realising that if we don’t do it, the West would steal from us. For example, when I came there, I was shocked to see that yoga was taught by non-Indians, and they would throw words like karma or mandala. I think that’s happening with cuisine too, where non-Indians serve super-bastardised Indian food. I visited an Indian restaurant, Bollywood Theater, in Portland, Oregon, which served kathi rolls, had an old Hindi film playing, and the décor was amazing. I was shocked to know the owner was a non-Indian who had visited Mumbai, loved the street food, and decided to do this. This kind of thing is happening a lot. I think it’s time to take back what is ours.

For a long time, we were not proud of what we do, and terms like elevated Indian or modern Indian picked up in the US. I refuse to use those words now because Indian food is already amazing. It is elevated in its own way. We can keep up with the times, like reduce the use of excess oil for health reasons, but that doesn’t mean the food is not elevated. I think Indian chefs are more proud of showcasing their food without tinkering too much with it, and that has been the turning point in the last two years.

When young chefs ask me for mentorship, and then share their ambition to work with famous chefs (making French or Japanese food), my response is to encourage, while reminding them that Indian food is not any lesser.

What does elevated Indian food mean in the US?
It has no meaning. Perhaps it exists for us to feel better and to attract non-Indian diners. For years, I considered myself to be a modern Indian chef because I was using new techniques or new ingredients. But the core principle is the same. I use locally available seasonal vegetables, just as my mother would at home. But here I won’t get lauki (bottle gourd) and buy zucchini instead. That doesn’t mean my food is elevated. Maybe, sometimes, as Indians we overcook our vegetables or a protein, and I will adopt that technique from French gastronomy to cook better. It taught me to make my protein perfectly but that doesn’t mean it’s elevated Indian cooking. We have techniques too, like grounding our spices, including haldi (turmeric). All of this is not elevated cooking, it is just good cooking.

What are your plans now?
I have always been interested in cooking for the masses and I ran a food truck a few years ago. I am working on a similar concept now but this time it’s a delivery platform where famous chefs or chefs from America curate a few affordable meals. My second plan is to have a restaurant where the focus is on finding connections between Indian food and how it travelled the world. For example, the Guyanese community here trace their origins to India. Hopefully, I will do a lot more TV. I want to be able to do a bunch of things without being put into a box.

Would you call yourself an Indian chef in the US?
I am trying to break that barrier of just being 'an Indian chef in the US'. When you say Éric Ripert, you don’t call him a French chef; he is a goddamn good chef. Titles like woman chef or Indian chef are redundant. I aim to be just a good chef.

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