The queen of spice
Sep 13 2013
When constant reinvention and the ability to keep pushing the bar are the recipe to success
When I spoke with her, I was impressed by her motto of constant reinvention, her infectious down to earth personality and her ability to keep pushing the bar.
Q. Your story is remarkable where you single-mindedly pursued your passion around culinary arts. You have also carved a niche and a name in a male-dominated profession. What were the challenges being both woman and first generation Indian?
My mom says that I was born with a ladle in my hand. When I told my parents that I wanted to become a chef, they encouraged me by saying “Do whatever you want to do but make sure you are the best at it.” So I went to the best institute in Manipal and graduated at the top of my class. I was then accepted to Culinary Institute of America (CIA), which was the top school. I threw myself into work and was involved in everything. I did not have much downtime. In the process, I learnt so much and made all these connections. I have learnt not to view myself through the lens of gender and race.
Q. You reinvented yourself by competing in the Iron Chef Challenge, being the only Indian woman. You are a judge on Chopped, which is a big hit with fans. What triggered such a bold move?
Growing up in India, my sister and I went to an all girls convent school till 10th. We switched to co-ed in the 11th. I remember standing up in class and being petrified about introducing myself in front of 60 students. That evening, my Dad told me, “If you can pretend to be confident, then that confidence will automatically come to you.”
When I was at CIA, Iron Chef had just started. It became a goal for me to be on that show. I believe if you constantly set goals for yourself, you are consciously and subconsciously working towards it. I enjoy being on Chopped and we are currently shooting for the next season. It is hard to give criticism, as you know that no matter what, it is personal. I try to make it constructive and also explain why something doesn’t work.
Q. Your book has a great narrative flow. It didn’t read like a regular cookbook. How long did it take for you and Doug to create this culinary mash up extraordinaire?
This idea had been in my mind forever and it was about finding the correct vehicle to bring it together. I have a personal connection to each and every dish I have presented in the book. Food, to me, is like life. It is about evolution. Fusion is something I love as creating something new gets me excited. Once we decided on doing the book, we found a publisher in Nashville. When things are meant to happen, everything falls into place. From start to finish, it took us only 8 to 9 months.
My writing partner, Doug said, “You chefs are the new rock stars of the world and we should do a road show.” For 30 days, we were on a bus: 10,000 miles, 24 cities, 3 events in each city. It was wonderful to make connections with the audience and understand the impact that our TV show, Chopped continues to make.
Q. We understand you are launching a spice line and opening a restaurant in Nashville.
Yes. I am passionate about spices and wanted to do something different by taking it to a mainstream cuisine. We have come up with four different blends in good-sized jars not the little spice bottle you find in most supermarkets. We have ‘Chicken Gone Wild’, ‘Burger Madness’, ‘Brown Sugar and Spice’ and ‘Rescue Spice’. The restaurant is a contemporary and hip gastro pub featuring Indian-inspired beers that will complement the Indian food.
Q. If you could offer advice culled from your own journey to your readers, what would it be?
Nothing is impossible, if you approach it without fear. If I look back at this girl from Ranchi, Bihar who is sitting in Manhattan appearing in Food Network, it is surreal. You also need to face failure to savour success when you find it. I also know that it takes more effort being unpleasant than being pleasant. Finally, I am grateful for the support for everyone around me. I love connecting with people and I have learnt so much from them.