The life of a chef is all about experimenting with food, expressing their creative vision, and crafting memorable experiences for people. What sets them apart is their discipline, knowledge, work ethics and the level of sensitivity on their palate.
This month as the world celebrates International Chefs Day on October 20th, we caught up with four outstanding culinary masters to know what inspired them to follow their passion and the lessons they learned in the process.
Smita Daya, USA
Gifted with the right mix of knowledge, skills, and an exemplary spirit, Chef Smita Daya was born and raised in Zambia but calls Atlanta her home for more than 30 years now. An Ayurvedic chef and the founder of Olea Oliva!, a popular store in Marietta, Georgia, USA that retails the finest extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegar from all over the world, her consistent desire to enhance herself in every aspect of cooking and delivering the best has been an essential determinant in her success.
Smita holds a plant-based nutrition certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and Cornell University. Her husband Dilip is a certified Olive Oil Sommelier from the University of California-Davis. Their label Olea Oliva! means ‘The Olive Tree’.
For Smita, it was a monumental shift from a 25-year career in Wall Street to creative and healthy cooking.
“I wanted to bring new ideas and a healthy way of cooking for my community. We always talk about the mind and body connection. By doing my cooking workshops, I wanted them to experience the foods that would bring higher awareness and focus on a lifestyle that will last forever,” says Smita, who was recently certified as an Ayurvedic chef.
The inclination behind learning Ayurveda was to make a difference by educating, inspiring, and empowering people to heal in a way that promotes happiness, connectedness, and heightened spiritual awareness.
“Ayurveda is a holistic medicine that focuses on balance. It’s about aligning your body’s energies. When it comes to the dining table, that means fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients combined to promote efficient digestion and harbour anti-inflammatory properties. It sees the digestive tract as the ‘master system’ of the body,” says Smita, who has two daughters.
While exchanging notes on Ayurveda, she explains how mindful eating is healthy and engages all our senses in the process. “Food is natural nourishment; it has the power to heal and balance our physical health. So, it’s incredibly important that our bodies digest, assimilate, absorb, and metabolise meals. If we do not digest and metabolise well, the food remains as undigested matter and accumulates as Ama (toxins) when then becomes a root cause of all diseases caused by low Agni (digestive fire)”.
From incorporating six tastes in each meal to cooking according to seasonal changes and balancing the plate with nourishing and grounding foods that give us vitality and energy, Smita strongly recommends eating a healthy, colourful and organic meal.
Ever wondered why it’s difficult to recreate a chef’s magic at home? It’s because every chef has a ‘secret.’ For Smita, preparing a dish or a meal is about infusing life-force (prana) in cooking and turning it into a therapeutic experience.
“I prepare food with lots of love and gratitude. When you cook for others, you get the sense of nurturing. In your body, prana supports all of your organs and cells. So, when your prana levels are high, you experience good health.”
Reetu Uday Kugaji, Mumbai
In an era of frozen and ready-to-eat foods, Mumbai-based chef and culinary expert Reetu Uday Kugaji is out to revive the warmth of traditional home-cooked dishes.
With changing times, busier households, and evolving cultures, many age-old delicacies and cooking techniques have lost their charm, and grandma’s Ras Bhaath, the treasures of a royal kitchen like Punjab’s Phulkari Pulao or Awadh’s Zameen Doz have disappeared. But Reetu has taken it upon herself to give these age-old dishes a new lease of life.
Born in Chandigarh and raised in Mumbai, Reetu is fierce about her choices and immensely proud of her roots. “I always wanted to become a chef, and my source of inspiration was my mother. She was an excellent cook who never believed in quick fixes. I have grown up watching her spend hours in the hot kitchen, preparing a meal with so much love and affection.”
Chef Reetu Uday Kugaji
Nothing worth having comes easy. Despite belonging to a broadminded Punjabi family, Reetu had to fight the odds to make her way to a culinary school. “The myth those days was that this profession is not apt for girls and so, opinions flowed in from all directions. But my parents stood by me like a rock.”
In a career spanning more than 20 years as a chef and teacher, Reetu, who specialises in Indian and continental cuisines, never experienced a dull moment. An eternal optimist, she says there is no secret to success besides hard work and passion.
Former programme head of culinary arts at the ITM Institute of Hotel Management, Navi Mumbai, Reetu says, “As a teacher or mentor, I sensed that our culinary students don’t know what they are missing. So, I designed modules to facilitate their understanding of traditional dishes, cooking techniques, and utensils. I introduced my students to the richness of our ancestral food, the abundance of medicinal value it has, and the preparation that goes into making it.”
Being a chef is a big responsibility that involves taking several ethical decisions daily, and any breach may have serious ramifications. Reetu lays out the ground rules: “Lead a disciplined life. Be punctual and strong. Be patient, keep your ego at the door because in this business, you are going to meet several people, and if you are opposed to learning, you will not grow.”
Another crucial element is food safety. “Pay attention to the essential aspects like right temperature, which metal to use for cooking, and how to store and serve,” she says.
Having prepared cuisines for the former Indian president Pratibha Patil, and cricketing icons like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, the process of building and working with a menu is now like second nature to Reetu. She also holds interest in food blogging and food photography.
For aspiring young chefs, Reetu’s life is her message: “If you have decided to do something, don’t look back. Nothing can stop you.”
Akanksha Dean, Delhi
Family experiences or traditions usually play a big role in the life of chefs. For Delhi-based Chef Akanksha Dean, the penchant for experimenting with food developed at an early age, and she too goes back to her roots for inspiration.
“With my mother [Rupali Dean] being a food and travel writer and my father [Bakshish Dean] being a chef, I have always felt a natural affinity for food. As a child, I used to enjoy preparing Sunday meals with my father, who is also my inspiration, and that further ignited my interest in cooking,” beams Akanksha.
However, one cannot disregard the fact that to offer the best and be called ‘an expert’, the struggle doesn’t stop at innovating recipes at home. Stepping out for experience is essential. Akanksha, who manages Imperfecto SHOR Café at Delhi’s swanky Aerocity, happily agrees on that.
“Travelling for local food and culture has taught me to develop a completely original perspective on everything, by rewarding innovation and fresh thinking. Having had the opportunity to do some globetrotting, I have built quite a refined palate of my own,” says the 23-year-old.
Being the first Indian to train under the famous Massimo Bottura, the chef-patron of three-Michelin-star restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, has undoubtedly added more nuance to her craft.
Calling her stint extraordinary, Akanksha reminisces, “Never in my life have I come across a kitchen like Chef Massimo’s; it is world-class. Everything takes place efficiently.” And though it appears very organised, it is not as easy as it looks, for running such an establishment requires a lot of hard work and dedication.
One of the things unique to all chefs is their preference for a particular cuisine, and many even have their signature style of cooking. Akanksha’s is Japanese. “I find it simple yet complex at the same time. I love the use of fresh ingredients in this fascinating cuisine. I owe my interest in Japanese cuisine significantly to Chef Kondo Takahiko, fondly known as ‘Taka’, a senior chef at Chef Massimo’s kitchen,” she shares.
No industry is immune to the changes brought by technology or consumer preferences. Naturally, one has to adapt or equip oneself with new tools. Talking about the top trends driving change in the food industry, Akanksha says, “People now look for a wholesome experience. There is a noticeable movement underway with guests now familiar with exotic cuisines; they want experiences that are new and different, authentic in flavour and reminiscent of some memory. As a chef, I put myself in the shoes of my guest and try to offer what they like, sometimes with my twist and sometimes from the travels that inspire me.”
As a young chef carving her own unique path, Akanksha says, “Kitchen work is all about love, and it is essential to work at a place that makes you happy and helps you absorb everything like a sponge.”
Simple things are also the most extraordinary. They lie in front of our eyes, yet we see them only when the universe conspires. Neeta, the founder of Naani Ki Matthi, a label that makes delicious homemade savouries and snacks, certainly believes in cosmic intervention.
“Naani Ki Matthi was never meant to be a business, but today we have 17 products and all driven by customer goodwill,” she says. And, her story gets even more impressive when she adds she never had a penchant for cooking.
Born and raised in Delhi, Neeta grew up eating healthy, seasonal home-cooked food. She would often see her mother making matthis (a salted, fried, tea-time snack in north India) for the family, but it never sparked any interest in her.
“I would run away when my mother was in the kitchen. I would only cook if my family demanded; else I would stay out,” she smiles. But after her mother passed away, Neeta’s nephews insisted she make her mother’s famous matthis, and so, with her father’s help, Neeta learned to make them once again.
Just then, two underprivileged girls approached Neeta for part-time jobs to support their education expenses. “At the same time, my friends who loved my matthis were willing to buy them off me. And that gave birth to Naani ki Matthi (literally, ‘grandmother’s matthis’). Every day, the girls would come and help me for an hour to make matthis. I would sell enough to pay for their education.”
Two days later, Neeta’s close friend, who made pickles, called to say, “I am putting up a kiosk for selling pickles at an exhibition; why don’t you give me your matthis? I could sell them too.” And so began the journey of Neeta’s six-year-old business venture, which now has plenty of avowed fans in south Delhi and Gurugram.
Even though Neeta enjoys experimenting with her matthis, she is wary of being called a chef. “It sounds strange. I feel chefs should have some degree or background in cooking. But a chef once told me that what I do is what a chef does: innovate. I connect with what I do, and it tells me what needs to be done. I feel the texture and the ingredients in my mouth and get going.”
Serving safe, healthy products is a top priority for Neeta. Despite operating from home, there are specific ethical and food safety measures that she ardently follows. “Each of my products is home-made and hand-made with little mechanisation. The raw material is branded, and we use Fortune products. I ensure that our women cooks understand the importance of hygiene.”
Self-belief can be a doorway to personal transformation. Neeta’s journey from “I don’t want to do it” to “I can do it” is a classic example of that.
First published in eShe magazine