She’s the only woman chef at the world-famous Rainbow Room, which is one of Manhattan’s most celebrated restaurants and has a members-only exclusive club. Situated on the 65
th floor of Rockefeller Plaza, it is the domain of the rich and famous, celebrities and business bigwigs. Yet Aarthi Sampath, who is only in her 30’s, has been a short-order cook on Kukree, a food truck that she owned with a partner in Seattle and outside which long lines of foodies used to form, for a taste of her innovative food. She’s also been the chef at two noted Michelin star Restaurants, Junoon and Breslin, where she introduced Indian touches into the British menu. And yes, Sampath did beat Bobby Flay on his popular food show with her amazing classic Hyderabadi Biryani.
Indeed, anything to do with food, and Sampath is ready with her masala box and her chef’s knife! Just this past week she and the noted African-American chef Melba Wilson created Devi, a pop-up dinner in Wilson’s iconic Harlem restaurant Melba’s where you got a taste of east and west combined with the dishes from the two chefs. Melba’s specializes in soul food – the heritage of her roots in Southern cooking combined with the urban influences of Harlem.
Aarthi Sampath and Melba Wilson - two women chefs in the popup dinner Devi
As a tribute to her, Sampath had brought touches of the Deep South to the menu. She introduced Harlem to her own interpretation of Indian food. So the samosas she served at the popup had not the usual potatoes and peas filling but more carrots, which are dominant in southern cooking, and were served with a mint and berry chutney; the Harlem Tikka Masala had a cherry tomato and bell pepper gravy and chipotle chicken tikka was served with mango raita. The saag paneer used collard greens, so popular in Southern cooking, instead of spinach. The kheer she served was very thick, more like Southern rice pudding with ample bananas and nuts instead of cardamom. As Sampath says, “I put a lot of thought into how it can be relatable to the customer.”
Indeed, it’s a good time to be brown and female – as both these chefs prove. Says Melba Wilson about Sampath’s cooking and about the way these influences are merging in the kitchen: “Aarthi and I stand on each other’s shoulders. There are so many similarities in our stories – Aarthi loves her family, her food and culture, just as I do. We both love flavour – you won’t find bland Indian food nor will you find bland Southern food. It’s also all about sharing and common family-style meals.”
Aarthi Sampath on top of the world at the Rainbow Room which is on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Plaza
As she points out both have had setbacks as women chefs, “but we don’t call them setbacks – we call them stepping stones to success in a male-dominated society. We want to pave a smoother road for the beige, the brown, and the black women who come after us so they don’t have to go through what we have had to.”
According to both chefs, Southern food, as well as Indian food, is soul food. Since the dishes of both chefs were served at the popup, it was interesting to see that Melba’s signature dish – Fried Chicken with Waffles – was being sopped up with the chicken tikka gravy!
Cooking at the Rainbow Room
Indeed, in this new global world, food influences are constantly being shared and re-shared and Sampath delights in this turn of events. She is now headed to Washington DC to do another popup dinner at an Asian Restaurant – and this time she is showcasing Sri Lankan food.
Growing up in Mumbai, she had always wanted to change the narrative of Indian cuisine and write her own story. After studying at the Institute of Hotel Management in Jaipur, she worked for five years in several Taj hotels across India.
“I thought very differently from the norm – I wanted to push boundaries and you weren’t allowed to think outside the box,” she recalls. In her exploration of new paths, she came as a student to the US and attended the Johnson & Wales University.
She first worked with Michelin Chef Vikas Khanna as chef de cuisine at Junoon and also worked with him on the ‘Billionaire’s Club Dinner’ hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Waldorf Astoria. She has participated with chefs at the James Beard Foundation, events at Huffington Post and at exclusive cooking festivals.
Aarthi Sampath on the Beat Bobby Flay show
Always passionate about new food experiences, she’s done a lot of consultancy jobs helping people to start their restaurants and created standard recipes and menus for them. She’s also been on several food shows like
Chopped where she was the first Indian woman chef to win and has also been a judge on The Worst Cooks in America.
“As a chef, one of my biggest fears is that I might forget how to cook my own food so these pop-ups help me to get back to my roots and keep me grounded because I don’t want to ever forget where I come from,” she says. “I am very proud to be Indian and I’m proud of my background and sometimes I like to dive into it and cook unapologetically Indian food!” Recently she cooked for a homeless shelter in New York. The menu? Chicken curry, dal and cumin rice.
As in the food truck she espoused in Seattle, she believes in the power of nourishing Indian food. She says that Indian food has the bad rap of being heavy and that people can eat it only a few times a month. “At home, we eat Indian food every single day and that’s because it’s cooked in a certain way,” she says, recalling the different healthy grains her mother would incorporate in the chappati dough. “Our home food is imaginative and accommodating – I think as a chef, that’s our responsibility.”
Sampath is the rare chef who doesn’t want to box herself into labels and is always pushing the envelope to widen the field. “I like to be more versatile as a chef – wherever I go I try to mould myself in that circumstance instead of trying to define myself as a five-star chef or fine dining or modern Indian,” she says. “Food brings everyone together and we don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable in the space they are.”
Being a woman chef is still a rocky road and it’s not always easy in the restaurant business - however, Aarthi Sampath loves the path she has chosen. She says, “I just have such a strong love for food that I am able to block out all this outside noise and I want to create my own space and have a better environment for women like me.”
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina. Read Lavina Melwani's columns