“It is time for the sleeping giant to wake up”, says Chef Amninder Sandhu, whose culinary trajectory took her to Netflix’s latest offering – The Final Table, a fast-paced, global cooking competition that saw twenty-four accomplished chefs from over the globe put their spin on iconic national dishes from around the world to impress the experts from that nation.
Chef Amninder refers to the rich and diverse Indian cuisine when she talks about the sleeping giant. “We had to cook iconic dishes from different countries. But I was not prepared at all. There were things I was not familiar with. Interestingly, many-a-times, I found a reference point within Indian cuisine. For instance, the tortillas I had to make in the Mexican round were quite similar to preparing Makke di Roti. Similarly, Spain’s traditional Paella is almost like Biryani”, she says. “Indian cuisine is elaborate, extensive and diverse. It is time for us to realise it and relish it”, adds Sandhu.
Sandhu, who works as an executive chef at Arth, a restaurant she runs in Mumbai, aims to revive traditional methods of cooking and bring back local ingredients on the table. Ensuring that every dish in her restaurant is prepared on wood or charcoal, Sandhu’s gas-free kitchen is a first-of-its-kind venture in India. “Traditional methods of cooking, like chullah, heavy-bottomed, copper lagans, earthen chattis or tandoors, lend unique flavours to the dishes”, she explains.
Born into a Sikh family in Jorhat, her foray into food has been an interesting one. “It was when I was seventeen and studying science in Mumbai that I realised that food was my calling. It may sound like it’s out of a movie because it feels like that in hindsight, but I was holding a test tube and sampling DNA, and when I looked out of the window, all of a sudden, it dawned on me. I wanted to be a chef. So I dropped out, moved to Aurangabad to study Culinary Arts and later, landed my first job in Taj, Mumbai”, she recalls.
Everyone has a moment in their life that defines their future. It may be impulsive or the culmination of a series of pre-events that lead to it. Sandhu, whose defining moment occurred with a test tube in her hand, admits she always had signs that told her she should go for a career in food. “Back in hostel, we just had one hot plate where we could make scrambled eggs and maggi. Everyone can make these things. But my roommate always told me it tasted better when I prepared it.”.
“I come from a family where food is taken very seriously. I have grown up seeing my mom prepare elaborate meals for all of us. Whenever we went for picnics to Deomali in Arunachal Pradesh, my mama (uncle) would teach us how to catch fish. Whatever fish we managed to catch was then stuffed in a hollow bamboo and thrown into the open fire. Looking back, I relate to a lot of events in my life with memories of food,” she says.
Her enthusiasm carried her all the way through to be felicitated with the Best Lady Chef Award for 2015-2016 by The Ministry of Tourism, but her journey has not been one without difficulties. Cooking, even if as a trait is often associated with women, the same activity as a profession is dominated by men. “I have been told I could never make it big. I was made to feel worthless on numerous occasions. It was tough to get by. And it never got any easier”, Sandhu says. “If someone asks me to repeat the training I went through, I really wouldn’t be able to go through it again”.
But then, Sandhu believes if you have something to hold on to, no matter how many obstacles life throws at you, you can always find the strength to overcome it. “For me, it has been my love for food. I knew I couldn’t live without cooking. So might as well get in the kitchen.”
Many people might feel that people from smaller towns have to struggle harder than people from big cities to get noticed in the global space. But Sandhu, who comes from a small city in Assam, begs to differ. “Being from the North East is actually an advantage, it has helped me to understand food better and introduced me to very nice cuisines. As far as making it big is concerned, it is your drive that matters”, believes Sandhu.
For the finale, the contestants were asked to prepare a dish that defined them. Sandhu couldn’t make it to the finale but on being asked what she would have prepared, she came up with an answer without wasting a thought, “Bamboo smoked mutton with jasmine rice, wrapped in alpinia leaves.”
For a dish that is simple, traditional and full of flavour, maybe, she has, after all, picked the perfect dish that defines her.