In Conversation with Chef Amninder Sandhu
As India progresses, so does its culinary industry. We have seen food trends come and go, but one trend that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere is a return to nature. Focusing on regional, seasonal ingredients and traditional cooking techniques. This is exactly what Chef Amninder Sandhu, winner of the National Award, has been doing at Arth.
If you’re an amateur chef (especially a female), here is all the inspiration that you need to start out.
How did you first know that food was your calling?
The discovery was actually very dramatic. I was a very good student and topped my school in the 12th standard. My dad wanted me to become a doctor, but after studying six units of life sciences, I decided this wasn’t for me. So, one day, while I was extracting DNA in a lab, I discovered my true calling. It was like how it happens in the movies, I just knew that I wanted to become a chef.
After this, I went to Aurangabad to study culinary arts and kitchen administration at The Taj Culinary School.
What inspired you to use ancient cooking techniques at Arth?
Anything that is traditional, elaborate or skill sensitive has been my driving force since the beginning. I remember walking into an Indian kitchen for the first time at Haveli, Taj Mansingh in New Delhi, and I saw the guy on the tandoor making a roomali roti. I found this fascinating and I felt like it was important for me to learn that.
Also, I did a food promotion with the granddaughter of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala at my last job, and she shared her family heirloom recipes with me. At the end of my stint she told me how much better and different the dishes would taste if they were cooked on charcoal in a heavy bottomed copper lagan We spoke about how her grandfather was the most flamboyant and extravagant maharaja India has ever seen. He would always move with an entourage of 180 people with him, and with them, would travel his pots and pans.
All the stories that she told me, just reinforced something that I already believed in. I knew that when I have my own kitchen, I would go absolutely gas free and cook on charcoal and use ancient cooking techniques.
What are some of the challenges that you and your team faced while setting up a gas-free kitchen?
The process was very challenging. During the first month, we had to figure out at what temperature to cook at, since none of the equipment has any regulators on it. When you practice ancient cooking techniques, it’s a lot about the organic feel of the food. I had to find seasoned cooks who knew food inside and out. Prep was longer, and it was very difficult to run a busy lunch or dinner service in the start. But we’ve got it all figured out now!
You have travelled a lot, to research for your restaurant. How important do you think it is to travel, in order to be a great chef?
It is very important to travel. Travel opens your eyes and your taste buds evolve when you try different kinds of food. When you travel, you start looking at food differently.
Your cooking style is very unconventional in today’s time and age. What has the response been like?
The responses have been really good so far. Even common dishes like baingan ka bharta and fulka taste very different when they are cooked on charcoal. Anything that is slow cooked has a very smooth texture and a homogenous taste to it. We don’t need to blend or strain our gravies, it all comes together very beautifully, and our guests can feel that. Even if they don’t know the story of the kitchen, they can still feel the difference in the food.
The culinary industry in India is fairly male dominated. What is it like to be a top female chef in India? Have you faced any challenges at this front?
When I started out, it was very difficult. I didn’t see any female chefs in the kitchens which were full of illiterate men who were very insecure of their work. So, I was bullied and there were more bad days than good ones. I was always told that I would never make it, and that I wasn’t good enough. I was also told that I was too short, weak and skinny to be a chef. Not one person during my entire two years of training told me that I could get somewhere.
I am sure it had a lot to do with the working hours, and because of how taxing a chef’s life is. You pretty much have to put your life on hold because all evenings you are very busy, and during festivals, there is increased work. It takes a huge toll on family life as well.
I don’t know if all the bullying happened because of my gender, but what I do know, and have learned is that in any profession, a person’s gender must not be taken too seriously. If you’re good at a job, then you should do it, regardless of gender.
Have you incorporated any family recipes in your menu?
Yes I have! I’ve used my mum’s recipe, and the dish is called ‘Mama’s’ (She’s given me a stamp of approval on it too!). It’s mutton curry, and this is what we grew up eating, on a Sunday afternoon. My brother could not even wait for my mum to open the pressure cooker and serve the curry in a bowl. So, she would just bring the pressure cooker on the table, and we would eat from there directly. I hold that memory very close to my heart, and this is why, I’ve recreated that experience, and I serve ‘Mama’s’ in a small pressure cooker on the table.
Also, there is a dish called ‘Deomali’. Deomali is a small town in Arunachal Pradesh and my mum’s brother used to live near there. As kids, we would visit him and go fishing. He would then stuff the fish in bamboo and cook it on an open fire. He was the first person who made me realize that cooking can be cool.
Who is your biggest inspiration and why?
My biggest inspiration has to be my childhood memories. I am blessed to have grown up around nature, I used to have so many pets and animals around, and I remember having picnics in forests. It was a great childhood thanks to my amazing parents. They have always believed that I could do anything I wanted. Even when I hit rock bottom, they were always by my side pushing me to pick myself up and try again.
Finally, where do you see yourself in the next five years?
In the next five years, I want to write a book that is very precise and a bit like a text book. A kind of book that any young chef wants to refer to, when learning about Indian cuisine. I want it to be like an Indian version of Larousse. And of course, I want to have many more restaurants!
Chef Amninder has shown us that a tree without roots, is just a piece of wood. So hang on to those roots because you never know the magic that will come out of them.