"My first time baking a chocolate cake felt like magic, those simple ingredients transforming into something so fragrant and delicious got me hooked.”
It was her love for eating that got Aarthi Sampath
interested in cooking. As a child, she would steal goodies from her mother’s larder, often getting caught in the act. “Getting grounded for my mischief got me into reading, particularly old cook books that helped me experiment,” recalls Sampath, who knew the moment she baked her first cake that she wanted to be a chef. “My first time baking a chocolate cake felt like magic, those simple ingredients transforming into something so fragrant and delicious got me hooked.”
Sampath’s culinary journey began with her pursuit of a placement in the Taj Hotel Group Management Trainee Program after her time at the Institute of Hotel Management in Jaipur, India. After five years of developing a deep appreciation of Indian cuisine with the Taj Group in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai, she decided it was time to push herself to gain a global perspective on her craft and moved to the USA. There she attended Johnson & Wales University and then joined Vikas Khanna’s Junoon, an iconic Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in New York City, via an internship. Today, Sampath is the Chef De Cuisine at Juno-on and the first Indian woman to win the third season of Chopped, an American reality-based cooking television game show.
Being a woman, that too of colour, Sampath had to break down multiple barriers to make her mark as a chef. Besides the common challenges like understanding the language and the level of cooking, she had to overcome bullying, criticism and other difficulties. “I have always had to
work harder than anyone in the room to prove myself. It wasn’t easy, but I dealt with each obstacle with fervour. I can be knocked down, but I can’t give up,” she says confidently.
Her love for spices is evident in each of her delicious creations. “There is nothing I cook without herbs and spices. I am also very vegetable-forward, which is the strength of Indian cuisine,” says Sampath, adding that her childhood and south Indian heritage have a great influence on her cooking. “Also my travels and wanting to learn more has always pushed me to try new ingredients.” She also enjoys experimenting with food and creating innovative dishes that fuse Indian and Western cooking together. “Indian food is flavour-focused which is why it is so comforting, whereas classic French is very ingredient and technique-based. Meshing the two creates one hell of a bomb cuisine,” adds the talented lady. It was this passion for cooking and innovation that declared her the winner of Chopped in 2016. “It summed my entire culinary journey up to the moment I knew I won. It was a goal I had set for myself when I first saw the show in my dorm room in school,” says Sampath about the win.
“Chopped is not for the faint-hearted. It is all about time management, staying calm, and focusing on the ingredients in the basket,” says the young winner. A memorable moment on the show was when she created spiced crispy tilefish, bread upma and chayote squash curry on the show. “My second course was inspired by my mother’s home cooking. When I spoke about the dishes to the judges and dedicated the dish to her, it was one of the best moments of my life.”
Sampath believes that her cooking has evolved over the years, and now has more finesse. “I use a lot of my heritage but also focus on technique, keeping flavours clean and simple.” Having achieved immense success and accolades along the way, Sampath is all set to start a new chapter in her life. She will soon be launching KUKREE, a modern American ‘fast fine’ concept in Seattle. “I always wanted to have my own food business, cook exactly what I want and have a partner to do it with. I finally met Shilpi, an ex-manager at Amazon who had a similar vision and beyond, who reached out to me. We are excited to work together to launch KUKREE,” says Sampath in conclusion.
Q & A with Chef Aarthi Sampath
What’s your take on healthy cooking?
Eating healthy is challenging, especially with all the unhealthy, cheaper options that we have. But it’s a choice I have to make every day as a chef. Feeling good internally is as important as your tastebuds. Sourcing local ingredients is the key to better cooking.
How do you see the growth of the culinary industry worldwide?
It’s moving towards concepts that are healthy, fusion is back as much as chefs want to deny it, it’s taking a holistic turn, fast food and casual dining is in.
What advice would you give young chefs about to start their culinary journey?
You can do anything you want provided you have the right goal. Goals are dreams with a plan. They always change but there’s a guideline to get where you want. Passion is very crucial with food. Love what you do, as the industry doesn’t pay too well in the initial years.