Chef Aarthi Sampath: Indian food in US is ‘bastardized,’ has too many short cuts, frozen products, too North Indian-focused

Aarthi Sampath
Chef Aarthi Sampath; photo via Instagram

Sampath, winner of Chopped, is an Inside Chef at the Rainbow Room in New York.

Chef Aarthi Sampath has many firsts to her credit. From being the first ever Indian American to win the hugely popular food reality show Chopped to heading the kitchen as chef de cuisine at the only Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in the United States, she is among a few Indian faces in the American mainstream cooking world. She is also among the even fewer female chefs of color in the country to create a name for herself and to unapologetically celebrate her native cuisine.

As Sampath begins a new culinary journey as the “Inside Chef” at the iconic Rainbow Room in New York, she spoke to the American Bazaar on her illustrious career and how she made a foray into the highly competitive American food scene.

The chef, who won the highly acclaimed season 3 of Chopped and also beat the formidable Bobby Flay in Beat Bobby Flay by cooking her famous chicken biryani in 2018, makes no bones about the fact that her journey as a woman and as an immigrant hasn’t been the easiest.

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“From facing nepotism, to being ridiculed, to being labeled not talented, I’ve come so far as an immigrant in the States,” she said. “It’s been a journey to remember.”

Sampath, who first honed her cookery skills back in India, talked about her roots and the beginning of her kitchen journey. “I loved the process of cooking ever since my grandma sent me to cooking classes one summer vacation in Chennai India,” she said. “I started cooking with my mom’s recipe books, was soon adamant to join hospitality school, interned at Oberoi Raj Vilas that blew my mind. I then worked with TAJ hotels for five years, starting as a management trainee and then progressing as Sous chef, worked at numerous cities within the TAJ umbrella including Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi and Mumbai.”

Sampath came to the United States to attend Johnson & Wales University. After completing school, she did an internship at Junoon, where she rose to become Chef de Cuisine.

She left the popular Indian restaurant to work at the Michelin-starred British restaurant inside the Ace Hotel in New York, The Breslin, under Chef April Bloomfield.

Sampath also spoke about breaking the glass ceiling as Indian American chef. “Of course I believe I have broken that glass ceiling,” she said. “My ethnicity often indicates that I’m good at Indian cuisine which isn’t wrong but I’ve progressed and cook numerous flavor profiles.”

ALSO READ: Why Indian food has not gone mainstream in America (June 11, 2019)

Asked whether her famous biryani that beat Bobby Flay was a family recipe or a craft she honed, Sampath said, “The biryani was learned during my years in Hyderabad, the land of amazing food and phenomenal biryani. I learned it from an old school Indian master chef who had to be bribed with some liquor so I could learn the recipe.”

As someone who has cooked with many American chefs and has been on many food shows, Chef Sampath said that there are some common misconceptions about Indian food. “Some of the common perceptions are that we all use ‘curry’ whatever that is, and we all love heat,” she said. “And our food is heavy and rich and decadent.”

Sampath also shared a complaint about the state of Indian food in the west and the US. “It’s been bastardized to a great extent, too many short cuts, frozen products, no focus on other regions apart from North Indian classics,” she said.

About her new role as a chef at Rainbow Room and the iconic restaurant at the Rockefeller in New York, chef Sampath said, “They have three venues, the Dining Club, which is an exclusive members-only dining club, with high-end service and fine dining food. Bar 65 is a fun casual set up overlooking the city. The Rainbow Room is an events space where the “Who’s Who” have their events.”

One such event recently featured Indra Nooyi and the chef had the privilege of cooking for the PepsiCo CEO.

ALSO READ: On a kulfi trail in Big Apple: Kulfi pops, the Indian dessert is taking New York City by storm (May 28, 2019)

Asked about the menu for Nooyi, Sampath said, “She is vegetarian so we made a wild mushroom risotto, with shaved truffles, avocado salad with market shaved vegetables and greens for the first course.”

On her style of cooking, Sampath said, “My style of cooking helps with hosting Indian weddings, recipe testing for new menu ideas. The dishes have to have the influence of New York City, so it being very diverse keeps our food very diverse.”

One of the highlights of Chef Sampath’s career was when she worked with the renowned Chef Vikas Khanna on The “Billionaire’s Club Dinner” hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

Last year, Sampath partnered with former Amazon executive Shilpi Gupta to create the first women-owned food truck in Seattle, Kukree.

The truck, whose motto is “happiness in a bowl,” serves Southeast Asian, Mediterranean, Indian and US dishes.

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