From Vikas Khanna’s Junoon to April Bloomfield’s Breslin Bar, Chef Aarthi Sampath has worked at many a star-studded restaurant early on in her career. Now a popular name herself, the New York-based chef shot to fame when she became the first Indian woman to win the 2016-edition of the reality show Chopped. She went on to work with some iconic restaurants in the Big Apple, including Rainbow Room at the Rockefeller Plaza, Chinese Tuxedo, and Baazi NYC. In 2021, being a judge on MasterChef Tamil, she won the adoration of audiences back home too. Aiming for the stars yet rooted in tradition, she talks about the work culture in the US, shattering glass ceilings, and the ultimate dream of her own restaurant(s), among other things. By Rashima Nagpal
T+L India: Tell us a bit about your background.
Chef Aarthi Sampath: I was born in Chennai and brought up in Mumbai. My mom is from Chennai and my dad grew up in Mumbai. Since they had an arranged marriage, mom moved to Mumbai and that’s how it all started. I grew up in Chembur. I was always the plumpy kid who loved to eat. Growing up in a cosmopolitan city, being a Tamilian who’d usually only eat South Indian [food] at home, I’d exchange tiffin boxes during lunch hours at school and that’s how I got exposed to different cuisines.
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T+L India: I read that you wanted to be an actor. Is it true?
Chef Aarthi Sampath: Yes, it is completely true. Growing up, I wanted to be an actor because I was into theatre. If there was anything going on in school, like a small play or an act, I would always try to be a part of it. I would imitate actors or teachers. I was probably 12 or 13 when my parents rejected the idea of me taking an acting course right after school. They said, nobody on TV looks like you and it’s going to be very tough because we don’t know anybody from the film industry. I was discouraged and very lost at the time. I did not know what I wanted to do with my life. Every summer, my parents would send me and my brother to our grandparents’ house in Chennai. One summer, my grandmother sent me to a cooking class, she said you need to have basic knowledge of cooking in order to get married one day. I commenced my cooking classes with a gulab jamun and then chicken tikka—that class changed my life. I came back home and began experimenting with recipes from my mom’s unopened cookbooks. That’s when I realised that I had fallen in love with cooking.
T+L India: Would you watch a lot of food shows growing up?
Chef Aarthi Sampath: Not many but I remember watching Marut Sikka and Jiggs Kalra. At the time, it was just entertainment. Until I saw chef Ananda Solomon and realised that you can make a career out of cooking. It became my goal to work with him, and I did when I joined Taj! I was instantly impressed by his white attire, the way he looked like a star on the TV show. It was also about how people respected him, referred to him as a chef and not just by his name. Putting those pieces together is what developed my interest because I was basically looking for a platform to showcase my talent. I would also watch Oprah Winfrey on TV and think if someone like her can make it, so can I. Growing up, I’d be told a lot of [discouraging] things about my skin colour or my weight. I had a point to prove that you don’t have to be XYZ to be a star or make it on TV or be heard.
T+L India: How did MasterChef Tamil happen for you?
Chef Aarthi Sampath: I knew someone who worked for MasterChef and that person messaged me saying that MasterChef Tamil is on a hunt for chefs and guest chefs. I said, I would absolutely love to come by for a couple of days and be a part of the show, that would be a dream come true. Before I knew it, the producers said why don’t you audition for the role of one of the judges of the show and I said okay. I sent them an audition tape because they said I have to speak in Tamil. I hadn’t lived in India for so long and the only person I spoke in Tamil to was my mom. My Tamil wasn’t perfect but I think I did well. And that’s how MasterChef happened. I had to quit my job and in 15 days to reached India to judge the show.
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T+L India: Where were you working before you signed up for MasterChef Tamil?
Chef Aarthi Sampath: In 2021, when things seemed to get better, restaurants began opening up, I was the head Chef of Chinese Tuxedo. It is an Asian fusion cuisine restaurant in Manhattan. I didn’t really quit my job because they told me that they would love to have me back. I couldn’t provide them with a notice because I only had 15 days of time and just told them that I had to go.
T+L India: I also read that you had your own food truck.
Chef Aarthi Sampath: Yes, I did. This was in Seattle. I was a partner with someone who was working for Amazon. She quit her job and we joined hands because we bore a mutual love for food. She knew the tech part of it. The food truck was called Kukree. It was successful and lasted for a year and a half. Of course, the struggles were there but it was pretty amazing. One of our main concerns was to drive the truck in a certain way and juggle between our storage kitchen and the kitchen on the truck. The best part was that we could take it to several beautiful locations. We were stripped of all the other expenses one needs in a traditional restaurant set-up and all we had to focus on was good, quality food.
T+L India: When did you decide to move to America?
Chef Aarthi Sampath: I studied hotel management at IHM Jaipur. Then, I went on to work with Taj for a long time. After a point, I felt like I had hit the glass ceiling. I didn’t know if I was going to grow further. As I grew older, I saw that there were so many amazing chefs in the world whether it was US or Europe. So, even if it was for just a year, I wanted to go and see what the rest of the world has to offer. That’s how I got to America. I came here as a student at Johnson & Wales, which is a culinary college. That was the best way to enter the States. I had [the option of] credit transfer from my IHM days which meant that I could major in something—I chose baking and pastry because I didn’t know much of it back in India. I always loved to be an all-rounder chef. After that, Junoon happened, and I had to start from the bottom as an intern and then moved on to become line cook. I got to work one-on-one with chef Vikas [Khanna]. We did a lot of creative things, such as cooking for the prime minister [Narendra Modi] for which I created the menu as well. It was pretty amazing.
After Junoon, I worked for another Michelin star restaurant (Breslin Bar) in New York, by April Bloomfield. It served British-American food. It was quite amazing to see the Breslin Bar’s kitchen filled with so many women. The respect for ingredients that April had was very pleasing, like she would go to the farmer’s market to purchase the ingredients and it would remind me of the time when I would go to the market with my mom.
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T+L India: How was your first kitchen experience in the US?
Chef Aarthi Sampath: It was a huge cultural shock! At Taj [in India], I did not have to worry about resources. I could order whatever I wanted and not always worry about food costs. I had to become more of a sensible chef when I came here. Even in terms of labour, we are able to afford a lot more hands in India. I remember once I had cut a salmon; I had some experience of cutting fish but it wasn’t great. In India, the fish or meat usually comes cut and clean when you buy but here, I had to learn how to cut, clean, scrub tables, multitask, and become very self-reliant. I learnt all of this while I was at Junoon, for three and a half years.
T+L India: What is it like to be a woman of colour working in the F&B industry in the West?
Chef Aarthi Sampath: If you look back 15 years then I’d say it has transformed a lot. But the road is very tough for women who are new to the industry and are trying to learn. Now the culture has dramatically changed but back then it was very patriarchal. I feel that when it comes to understanding food and its techniques, women do an amazing job. They are just not able to get certain opportunities because they are frightened. We receive opinions of men who say that this is not our place. First, this was the case in India. But when I came to America, it was no different. You are told certain things because of the colour of your skin or because you have a different accent. I was once locked inside a walk-in fridge, where a male chef tried to harass me. I hope women don’t experience such terrible experiences these days.
T+L India: When it comes to food, what is it that you’re most passionate about?
Chef Aarthi Sampath: I just love my bold flavours—that’s how I have grown up. Working with Ananda Solomon at Thai Pavilion (Taj) really made me fall in love with Asian ingredients. I always try to incorporate that in my style of cooking. I like experimenting with Mediterranean and European cooking as well.
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T+L India: What are the must-have ingredients in your fridge?
Chef Aarthi Sampath: I always have limes and lemons. They shouldn’t be in your fridge though—you should leave them out. I always store curry leaves in the freezer. It’s very hard to find them [in US].
T+L India: What are you up to these days?
Chef Aarthi Sampath: I’m currently working with Baazi NYC and planning on opening my own restaurant soon. I also have two new shows that have come out. One of them is Guy’s Grocery Games on Food Network. For my episode, they brought champions from different shows like Top Chef, Chopped, and we all competed against each other. I won it! And because I won that show I also got to participate in Tournament of Champions, the biggest show on Food Network. They invited the best chefs of America and I stood against the 32 chefs. I didn’t win but I was happy with my performance. Being competitive will always be a part of my life.
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