Chef Niyati Rao hails from a family of gastronomes, and that, she says, has rubbed off on her. Growing up with parents who are avid travellers, Niyati was inclined towards art, culture, and cuisine as a child. She was not academically “bright”, and cooking and painting were her escapes.
Cooking is “a huge affair” at Niyati’s home, and she started helping her mother and grandmother when she was seven years old. They would prepare sweets during Diwali and her mother’s special crab curry once a year. When she turned nine, Niyati was certain that she wanted to become a chef. And when her cousin gifted her a book on Chef Alain Ducasse, her resolve only grew stronger.
Exploring the Culinary World
Having returned this month from a three-month internship at the world-famous NOMA restaurant in Copenhagen, Niyati is currently living her dream.
“The attention to detail, the thought process behind every single dish, and the seasonality they keep in mind while designing menus was a great learning. It is a lot of hard work but every moment is worth it,” she shares.
Born and raised in Mumbai, the young chef says that her journey really started at IHM, Mumbai, where her formal education as a chef began. After graduating in 2014, she went through a management trainee programme and worked at Wasabi and The Zodiac Grill at The Taj. She later joined Hemant Oberoi as Sous Chef before leaving for A Reverie in Goa for a year in 2018. The restaurant gave the young chef an opportunity to experiment with different techniques and ingredients.
However, Niyati’ had the best time during her December 2013 trip to Tokyo, which was gifted by her father when she was nearing graduation from IHM. To the self-proclaimed Japonism fan, Tokyo was a culinary wonderland. “At Tsukiji market, people respect ingredients and worship them,” she says.
The fact that most people in India think Japanese cuisine is synonymous with Sushi also irked her. “There is so much more. I picked up the principles of minimalism and seasonality from the Japanese. They have been practising it forever,” she says.
Niyati says things are changing now and people have become aware that there’s much more to Japanese food.
Look for Local
What impresses Niyati most about India and Asia is the variety of strong and subtle ingredients. As a chef, she’s always looking for ways to apply French culinary techniques to local ingredients and blend the two traditions.
She says that a chef must remain close to the ground and befriend local and tribal people. As such, she makes the most of her family farm in Dahanu district in Maharashtra. She adds that many of her interactions with localities during travels have led to her discovering new ingredients.
Understanding and looking for such local produce, Niyati says, also makes for a sustainable ecosystem.
Use Imagination and Creativity
Niyati reaches her workplace 15 minutes ahead of time. All the staff members begin the day with a breakfast, and then start working on different menus for the day. They also try new recipes once the menus are designed.
Niyati says that one must be strong-willed to thrive in the culinary business. “It involves long hours, a high-pressure environment, and cut-throat competition. It takes a lifetime of experience and mind-boggling hard work, but it’s important to finish what you start. It’s vital that you retain the imagination and creativity of a child and a thirst to learn,” she advises.
Gender Doesn’t Matter
Niyati says that at the end of the day, what actually matters is the love you have for your work.
She finds labels like woman or lady chef “outright insulting”, but says she soldiered on in the face of advice that a career as a chef would be detrimental when she chose to get married and settle down some years later.
But her mentors saw only one thing: Her passion. “When the journey is hard and demands a lot of dedication, the fruits of the labour are equally sweet,” she says.
Niyati believes that terms like “woman chef” will not be used in the future. Till then, she’s challenging biases, one dish at a time.