“What began as a passion for cooking turned into a profession.”
Chef Raji Gupta, who is known for her popular coastal food pop-ups, shares her mantra for success and plans for the future in a post-pandemic world.
Chef Raji Gupta becomes animated when she talks about food memories from her native village in Karnataka. Bisibele bhaat, chicken curry, holage (or puran poli), kardanta (a local dessert from Gokak in Karnataka, which is loaded with dry fruits, jaggery and dry coconut), Dharwad pedha, Belgavi kunda and of course, dosa and idli for breakfast are some of her absolute favourites. “These regional dishes were an integral part of my childhood during trips to my native village in Karnataka,” she says.
From passion to profession
Given her roots, it isn’t surprising that Chef Raji’s forte is coastal cuisines and even the mere mention is enough to evoke nostalgia. “For me, coastal cuisine holds a lot of memories. I grew up in an environment where our day began with coconut water, and the coconut was later ground to make fresh coconut milk and masalas for recipes,” says Chef Raji. In fact she counts fish curry and rice as one of her comfort foods.
This background and the love for the food laid the foundations of her career. “What began as a passion to cook for my family turned into a full-time profession. I didn’t want just to put conventional Indian food on the table. I wanted to give the world to my loved ones through the culinary medium. So here I was at the age of 32, planning to attend workshops and from thereon professional international culinary institutes,” she explains.
She went on to train at reputed institutes such as Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland and Blue Elephant Cooking School in Bangkok. Though diverse, she credits both these experiences for moulding her career. “Ballymaloe Cookery School was a 100-acre property with a real farm-to-table concept. Everything was grown and cooked on the property, which made me incline towards a sustainable lifestyle,” Chef Raji explains. “On the other hand, Blue Elephant Cooking School was all about traditional Oriental cuisine, which is made from scratch.”
Armed with this knowledge, she set up her own dining experience company — Beyond Dining Co.— where she focused on delivery experiences and giving her clients gastronomic delight. It wasn’t long before her coastal cuisine pop-ups received much acclaim. She explains what makes her dishes, especially the seafood-based recipes, stand out. “You need to make sure that you choose fresh seafood. When you cook seafood, it’s a combination of the right spices, homemade masalas, special ingredients, which make it different and where you source them from.”
Being a home chef has its share of highs and lows. Chef Raji feels she wouldn’t have it any other way though, “What I love about being a home chef is that I have the freedom to control the quality of food that I can deliver.” Ask her about the challenges she has faced, and she replies, “A major challenge one always faces when they are married is a commitment to the family. It’s essential to have a supportive family, and to explain and express how strongly you feel it’s important for you to go out there and take professional training. You will need to balance your work and personal life well, and once you learn that trick, nothing can stop you!”
Another challenge she has faced recently is the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, which have brought a halt in the pop-ups and her delivery services. However, Chef Raji believes this is temporary. “Beyond Dining Co. will resume service in Mumbai and Goa, where we will focus on customising home dining experiences, catering for small events and food delivery,” she informs.
She sees the current phase as an opportunity to reinvent the wheel. She explains, “The hospitality and tourism sectors go hand-in-hand, and both have been affected. My analysis is that by the end of 2020, nearly 65 percent of small restaurants are going to shut down. This gives home chefs an opportunity in the post-COVID era. They need to plan a sustainable strategy in terms of the right menu and pricing, keeping in mind that restaurants which are operating are still doing deliveries.”
According to her, the plus point for home chefs is the fact that there is scope for a lot. “The definition of ‘hygienic ghar ka khana’ is changing. With foodprenuers doing deliveries, the consumer is now exposed to varied cuisines and dishes. Ghar ka khana has gone beyond dal, chawal and sabzi. Tacos, nachos, lasagne, cakes, bread, Thai green curry and much more is being consumed at home. Currently, I am focusing on making traditional desserts and bread.”
So what would be her advice for home chefs in the current scenario? She says, “Focus on your growth since there is going to be a hike in the number of home chefs offering food deliveries. Your food shouldn’t just look good on social media, but you need to also focus on delivering the desired flavour.” Upgrading one’s skills is also crucial, according to Chef Raji.
This year has been challenging for the hospitality sector, but for Chef Raji, this is just a blip on the horizon. What is important is that she still gets the opportunity to do something she’s passionate about.
“The desire to serve good food on the table keeps me motivated,” she concludes.