Radhika Desai changed careers and hasn’t looked back.
After earning a B.S. in Natural Resource Management at The Ohio State University and then working as a Park Ranger in Death Valley, Radhika studied at The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago.
During her culinary studies and soon after, she apprenticed at some of the finer restaurants of Cincinnati (Aioli Bistro) and Dubai (Burj al Arab / al Muntaha, and Shangri-La Hotel). Then she moved on to positions of greater responsibility at other high-end restaurants—Executive Sous Chef at Vermilion (an Indian and Latin fusion restaurant in Chicago), and then Opening Sous Chef at Mesh in Cincinnati.
She recently moved back to Chicago to become the opening Executive Chef for the new Between Boutique and Lounge in Chicago.
Has food always been an important part of your life?
Yes! My parents came to the states in 1976 from Maharashtra. While dad is an electrical engineer and mom is an accountant, both of them are excellent cooks and have always been passionate about great food.
In my family, food is always what our gatherings and events are planned around. Food is decided upon first, then everything else follows.
There is a famous Hindu saying: “A guest is like god.” Hospitality is very important to us, especially in terms of feeding and nurturing people.
For example, for my brother’s wedding, the first thing decided upon was catering. A wonderful Indian chef from New York was hired to pack all his equipment and staff and come to Cincinnati to cater the wedding.
As a little girl, I used to stand by my mom’s side while she cooked. She taught me all of the basics of flavoring and cooking amazing, authentic Indian food. I still associate most of my childhood memories with scents, aromas, and flavors. Mom says that I always had to stir whatever was on the stove, even once, just to feel like I had a part in making it.
Dad is also obsessed with fantastic food. His favorite Indian restaurant is this small place in Cincinnati that he’s been going to since the early ’80s. He gets the same thing every time—malai kofta, a North Indian vegetarian dish. For over 20 years, dad has been trying to recreate this dish at home, unsuccessfully. He’s probably tried at least 100 times and each time it’s sooo close, but not perfect. But he will continue to try, I’m sure of that.
How did you come to study Natural Resource Management?
I was always a good student who put studying and getting good grades before anything else, thanks to my parents. When it came time to decide where to go to college and what to do, I felt I had a lot of options. My brother had chosen the traditional medical path and I really had no interest in it.
I had always loved ecology and nature, so I decided to combine that love with a science and went to The Ohio State University to study Natural Resource Management.
Throughout my college career my friends knew me as “Radhika, our friend who loves to cook.” I had people over at least once a week and made a spread for everyone. It felt so natural to take care of people and make them happy by feeding them delicious food. In our hectic lives it was a reprieve. Holidays were always given to me as opportunities to show off my talents. I just had this aptitude for making really great tasting food. And seeing the expressions of people enjoying food that I’ve cooked is so awesome.
How did you decide to make the career change?
After graduating, I spent a year living in a trailer in the desert of Death Valley in 100-degree weather and I loved every minute of it! And as in college, I would often invite my fellow rangers over for home-cooked meals. They quickly started referring to me as “That ranger Radhika, the one who cooks.” After that year in Death Valley ended, I spent several months in India, where I was surrounded by family and a sense of community. These few months made me realize that whatever else was going on in my life—boyfriends, break-ups, diplomas, jobs—food was always there. It was a comfort and foundation. And so I decided to make it not a hobby or reprieve, but a career.
I enrolled in the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and received my culinary degree in 16 months.
Tell me about your time apprenticing in Dubai.
When I was about 15, my father started traveling internationally for his engineering job. While it wasn’t always easy to be without him, a great benefit was being able to visit him anywhere he went. I would have never experienced South Korea or the remote deserts of Eastern India had he not traveled to those places for his work.
My father was in Dubai while I was in culinary school, and my mother and I were fortunate enough to visit him. On the phone he had described it as a futuristic and money-drenched place. He couldn’t have been more right. We arrived and I felt as if I were on another planet 50 years into the future. The buildings seemed three times bigger than those at home in Chicago.
Everything seemed shiny and new. People in traditional Islamic garb drove around in Bentleys and Porsches and toting Gucci and Prada bags. It was strange and overwhelming.
And alcohol in restaurants or stores is illegal in Dubai. (I was relieved to find out that alcohol could legally be served in hotels.)
And Dubai reminds me of New York City in that there are people from all over the world in Dubai. Because there is so much money to be made and handled and spent, people flock there. While I was there, I apprenticed in two different hotels.
The first was the Burj al Arab, the only 6-star hotel in the world. It towers in the shape of a huge sailboat, seemingly floating in the ocean. It is breathtaking from far away and just as beautiful from inside. I was a bit nervous going into the experience, just because I had no idea what to expect. But having had dinner there the night before stirred excitement. Our meal lasted over three hours. Cocktails, wine, sparkling water, hot soup, cold soup, farm-raised New Zealand veal, vapors, dusts, truffles, more wine … it was ridiculously over the top and I loved every second of it. The next day I would be working in the very same kitchen that had produced all these delightful treats.
I wore my own chef’s jacket and was given one of those tall 101 pleated hats signifying the 101 ways you can cook with an egg. I was taken to the very top floor where the restaurant is, a la “behind the scenes.” It was very exciting. The kitchen was fairly large, probably about 900 square feet. At any one time, there were about 10 people in the kitchen preparing for a lunch crowd of about 60 and a dinner crowd of around 120. All male, all European, and all under the age of 35, with the exception of the two dishwashers who were locals.
Among these men was a Chef de Cuisine, two sous chefs, cooks, and prep guys. (I had previously met the executive chef in the offices.) They all looked at me funny for the first few minutes, but when I told them I was a sous chef from Chicago, their appreciation of me grew.
I did everything from peeling potatoes to searing the most expensive piece of meat I had ever touched to garnishing duck liver pâté with edible orchids. It was amazing. These guys worked so well together—each thing orchestrated and executed flawlessly. No yelling, no tension, just concentration, tasting, and rapid cooking and the product was consistent, beautiful every time.
The luxury of working in a hotel restaurant, especially this one, is that costs are not a priority. You can have the luxury of being double staffed and of using the best ingredients possible in the whole world. I learned a lot about teamwork and being serious in the kitchen. These were determined young men who aspired to be executive chefs at other 6-star hotels.
The other hotel I worked in was the Shangri-La. Just as beautiful and inviting as the Burj al Arab, but with a different feel. It was more Asian themed and less over the top … a timeless kind of air. This experience was completely different. I was met at the front desk by the executive chef of the hotel himself, Richard Stuart. He was so humble and nice and kept telling me how happy he was to meet a young female chef who was excited to learn about food. He made my experience there remarkable.
In this hotel, there were two different restaurants, a traditional Chinese and a Middle Eastern themed place. Both very upscale and considered fine dining. I first worked in the Chinese restaurant. I walked into a kitchen of about 25 Chinese chefs—very few of whom spoke English. Lined up against the wall were 10 true woks. The kind that are gas powered and controlled by foot pedals. Watching these chefs cook on the wok all at the same time was like watching a dance with fire, and I can still remember the smoke and smells. I was able to cook on one of these woks and grew to understand and appreciate the Chinese style of cooking. I was also introduced to many exotic fish and vegetables I hadn’t even known existed.
Tell me about your experience cooking at the James Beard House. [Note to reader: After James Beard died in 1985, the James Beard Foundation was formed with the goal of celebrating, preserving, and nurturing America’s culinary heritage. The Foundation’s culinary home is the James Beard House in Greenwich Village. Almost every day, chefs from America’s best restaurants and hotels cook and present meals to Foundation members, guests, and press. It is a great honor to be invited to cook there, and Radhika has cooked there twice.]
The first time was incredible—I was thrilled just to be there. A team of four of us from Vermilion cooked there for Holi [the Festival of Colors]. The kitchen was amazing and I could feel the presence of the great chefs who’ve cooked there: Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, James Beard himself, and all the others.
What did you and your team cook?
Too many things to list here, but I’ll name a few of them: saffron-lobster empanadas with pipian verde; oysters with champagne jelly, caviar, and jalapeño–garam masala emulsion; flour shells with spiced potatoes and chili-mint purée; chickpea flour fritters with cucumber, mango, and tomato; Tandoori Mysore lamb chops with mint–red onion salad; cashew, coconut, and pistachio ladoos.
It was a great experience. My family came from Ohio and got to share in the feast, and that made it even more special.
The second time was for Holi again. This time the bar was higher since we’d been there before. For me it was less about the awe this time, and more about being a professional. It was a great time too, and still very exciting. I’m really hoping to go a third time!
At home do you usually cook gourmet meals?
Only when I’m cooking for other people (which does happen quite a lot). When I’m cooking just for myself, I typically don’t put nearly as much effort into it. Last night for dinner I ate some leftover Chinese take-out fried rice, and cheese and crackers. It was delicious!
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|