There is an old saying that “women make good cooks, but men make better chefs.” Setting aside the inaccuracy of this statement is a female culinary dynamo, who has been applying her unique creativity and style to the art of cooking. Chef Amninder Sandhu has been riding the culinary waves with her gas-free kitchen at Arth, in the Bandra suburb of Mumbai. This fine-dine Indian restaurant cooks on charcoal angeethis, brass tandoors, sand pits and sigdis. Flat grinding stones and mortar and pestle are used to grind masalas and chutneys. But why use this ancient mode of cooking in an ultra modern, chic restaurant? “Traditional Indian cuisine has always inspired me. Every time I researched a dish, I came across cooking on charcoal, I realised that slow cooking over charcoal or wood is the best way to approach Indian cuisine,” explains Sandhu, who was declared the ‘Best Lady Chef’ at the National Tourism Awards 2014-15.

Chef Amninder Sandhu at work

The slow and even cooking properties of charcoal lend the dishes a depth of flavour that a gas stove can never replicate. Take the Raan Biryani served at Arth. The lamb leg is slow cooked on dum for 4-5 hours on charcoal. The fragrant basmati rice becomes the perfect vehicle to carry the succulent goat leg, which falls off the bone with the slightest prodding. Of course, it isn’t easy working in a kitchen that takes longer to cook up dishes and also gets several degrees hotter than a conventional one. But Sandhu won’t have it any other way, and when you taste the food, you won’t either. However, it’s not all raw and rustic in the kitchen. Old techniques of slow cooking are juxtaposed with smoking and sous vide to maximise the flavours and create delicious and modern Indian food.

Arth interiors

Sandhu, who spent almost a decade with the Taj Group (she was formerly in charge of Masala Bay at the Taj Lands End) is the quintessential Indian chef. Enthusiastic, talkative and extroverted, she shows a boundless passion for cooking. Her culinary philosophy draws upon the best of Indian traditions fused with innovation. Call for the Murgh makhmali kabab and what you get are chicken kebabs encased in whipped up egg whites and topped with black truffle pate. This is the culinary equivalent of the Cirque du Soleil, complete with acrobats, magicians and clowns. The angoori rabri on phyllo nests is another indulgence. Soft balls of cottage cheese blanketed in a rich, creamy rabri are as elegant and well-balanced as a ballet dancer. 

The menu painstakingly put together by Sandhu gives visitors a deep connection with a forgotten landscape and a reason to stray from the standard Indian foodie itinerary. So a dish from Meghalaya, of chicken in black sesame seed paste, sits on a bed of south Indian iddiyyappam made with purple yam. Another south Indian staple, avial, is married to palak dosa. Then there is Assamese bamboo smoked mutton and Bihari litti chokha. Of course, there are classics like butter chicken and butter naan too on the menu. It’s not just dishes, unusual ingredients have also travelled from the four corners of the country. So fresh mejenga leaves, alpinia leaf and kaaji lebu are flown in from Assam, spring salt from Nagaland, rhododendron from Uttaranchal, koni joha rice from Meghalaya and morel mushrooms from Kashmir.  

Eating is all about a gastronomic journey for the five senses, to which Sandhu adds a sixth element; constant surprise. The dish that resembles a plate of chickpeas is gutti aloo (pearl potatoes from Assam) with khamiri roti. Apart from passion for the produce Sandhu also displays a sense of playfulness in her presentation. The pathar ka gosht is served in handmade rock look-alike plates, carved using the age-old Japanese art of ‘kurinuki,’ which employs the technique of hollowing out shapes from clay. Some dishes come riding on the bark of the jackfruit tree. Even regular items like papad hung from a clothesline reflect oodles of delicious charm.

When she is not working, which is not often, considering she spends 14-16 hours in the kitchen, Sandhu leads a strikingly ordinary life. Early morning yoga and meditation before bed is what keeps her grounded. Bad knees, a bad back and diabetes are a given in this profession, and Sandhu guards against these pitfalls with a workout session between the lunch and dinner service. But it’s rock music that floats her boat. A Metallica, Pink Floyd and Aerosmith fan, Sandhu tries never to miss a rock concert in any part of the world. “Watching Aerosmith, Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne in New Zealand was a memorable experience.” 

Charred fish
Pearl potatoes
Raan biryani
Stuffed morels

 Sandhu admits that restaurants tend to be “testosterone-driven” but is proud that as a female chef, she is tough enough to get things done while adding a more collaborative and “kinder’ feminine touch to cooking. “I let them make the first few mistakes. But if they repeatedly make the same mistakes, then I tend to lose my cool.” It’s a lot harder for women chefs, as the long hours put your life on hold.  Sandhu doesn’t remember the last time she had a meal with her family in broad daylight. But more than the long hours and stressful situations, it’s the lack of sensitivity and respect for service that gets her goat. “Everyone in the service industry is expected to be a machine that churns out flawless food and flawless service. But the person serving food on a particular day could be going through the biggest crisis of his life. Everyday, I have guests who request to place the last order after the stipulated deadline of 11.30pm, without realising that a delayed closing means fewer hours of sleep for the kitchen and housekeeping staff.” The skewed men-women ratio in the kitchen is a blessing in disguise, feels Sandhu. “Women in power are often more bitchy to other women. I don’t think I would have been able handle 15 women in the kitchen (laughs).”