Women's Day special: Chef Madhumita Mohanta shares how she made it in a man's world
The most adventurous thing gastronomically she had ever done was to have wild ant eggs from a friendly tribal in Odisha, resulting in spanking from her mother. Chef Madhumita Mohanta was only nine years old then. “I was so fascinated to see that tribal woman munching away the pearl white little eggs with green chillies that I asked for some. My mother was worried that I might fall sick,” reminisces the chef with a smile at the corner of her lips.
It’s probably this curiosity for all things edible that has made Madhumita a chef to reckon with. Among the only two female executive chefs at a five star hotel in India, this National Award-winning chef has been heading the culinary affair at The Lalit Great Eastern Kolkata for the past five years. It was only during the month-long recess after her plus two exams that Madhumita discovered she could cook well. “Being a single child I was pampered a lot and never allowed inside the kitchen. But I always loved eating and exploring new dishes. During that one month, when my parents were away I used to experiment in the kitchen and that turned out to be satisfactory,” recalls the chef, whose first cooked dishes were a bowl of khichdi and tangra fish curry.
Armed with a degree in hotel management from Institute of Advanced Management, Kolkata, the chef also honed her skills in continental cuisine in Italy. “Since I have lived in many states including Maharashtra, MP, UP, Odisha and Bihar, I know quite a handful of regional cuisines but Bengali cuisine is the closest to my heart," shares Madhumita, who has an experience of over two decades in the culinary world, now.
She is also fond of continental cuisine, but doesn’t like using oregano or rosemary much. "I love sage, thyme, marjoram and other such spices. When it comes to Bengali cuisine I like a liberal dose of the good old radhuni,” says Madhumita.
It was at Ritz Carlton in Bahrain that she served the likes of King of Bahrain, King of UAE, Queen Rania of Jordan, Michael Schumacher and the late pop star Michael Jackson. “I was the personal chef of Michael Jackson for over a month when he visited Bahrain as a friend of the sultan,” shares Madhumita nonchalantly. Jackson, she tells us, was extremely particular about what he ate and preferred premixed foods and vegetables. “We couldn’t see much of him since he always wore a veil covering his face. Jackson’s fruits used to come from Thailand. He loved sea food, too, but had a weak immune system and followed a strict diet,” she remembers.
The chef seems to be besotted with the beautiful Queen Rania of Jordan, who stayed at Ritz for a couple of months. “She is an exotic beauty with a flawless skin. I used to make poached quail eggs for her besides shrimps, caviar and other sea foods. She used to love fresh fruit juices and her day began with a glass of wheatgrass juice,” reveals Madhumita.
After her stint in West Asia, Singapore, Delhi and Hyderabad, she joined The Lalit in 2014. But her journey has not been a bed of roses always. We enquire with her, why is it that at home it’s the women, who are mostly the sole cooks, while the food industry is majorly dominated by male chefs.
“There’s a lot of hard work as a chef, it’s the most unglamorous job. You need a lot of physical strength and clock in unearthly hours in the kitchen. In the initial years, even I thought of leaving the job every day, but somehow, my ego didn’t permit me since I am not the one to give up easily” avers the chef.
So, did she face any discrimination as a woman chef? “Initially people doubted in my capability and also there was a subtle insubordination on part of my juniors, but with experience things eased out,” admits the chef.
In these five years at The Lalit, Madhumita’s aim has always been to take the gourmet experience of the customers to a different level. “Besides our regular menu, we have a pure vegan and non gluten menu with a variety of options for those with food allergy. Now, we plan to concentrate more on regional and local cuisine and give Kolkata a taste of the authentic Anglo-Indian cuisine from the colonial era, which is gradually disappearing from the foodscape of the city,” she adds.
Tips from the chef:
Don’t always go for food trends. Scout for local goodies. Turmeric is such a beneficial, locally available, wonderful ingredient, which can be used in so many ways. Raw turmeric can be grated and added to salads and it tastes delicious. Have a lot of star fruits, boil them and make a sherbet with it. They are loaded with vitamin C and is a good guard against heatstroke during summer. Green leafy vegetables known as saag are extremely beneficial to health. Wash raw amaranth leaves or spinach and have them with salads. Use coconut oil or rice bran oil for cooking.