Indulge one-on-one: Maternity photographer Amrita Samant chats with restaurateur Mathangi Kumar on pet peeves, Instagram age and more
Celebrity baby photographer Amrita Samant has a profession that is as niche as it gets. But she has a lot of things in common with city restaurateur, Mathangi Kumar. Besides their penchant for travel and food, the two successful women are also friends, constantly looking each other up on Instagram pictures from across the world. So, when the two walk into Amrita’s studio in Chetpet, we know the conversation is going to be nothing short of interesting.
That Madras Place and The Summer House Eatery are two restaurants in the city that have become household favourites. With Mathangi’s signature Aglio Olio dish and her sinful Theobroma making the rounds, it’s not surprising, the 28-year-old has made quite a name for herself in Chennai.
Leading with this, Amrita asks, “It is one thing to be passionate about food. It is another to convert that passion into a business. Were you ever scared to take the big leap?” Mathangi gives it some thought and explains how her parents always asked the right questions at the right time. “They clearly said that if you’re planning to make this your career, then you better know everything about it,” she says.
“I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to run a restaurant. So I went to culinary school, learnt the tricks of the trade and came back.”
However, she points out that passion can only take you to a particular point, and after that, knowing the business angle of things is absolutely essential. Constructive criticism was another topic of discussion. “My parents said that there are going to be people who hate your food, so take it with a pinch of salt, don’t throw anything at them!” (Laughs)Mathangi directs the questions back at Amrita and asks her about her initial troubles as a maternity photographer, considering she was an HR professional for a long stint. “At that time, the only way to stay secure professionally was to either become an engineer or doctor. So, I did my engineering,” says Amrita, who started Mommy Shots by Amrita Samant in 2014. She further explains how she was always a people’s person, a trait that helped her eventually take up HR for the next seven years. “But something was missing, you know? So, I combined my love for kids and photography, and my knack for making babies comfortable and made it my niche. There was no turning back after my first shoot.”
Looking fear in the eye
With the food industry being a high-risk business, and photography being a popular profession for kids out of college, the two entrepreneurs have fought it out to keep themselves relevant in the city.
Moreover, the duo faced a lot of challenges — whether with people’s deep-rooted superstitions about baby photography, or dealing with the burgeoning maelstrom of amateur food bloggers. Mathangi chimes in saying that her biggest fear, however, was that she would be alone in the kitchen. “There was a phase when all of my staff quit. I cooked alone for an entire month, for 16 hours a day,” says Mathangi, who was only 23-years-old when she started That Madras Place in 2013. Mathangi’s biggest pet peeve is people Indian-ising their dishes. “I will not serve paneer!” says Mathangi, as Amrita laughed out loud. “And what is paneer steak! Or a chicken steak for that matter. ” Stifling her giggles, Mathangi asks Amrita about the hurdles she had to overcome to be successful. “Families had superstitions about clicking photos of newborns. And I would get questionable looks from senior members of the family, and honestly, it was really intimidating,” laments Amrita, who has also photographed Indian cricketer’s wives Prithi Ashwin and Shheethal Robin. “I started to create safe
environments, where I showed them behind-the-scenes videos of how I prep before I shoot, the safety measures I take the kind of training I’ve done — to be able to swaddle a baby.” Over time, families started trusting her, even though the superstitions haven’t completely been shaken off.
The Instagram age
For a fleeting moment, when the camera pauses, Amrita jumps in and lets Mathangi in on a piece of news that she heard about a Michelin star restaurant’s chef who banned people from using Instagram to take pictures while dining there. It’s at that moment, we realised that photography and food, are at a crossroad between the two of them. “Almost like a prayer, I take a picture of my food before eating.
Do you do that too?” asks Amrita. Mathangi smiles and says that only when one of her dishes look
aesthetically pleasing, does she actually take a picture. “I understand where these chefs are coming from because for a lot of Michelin star restaurants, it’s the experience that matters and not so much the food, you get me? Like at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck — you might be served an orange, but
it is actually a meat mousse in the middle of it.” Mathangi goes on to explain how her customers have even asked for a ladder to take a flat lay picture, while Amrita gasps in surprise and says, “Oh no! If you look through my gallery, all you can see is pictures of food!” As we slowly wind up, Amrita hands out red velvet cupcakes to us, as the two exit the building, deeply engrossed in a conversation about fish
biryani and where to get them. A fitting end to the evening, we think.