In the Western world, I never felt truly accepted, but I knew I wanted to stand out, not fit in. I remember people questioning my cooking, language, and communication skills, as they ignored my ideas and mocked my name. I endured prejudice and microaggressions daily. However, I knew what I was here to do. I maintained my determination.
NEW DELHI, India — Despite being born with a deformity and the prediction of a very limited life, I forged my own path and followed my dreams. I moved to New York to study culinary arts and landed a job at the prestigious restaurant Junoon. During my time working there, the restaurant earned a Michelin star, which propelled my career forward.
As a child, the doctors predicted a much different future for me. I watched as my mother refused to accept their outlook. She constantly pushed me. During my teenage years, while I isolated from everyone, I found solace in my grandmother’s kitchen. I fell in love with cooking and eventually moved to America to start my life and career.
Eventually, I opened my own restaurants, directed feature films, and built a legacy. All the while, I stayed close to my Indian roots. I never expected any of this to happen, especially when the odds were stacked against me.
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When I was born in 1971, the doctor saw my feet and explained my deformity to my mother. I suffered from a clubfoot, a misalignment of the legs and feet. The doctor told my mother I would never walk or play like other kids. His first mistake was challenging a stubborn Punjabi woman.
My mother refused to accept this prediction and took me to different specialists for an operation at barely two weeks old. The surgery went well, but the doctors still had doubts. For the first few years, I constantly wore wooden shoes to help align my legs. I hated them because everyone laughed at me. Whenever people mocked me, my mother said, “He was not born to walk, but to fly.”
I believed her then, and I still do. She gave me the strength I needed. At the age of 15, I discarded the wooden shoes and began walking on my own. As soon as the shoes came off, my mother took me to a garden in Amritsar and ask me to run. My legs felt weak, but I gathered all my courage and ran as fast as I could. I felt so free, and I never stopped. Even now, I run every single morning. It serves as a reminder of what I can achieve with determination.
Growing up, strangers said terrible things to me. I fought hard to remain unaffected. The kitchen became the only place where I felt accepted. In the kicthen, what I looked like did not matter. Cooking became a form of therapy. My grandmother, a fantastic cook in her own right, allowed me to help and I learned by watching her. Slowly, I became obsessed with recipes and ingredients.
She often took me to the Golden Temple, where I learned to roll bread, shell peas, and wash utensils. I began listening to my own inner voice. The temple filled me with gratitude and peace of mind. In time, my grandmother encouraged me to pursue cooking as a career.
In 2000, I traveled to America, with no idea where to begin. I worked several odd jobs including cleaning people’s homes, washing utensils, and looking after pets. After 31 jobs, I found work in a restaurant. I loved the environment but felt discouraged by one of the chefs I worked with at the time. He never liked me, and once threw a huge cleaver at me. I quit that job but swore to myself, I would achieve my dreams regardless of what anyone thought.
I continued on and had a one-time opportunity to work with the famous chef Gordon Ramsey. Eventually, my English improved, and my work did too. On August 23, 2004, I cooked at the James Beard house [a famous center for the culinary arts]. Throughout these experiences, I stayed close to my roots, and gave Indian food a new look and a new identity in America.
Whether cooking or creating movies, documentaries, and books – the people around me and their stories inspired every aspect of my work. I often dually researched food and religion. This resulted in my documentary series called Holi Kitchens, where I talk about Gurudwaras in India. For the past 23 years, I have lived a very public life. I openly discuss the dark side of the hospitality industry. It remains extremely difficult for people of color to rise in the ranks without selling their souls or being patronized. I knew early on, I had to stand my ground to talk about Indian food.
Doing that comes at a price. In the Western world, I never felt truly accepted, but I knew I wanted to stand out, not fit in. I remember people questioning my cooking, language, and communication skills, as they ignored my ideas and mocked my name. I endured prejudice and microaggressions daily. However, I knew what I was here to do. I maintained my determination.
After becoming a Michelin-star chef in New York, I opened my own restaurants in Dubai – Kinara and Ellora. I wanted to elevate Indian cuisine in my own way. Through curiosity, persistence, and ever-evolving knowledge in my field, I wanted to be remembered not as someone who made an empire of wealth but who created groundbreaking intellectual work worldwide. In time, I directed my first feature film The Last Color, which aired at the Cannes Film festival.
The film features one of India’s most progressive actors Neena Gupta as the protagonist. While traveling to Vrindavan I met all of these incredible women with amazing stories. I pick subjects rooted in Indian culture to give those stories a platform and a voice, and I celebrate them in my own way. My latest movie Imaginary Rain is all about my wish to give female cooks more opportunities, and a larger platform at the front of the line.
In a way, I also pay tribute to my grandmother and my mother for everything they taught me. One day, I want to dedicate a book and a film to them and tell the story of an Indian female chef who struggles to make a mark in the male-dominated industry. It’s a very hard job for women, and that needs to change.
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