Samta at the vegetable market in Jadubabur Bazar, Bhowanipore.
Picture: Arnab Mondal
She has cooked for MF Husain and Naomi Campbell. And that kind of sums up the range of her cooking style.
Samta Gupta, 45, always wanted to be a chef. “One of my first memories is about sitting in line in the chowk of our ancestral home in north Bihar, where the maharaj (the cook) used to make hot phulkas. There’s another similar memory but in a much more modern setting… in Bombay at my naani’s flat. All our cousins would sit in a line in the kitchen while Tani, the woman who brought my mom up, rustled up dishes,” she recalls fondly. That perhaps explains her obsession with big kitchens. “When I buy my place I think the living room would be the kitchen,” she laughs heartily.
Cooking has always been her passion. Her first ever earning, in fact, had something to do with food and, well, The Telegraph. “I was in school (Modern High) and I received a cheque for Rs 100 for coming up with a recipe for a contest conducted by the paper,” she continues.
It was a short journey from there to IHM, Taratala. “Those days, there were less than 10 hotel management schools.” Samta’s first assignment was in Kobe, Japan, after which she joined The Taj Mahal Palace (Mumbai). Her first restaurant — Mulakat in Delhi — ran for 10 years and was popular with the intelligentsia. “MF Husain to Medha Patkar dropped in.”
After that she kicked up her heels and opened A Twist of Lime in Baga, Goa. But this world cuisine restaurant lasted only one season. Then came a brief stint with Turmeric Pot in Auckland (New Zealand), which she sold after just three months. Now she breezes in and out of cities setting up menus, consulting and, of course, cooking and training. “This, in a way, allows me the best of both worlds. I get to innovate and get to be at my creative best without worrying about nitty-gritties, like sourcing,” she says.
Samta looks up to Madhur Jaffrey for her simple approach to cooking. “I like to keep it simple. It doesn’t need to have exotic ingredients. In fact, I prefer to work with local produce.” If there is a cuisine she leans towards, it’s… you guessed right, contemporary Indian food. “I see a lot of such restaurants coming up in India. I think that speaks a lot about the food scene,” she says. “It’s not really fusion but more about mixing and matching flavours. If I’m making rasam I’d like to see how it works with lemongrass.”
The restaurants and hotels she consults for are spread out across the country –– Rajasthan to Bangalore to Mumbai. Why not her hometown, Calcutta? “Well, I don’t see a lot happening here. Professionally, this place has almost nothing to offer. Mumbai is far more exciting. The city takes to new things in a way no other city does,” she says.
But Samta’s quick to clarify. “Don’t get me wrong. I love Calcutta. I love the city’s warmth. You won’t get anything like the corner jhalmuri guy in any other city. But that doesn’t change the fact that the corner jhalmuri guy is still the same!” she rounds off.