"A family that 'cooks' together, stays together" is the mantra that pushed Chef Shagun Mehra to pursue a career in food. India Food Network spoke to the talented chef and wine connoisseur about her food philosophy, inspiration and how travel has changed her perspective towards food in this interview.
Do you have any fond food memory from your childhood?
I have loads of them. I remember in the summer we used to churn our own fresh Alphonso ice-cream. Each member in the family would take turns in churning the ice-cream. This was the traditional way of churning cream and mangoes into ice-cream. I am salivating at the thought of it!
When was the first time you realised you want to pursue a career in food?
When I was about 15, the chef at our family hotel had just completed his culinary training in Italy. Once back, he started teaching me some of the most traditional Italian recipes. This got me very excited and I wanted to study culinary arts and explore the world of gastronomy. That's how it all started.
How did culinary school help you hone your skills as a chef?
It gave me the technical know-how and insight on various cooking methods. It formed the base for me to understand different types of chopping techniques and also creating complex dishes. This enabled me to explore the culinary world and build on it using the academic and technical base that the school offered me.
What is your food philosophy?
I believe in the richness of local produce and traditional recipes and cooking techniques. I think India is a diverse and expansive nation and there is so much to discover in each state and within each state there are nuances of different cuisine styles. My food philosophy is to unearth the past, learn from it, respect even the most basic of local ingredients and celebrate it.
What made you decide to launch your YouTube channel? Tell us what we can expect from it.
I wanted to reach out to an audience with my love and passion for my food philosophy. I guess that was the main motive behind it. I hope to transfer the same through these videos to my audience, and delve deeper into various regional cuisines of India and present them in an exciting way.
You have now forayed into television. How has your experience been so far?
Television was very fun but also immense hard work. I am very excited about it and looking forward to the episodes. I would enjoy doing more television perhaps if interesting concepts are presented.
For a chef of this generation, how important is social media for you?
It's very important to me. I think social media is a great way of reaching out to a broad audience and display your skills, passion and ethos on food. I am active on Instagram and Facebook as Food Design Studio, but I need to work harder on my tweeting skills.
How has travel shaped you as a chef? Do you have any interesting stories to share?
Travel is hugely important and opens one's mind. It has allowed me to experience different cuisine styles and learn about exotic ingredients. My recent travel to Spain taught me how great chefs respect even the most ordinary of ingredients and enhance it. It's not only about expensive ingredients, rather it's about procuring fresh, seasonal and local produce and cooking great dishes with it. A beautiful meal can be made with the simplest and cheapest of ingredients.
Who has been your greatest inspiration?
My greatest inspiration is the generations of food love from my family. I have watched my grandfather cook his own mithai (traditionally we are sweet-meat makers and then hoteliers), to my father's food knowledge and discussion on the smallest of nuances in the dishes prepared. My mother has always cooked diverse food from various parts of the world and India and kept the dining table an exciting space. My brother is a great cook himself and just like myself he too studied culinary arts. Men and women in my family love to cook and being in the kitchen together as a family has been a source of joy and inspiration to me.
What is your soul food?
There is nothing like a board of artisanal cheese, freshly-baked bread with a beautiful bottle of wine to marry with it. I would have this on my death bed if I had my way!
If not a chef, what would you be?
An artist. I wanted to study Fine Arts at some point. But I was encouraged to study food, which I loved equally. I see myself as a creative person and now I find a way to express my creativity in food. This is why I enjoy food styling.
Three things that we will always find in your refrigerator?
Marinated olives, good cheese and good olive oil (it's important to refrigerate a good bottle of olive oil in our Indian temperatures).
What is your favourite food destination in India and abroad?
I would find Bihar and Orissa very exciting to discover in India, although I have never been there. Spain for me has opened my food horizon, and I consider it one of the most gastronomically evolved countries in the world today.
Three favourite ingredients that you love to cook with.