Young, calm, and composed chef Adhira Swami who completed her Grand Diploma at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, London, and Spanish culinary program at Le Cordon Bleu Madrid, now brings all her learning to her city back. Adhira showcased an exquisite Haute cuisine menu at On The Rocks in Crowne Plaza recently, where we caught up with her. She shares about her childhood, celebrity dad, her career, and her passion for cooking with Provoke Magazine.

When and how was your first tryst with food and cooking? What are your earliest kitchen memories?
I think food has been a massive part of our lives and upbringing in many ways. We used to sit in the kitchen when food was being prepared and all meals would be together. Everytime any of us in the family tasted anything that they loved, they would bring some back home and we shared the food, talking about it. We had a cook from Palakkad called Ameer and he has been there from the time my Dad was a teenager. He’s been a part of our family for a very long time and every time he used to cook, I would just sit in a corner and ask him questions and he would give me a little bowl of some mixed pulses and grains. I think for me food has been a constant for a very long time, so I can’t say when it started. It’s just always been there.

When and how did your love for cooking turn into your profession? Where did you study? What was your family’s reaction to the same?
I studied to be an artist so through school I used to enjoy our classes the most. Infact, we used to bunk all my classes and go sit in the art room. I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to pursue fine arts as a profession. I realised that’s not what I wanted to do with my life so when I came back, my father gave me one piece of advice. He said, “I don’t care what you do, but do it well and don’t sit idle and do nothing.” At one point my father suggested to go pursue a short course at Le Cordon Bleu, London. When I went that I remember calling him and telling him I didn’t want to come back.

What are the culinary trends across the world currently and what are you bringing to the Chennai palate that’s different?
Over the course of the last year, people are adding a lot more authenticity to their food. I’m very happy to see that people are going less with the trends and drawing inspiration from within. I’m really appreciating the technical trends so far that are just changing every five minutes, but what I would bring to the table, is the privilege to have lived in Europe and worked under some of the most incredible chefs, as well as my life experience in South India, Maldives and also working with Sri Lankan chefs. The memories are quite an eclectic mix of different things. I guess for me bringing that here would be the most authentic way we can describe the food that really resonates with me. I also do believe that Chennai is ready for global cuisine and not just Indian global cuisine. I really hope to be able to contribute to making my mark here.

What are some of your signature dishes? What do people love about it?
I don’t know if I actually have a signature dish, but one thing that my friends chew my brains to get me to make very often is probably an apple pie. Professionally, it’s usually something along the lines of handmade Pasta and Lasagne. I don’t think I have a signature dish yet.

What is your unique style of cooking? Do you cook at home?
I think it’s heavily inspired by life experiences for me and flavours that I grew up eating. I don’t think I can define a style yet. I make healthy food like veggies, sandwiches that’s the comfort food that I love eating and of course South Indian food, but I’m not very good at making it. I’m very good at eating it though.

What’s that one or two dishes that your mom, dad, brother and friends are totally in love with and you love making for them?
I just like spoiling them and feeding them. I can’t say if there’s one dish. What I cook depends on what is good in season around, so I go to the market and see what to pick. The kind of cooking that’s most appealing to me is not knowing what to do, but want to do something different, with a particular ingredient. More often than not, they’re quite happy with that, because it’s usually something we haven’t had before.

How would you describe your overall cooking philosophy?
I would say ‘relevant’ is the word to use. Internally it has to be relevant to what I know and what I want to put out, relevant to the time, season, what’s available, authentic, and to the surrounding.

One kitchen tool you can’t do without?
It has to be my chef’s knife.

Name two of your strengths and two of your weaknesses as a chef?
I’m quite organised and I anticipate what is required in the kitchen. That’s something that took me a lot of years to work on, so I’m glad that I’m getting closer to it. Another strength would be being creative. I try to be as creative and original as possible. It’s something that I take pride in and I hope to constantly get better at. Weakness would be impatience.

What exactly are you doing now? What chefs do you follow on social media or admire their work and career in general?
I’m currently working as a culinary consultant so I develop recipes and menus for hotels and restaurants in any project that’s happening between jobs. I like doing pop-ups and workshops. I’m also working on a product development right now. The person I look up to most is Madhu Krishnan, as she is one of the most inspirational chefs I’ve ever had the privilege to meet and spend time with. I think she would in many ways be a role model to me.

What’s your favourite cuisine?
My father’s incredible Mutton Kola Urundai. I have asked him to make it over ten times and I still get excited as if it was the first time. I love Ghee Roast. For me south Indian food is unbeatable.

You graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in 2018. How was the experience there?
My course at Le Cordon Bleu was for 18 months. I specialised in classic French cuisine program in London and was in Spain for the Spanish foundation course for four months. It was fun. I had a great time and a lot of experiences that I will always remember. Usually you know the high pressure events and different services one has to work at. I think that was the first taste of what a restaurant service was like and a lot of mishaps that we had to deal with. At the end coming together as a team and working through it and knowing we put out some good food and celebrating together, are the memories that are the strongest with me. That sense of family that you have with your colleagues will always be special.

Was it a conscious decision to return to India? Your views on the Indian food scene?
I returned to India because I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to work as a full-time chef in a hotel or restaurant. I worked in the Maldives and wanted to do an internship in a pastry kitchen to know what that kind of work was like and what the hotel environment was like. So I was in Maldives for a few months in 2019. Since then, I’ve just been trying to do as much consulting and product development as I possibly could. Due to the pandemic, work was not hectic. There wasn’t much more coming in, so I kind of just had the time to brush up on food videos, take some more classes and come up with new ideas of things that I wanted to do.

In your earlier days, you must have been exposed to the film world as well. Who are the stars you met and did the whole scene not feel attractive for you to continue the legacy?
Actually, I was not exposed to it because work was work and it was never really brought home. So, we kind of had the privilege of growing up with normal parents in that regard. I never found it fascinating. I respected it, but I have never been interested in acting.

Now that the things are slowly opening up what kind of trends do you foresee in the hospitality industry?
In the last couple of years, a lot of the food in India that was importing was topped for a period right during the pandemic. I think it forced a lot of chefs to be creative and to work with what’s around us and to try and come up with maybe the same recipes in a different way with the ingredients that are available to us. Going local is going to be a massive thing in the next few years. I genuinely believe in it and I would like to do more of it as well and go further into it. I’d expect some of the most amazing chefs in India right now trying to be as hyper local as possible and that’s something that I think we can all learn from.

What are your future plans?
I have no idea honestly, I just know I want to be involved with food and in a deep capacity. I hope to continue feeding that love in every way possible.