Our next guest in our Woman of Substance series is Nandini Anant from New Providence, NJ. Microbiologist plus Chef plus Mom of two, she wears many hats with ease and cheerfulness. A very cool fun fact about her is that she has also been featured on two major cooking shows on TV! Let’s find out more about this multifaceted personality, founder and creator of curryliciousme.com
AM : Tell us a little bit about your background. What led you to microbiology?
NA : Initially my plan was to get into medicine, but in India, due to intense competition and the quota system, it was very hard to get into medical school. But I was very much interested in science, and since microbiology is the field which tells you what causes the disease, it was the closest I could come to medicine. I then enrolled for a BS and an MS degree, both in microbiology, and worked for 4 years in a university after that.
AM : What are the aspects of your job that you like?
NA : I am a microbiologist at Novartis. Long hours in the lab, but it is very satisfying. We received approval from the FDA for a pediatric cancer drug, which cures blood cancer in kids with a 100% success rate. To be part of this team is very gratifying.
AM : How and when did you know you wanted to be a chef?
NA : When I came to this country, I did not have a work permit, and so I couldn’t work for almost 2-3 years. During the time I was home, my husband and I would try to have dinner every night in a new restaurant, trying a new cuisine. Growing up in India, I was only used to Indian food, but I was open to trying new things. Soon I started replicating these dishes at home, and experimenting with healthier ingredients, that were not greasy or cheesy – basically improvising to create a healthier version. We used to entertain a lot too, so that became a starting point for my interest in cooking. After which, I started catering for friends and family for kids’ birthday parties. From that point on I knew I want to make something out of it, despite no formal training in the field.
AM : What kind of cuisine do you prefer to cook? How would you best describe your food?
NA : Healthy vegetarian fusion food. I try to use more American seasonal vegetables – incorporate broccoli, Brussel sprouts, green beans etc. with healthier grains such as quinoa, brown rice, bulgur wheat, farro, and then fuse it with Indian spices. For my recipes, you may check out my food blog at curryliciousme.com
AM : Tell us about your experience on MasterChef. What was that like?
NA : The audition for MasterChef Season 3 was very exciting but also nerve wracking! I honestly didn’t know what I had signed up for. There were overall 80,000 people who auditioned for the show. I still remember standing in a long line with my dishes – pulao, stuffed pepper with Indian cottage cheese, and pomegranate raita – in the bitter New York winter. I had planned to meet my husband for lunch, but I ended up progressing three levels and wasn’t out until dinnertime! The studio did an evaluation test, an onscreen camera test and I ended up as one of the 100 people chosen to fly to Los Angeles! There were people from all walks of life, but we bonded over a common language – food! To work with Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliott and Joe Bastianich was a dream come true, in spite of their very honest feedback! Even though I heard the worst things, it instilled a fire in me to do better – not just good enough. I had to cook beef, which was WAY out of my comfort zone and I learned a lot. It has been 7 years since, and I still have the apron tucked safely!
AM : You also appeared recently on TV in another show called Cutthroat Kitchen. How was that different from MasterChef for you?
NA : So Food Network functions a lot differently than Fox. I wanted to work with Alton Brown, and so when the casting producer for Cutthroat Kitchen, who had previously worked on MasterChef gave me a call, I gave it a shot. 2 skype interviews and 2 auditions later, I flew to LA and landed straight in Hollywood Studios! It was a smaller group and so I had a more visible role in the show and more TV time! I made it to the final round, which I am very proud of because the challenges were harder and you had to think on your feet!
AM : What is the best part about being a chef? And the worst part?!
NA : Without a doubt, instant gratification! You cook and feed people and you don’t have to wait too long for feedback! And I believe cooking feeds not just your body, but your soul. I truly enjoy cooking for others. The worst part is cleaning up after all the cooking! I have started hiring someone to clean up after me!
AM : How do you do Thanksgiving at home?
NA : Since we don’t eat meat, I don’t cook turkey. I experiment with a lot of vegetables and make sweet potato soup, grated squash dish, green beans etc. Once I came up with a baked sweet potato dish with marshmallows on top! It was good!
AM : Name three things you always keep in your kitchen.
NA : My kids love quinoa crepes, so I always have quinoa, lentils and spices at home. And my Vitamix is my lifesaver!
AM : Any food tips for the upcoming holidays?
NA : Eat healthy! I know it’s hard during festive season, but try not to buy from outside, make it at home instead. And they don’t have to be 7 course meals, I’m talking quick fix dishes that take under 20-30 minutes to prepare. And you can regulate your addition of oil or cheese and be more aware of what goes into your body. I think the holiday season is a great time to challenge yourself!
AM : Who is/was your role model? Do you try to emulate him/her?
NA : My grandparents, who are no more. Growing up, they raised me while my mom and dad worked long hours. Watching my grandma cook for a battalion of people with ease inspired me, even though the results only emerged much later! My grandpa owned a college in Kerala and I attribute my nerdy side entirely to him!
AM : If you could cook for anyone dead or alive, who would you love to cook for?
NA : Definitely my grandparents, because they would faint if they saw what has happened to that this lazy kid who never helped out in the kitchen! If it were a celebrity, it would be Giada de Laurentiis for sure. I feel like being a woman, and cracking the food industry, and making it to the top couldn’t have been an easy ride, after a few demos at grocery stores, and being a chef for a family, her astronomical rise is very inspiring.
AM : All-time favorite chef?
NA : Richard Blais. He started out doing TV shows and now as a result of sheer hard work, he has opened many restaurants that are doing so well. I would also like to cook for the show, TopChef, and get feedback from Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio!
AM : So I know you also dabbled in teaching music and doing jewelry sales. If you had to choose one vocation among all that you have done, what would it be?
NA : I would definitely say cooking. I am passionate about it and will take it with me to my grave! The rest are just hobbies, and my job is for intellectual stimulation.
AM : Has anyone called you a supermom?! How do you manage to juggle your life between all your various commitments?
NA : LOL. Honestly it is extremely hard, but I have learned to manage my time. I sometimes wished I had more hours during the day but I make the most of it. I plan and organize like crazy, almost a month ahead of an event. It is human nature to get overwhelmed at times, but I have finally learned the art of time management!
AM : Any parting words for women who are restarting a career all over again, and branching out into non-traditional professions?
NA : I feel it is very important to stay positive and not let anything pull you down. I know it is easier said than done, but even when things don’t work out, stay focused on your goal. Another thing is to seek out women mentors who propel you, and support you as you struggle. The right backing and positive feedback make a big difference in who you turn out to be.
AM : What else are you working on currently? And future plans ?
NA : I recently catered for a group of cardiologists for a conference and the positive feedback made me motivated to tie up with senior citizen centers and local hospitals to cater food at subsidized rates. I am also into restaurant consulting – I introduced chhole, a chickpea curry dish at the Prestige diner in New Providence, and I am happy to say it is now on the menu! I would like to introduce healthy vegetarian cooking into other American restaurants as well, and maybe open my own restaurant some day!
Thank you very much Nandini! We wish you all the best, and happy holidays!