By Manvi Pant
The life of a chef is all about experimenting with food, expressing their creative vision, and crafting memorable experiences for people. From costing out menus to plating dishes to innovating new techniques and mastering recipes, they do it all. What sets them apart is their discipline, knowledge, work ethics and the level of sensitivity on their palate.
This month as the world celebrates International Chefs Day, we caught up with five outstanding culinary masters to know what inspired them to follow their passion and the lessons they learned in the process. This is the first of a three-part series, ‘Chef’s Table’.
Smita Daya, USA
Gifted with the right mix of knowledge, skills, and an exemplary spirit, Chef Smita Daya was born and raised in Zambia but calls Atlanta her home for more than 30 years now. An Ayurvedic chef and the founder of Olea Oliva!, a popular store in Marietta, Georgia, USA that retails the finest extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegar from all over the world, her consistent desire to enhance herself in every aspect of cooking and delivering the best has been an essential determinant in her success.
Smita holds a plant-based nutrition certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and Cornell University. Her husband Dilip is a certified Olive Oil Sommelier from the University of California-Davis. Their label Olea Oliva! means ‘The Olive Tree’.
For Smita, it was a monumental shift from a 25-year career in Wall Street to creative and healthy cooking.
“I wanted to bring new ideas and a healthy way of cooking for my community. We always talk about the mind and body connection. By doing my cooking workshops, I wanted them to experience the foods that would bring higher awareness and focus on a lifestyle that will last forever. When I opened Olea Oliva! in 2016, I had the vision to carve my niche, my own identity. It was very consuming, in the beginning, to ensure that vision for the store and the cooking workshops was planned out correctly,” she explains.
Smita was invited to present a culinary demonstration at Atlanta Foodservice Expo, hosted by the American Culinary Federation for two consecutive years. She was also twice invited to teach at the Hospitality Education Foundation of Georgia.
“I am always learning; it’s a continuous process for me to evolve. I prepare myself for challenges that could be elementary to this process. I look forward to bringing meaning to my business and offer the services of what I discover,” says Smita, who was recently certified as an Ayurvedic chef.
The inclination behind learning Ayurveda was to make a difference by educating, inspiring, and empowering people to heal in a way that promotes happiness, connectedness, and heightened spiritual awareness.
“Ayurveda is a holistic medicine that focuses on balance. It’s about aligning your body’s energies. When it comes to the dining table, that means fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients combined to promote efficient digestion and harbour anti-inflammatory properties. It sees the digestive tract as the ‘master system’ of the body,” says Smita, who has two daughters.
While exchanging notes on Ayurveda, she explains how mindful eating is healthy and engages all our senses in the process. “Food is natural nourishment; it has the power to heal and balance our physical health. So, it’s incredibly important that our bodies digest, assimilate, absorb, and metabolise meals. If we do not digest and metabolise well, the food remains as undigested matter and accumulates as Ama (toxins) when then becomes a root cause of all diseases caused by low Agni (digestive fire)”.
From incorporating six tastes in each meal to cooking according to seasonal changes and balancing the plate with nourishing and grounding foods that give us vitality and energy, Smita strongly recommends eating a healthy, colourful and organic meal.
Ever wondered why it’s difficult to recreate a chef’s magic at home? It’s because every chef has a ‘secret.’ For Smita, preparing a dish or a meal is about infusing life-force (prana) in cooking and turning it into a therapeutic experience.
“I prepare food with lots of love and gratitude. When you cook for others, you get the sense of nurturing. In your body, prana supports all of your organs and cells. So, when your prana levels are high, you experience good health.”
After an eight-year corporate career, Manvi Pant is now a consultant with Plan International (India Chapter). She also runs a story-telling platform Real Life Heroes.
First published as part of a series ‘Chef’s Table’ in eShe’s October 2019 issue
Syndicated to CNBCTV18