Cooking isn’t her job, but it is her passion. She prides herself in making meals that are different, delicious and beautifully presented. She is just like you and me, who aren’t five-star restaurateurs or award-winning chefs, but has honed her craft as if she were. And for her efforts, they’re being handsomely rewarded – through the glowing praise and lots of admirers on social media and by offline audience. She is Sanjukta Dutta, a prominent face in the home-chef circuit.
Helping breathe new life into dinner or lunchtime, Sanjukta does food pop-ups, mostly authentic Assamese cuisine and at times other regional Indian and global delicacies. Wait, this is not all! A mother to two super active kids, she is a food blogger, menu curator, and also runs a logistics enterprise, which has been successfully operating in Guwahati, Tezpur, Imphal, and Itanagar since years now.
I had been lucky to feast on her yummy delicacies during my stay in Guwahati. A very generous woman, with a strong will power, Sanjukta is now busy empowering other women and new-age kids with ideas and initiatives that would help them achieve their entrepreneurial goals.
In a one-on-one conversation with Sanjukta, I got an insight into her personal life – her inspirations, dreams, struggles she had to undergo, favourite food and chefs, and much more.
Coming from a non-business background, when and how did the entrepreneurial stint happen?
I come from the tea gardens and the husband from Armed Forces background, and when we got married, it was the initial days of his working in a corporate firm and I for a think tank organisation in Mumbai. Business or running an enterprise of my own was never in my dream.
In 2014, about 8 years of us moving back to Guwahati, Assam, I began to conceive the idea of doing something on my own and create an asset. The entrepreneurial bug bit me and in 2015, I got an opportunity from a Premiere e-commerce company to work with them as their last mile delivery partner. It was difficult to even anticipate a woman working in the logistics sector and there were no one that I could hand hold to, but I grabbed the opportunity and from 4 delivery boys, 100 parcels, and a 700 square feet room I started. And currently, we are a family of 160 people, over 6000 square feet space, operating in Guwahati, Tezpur, Itanagar and Imphal, and since then there has been no looking back.
How is entrepreneurship and working women important for India as a whole?
We form a huge workforce, both skilled and unskilled, and women contribute to the Income Generation, which eventually contributes to the National Economy, women play a vital role when it comes to either working or doing something of her own.
You’re also an awesome home-chef. When did you first realise your passion to cook? Any anecdotes to share?
I come from a very food loving family and got married to one too. But the passion for cooking is something that I realised while I was studying in college and lived in a PG, where I cooked in my small make shift kitchen, for me and my PG mates. The usual ones would be Rajma and Daal Palak. My friends would wait for me to cook. I think that was the beginning.
What was the first dish you ever cooked?
Rajma done right the very first time; I can never forget it.
Tell us about your cooking style. Do you like experimenting new cuisines and techniques?
My cooking style is very basic. I try to keep the taste subtle and let the ingredients bloom in the dish. My cooking is earthy, that’s the best way to describe my cooking genre.
I am an advocate of Slow Cooking, hence whatever I cook goes through the regime of correct cooking time on exact temperature.
I love experimenting with new cuisines but never temper with the main and basic ingredients. For example, if I am making a Tiramisu, I will never replace lady fingers with a sponge or mascarpone with cream cheese and still dare to call it a Tiramisu.
What do you love most about being a home-chef?
The biggest blessing of a Home chef is that he/she has got the power to choose the ingredients and feed their families and friends the very best. I feel it is a super power and that is the best thing I love about being a home-chef.
What do you usually eat on regular basis, say at home?
I am such a Bhaat, Daal and Khar person. I love varieties of rice and currently feasting on the amazing Bao Rice from Majuli.
What ingredients will we always find in your kitchen?
Dhaniya/coriander leaves, wine, chillies and eggs. I somehow never run out of these ingredients. Never ever.
Your favourite dish/es from your creations?
I make a very mean AuGratin, Baked Fish and Biryani. My family gets quite excited the moment they get to sniff these foods. Tiramisu is something that I love making for my friends and the Husband. They absolutely love it. For both my boys, they love the mixed fruit ice cream that I make.
And by the way, my Chicken Biryani recipe is now being served at one of the restaurants in Guwahati.
What makes you happy?
Cooking and then feeding. I tell you the feeling is mind boggling. It keeps me rooted and pumps energy in me.
People identify you as a promoter of Assamese cuisine. How does it feel and what inspires you?
It is a huge responsibility. If I am identified as a promoter of Assamese cuisine then it is a Herculean task to keep up to the expectations and at the same time prepare the cuisine to reach out to the world of gourmet.
The people who I meet in this journey, who are quietly working on at grassroot level, be it the organic farmer who is growing all the exotic fruits and vegetables, for us to cook and present, to that village granny who is busy spreading her knowledge of our cuisine down to the generation and generation. They are my food heroes and they inspire me.
Any food memories from your travels?
Whatever little I have travelled, food was the biggest reason for me to do so. I remember the classic Onion Soup and the Baguette Sandwich in Paris that never ever tasted the same from the ones I have had in France.
Eating Woodworms in Kohima was another high for me. Fish is something I crave from time to time and Thailand gave me the opportunity to eat the best from the streets to the fine dine.
The iconic Temple Bar in Dublin was another high for me and there are numerous places where I go to eat and drink and I realise I just made a food memory forever.
Jamie Oliver. I resemble his style of cooking. Basic and fresh ingredients are something that relates his cooking to mine.
Marco Perrie White, the mad hatter, the godfather of modern cooking. He made cooking look so much fun and I adore his sincerity and attitude.
Peter Kuruvita: He tells me time and time again that no matter how wide your branches spread, the essence lies in the firm roots. I love him for his take on Sinhalese cuisine with that modern touch. It’s divine for me.
Apart from them, all my chef friends, I feel blessed to know them and a little conversation with them, you come back enlightened.
Do you think the cuisine of Northeast would be able to make a mark on the global front?
Absolutely positive about it. The torchbearers of the cuisines are highly motivated individuals. The cuisine is not just tasty but extremely healthy and that I think is the biggest USP.
People you look up to for advise and inspirations?
Dr Pushpa Bhandari Bist, Associate Professor, L.D.Arts College, Gujarat University is someone whose mere picture can inspire any individual who knows her. For me she is my inspiration and though she lives miles away I draw a lot of inspiration from her.
Dr. Sriparna Baruah, Faculty and Head, Centre for Industrial Extensions, Indian Institute of Entrepreneurship. She is my go-to person for any advice and motivation. She encourages and she pushes every individual who needs little inspiration and I find it astounding. She is a fine example of woman who can motivate and inspire another woman.
How do you manage your family with two kids and business simultaneously?
Women are known for their multi-tasking abilities and I am no exception. The initial days were tough and there were times when I did feel like giving up. But took each day as it came and gradually the processes were set and work became less taxing. It is all about how you set your priorities and once the system falls in place, work life balance is maintained.
What advice would you give to women who want to start a business?
Today is the day when you must do it. It wasn’t yesterday not it will be tomorrow. So, if you have a plan and you are dreaming to do something then do it today no matter how difficult it looks. Women are task masters and if they set a goal, they achieve it. So there is nothing that we cannot do. Let there be a little inspiration and hand holding from fellow women and magic can happen.