Ajai Sharma Of The Resident: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Take Care of Yourself: The demanding nature of the culinary industry can take a toll on physical and mental well-being. Chefs often wish they had known the importance of self-care and work-life balance from the start. Prioritizing self-care helps maintain creativity, prevent burnout, and sustain long-term success.
As a part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ajai Sharma.
At 26, Ajai Sharma is a creative chef, writer, speaker, podcaster, and inspiration to many who want to do things differently.
He completed his Bachelor’s in Hotel Management from Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Manipal and after that, he attended the Culinary Institute of America to get an Associate’s Degree in Culinary Arts.
Ajai made his stellar debut at New York’s Michelin-starred Gramercy Tavern and Cafe Altro Paradisio.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
Ever since childhood, I have had a deep passion for food. I would spend hours in the kitchen with her grandmother, watching her prepare delicious meals with love and precision. I was mesmerized by the way ingredients could be transformed into culinary masterpieces that brought joy and comfort to people. As I grew older, my passion for cooking only intensified. I found myself experimenting with flavors, exploring different cuisines, and constantly seeking new techniques to hone my culinary skills. My friends and family were in awe of my talent and encouraged me to pursue the dream of becoming a chef. After completing culinary school and gaining experience in various renowned restaurants, I felt a burning desire to create my culinary haven — a place where I could showcase my creativity, share my love for food, and provide memorable dining experiences to the guests. That’s when she decided to join The Residents
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
No Yet, I do have a specific type of food that I focus on. I am really into Italian cooking food. I was first drawn to cooking Italian food when I was a child. My family would often go to Italian restaurants, and I would always be amazed by the delicious food. While Working in Altro an Italian Restaurant I loved learning about the different ingredients and techniques used in Italian cooking. I also loved learning about the history of Italian food and the different regions of Italy and their unique culinary traditions. After I graduated from culinary school, I worked at an Italian restaurant. I learned a lot about cooking Italian food from my mentors, But Here is a story about one of my favorite Indian dishes: One of my favorite Indian dishes is Dal Makhni. I love the combination of the rich, creamy Lentils, and the melted Clarified Butter (Ghee) I first learned to make Dal Makhni from my grandmother, and I have been perfecting my recipe ever since. My mother’s Dal makhani recipe is her secret, but I can share some of the key ingredients and techniques and that’s all love and the urge of feeding good food.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that has happened to you since you became a chef? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
I remember one busy evening in one of the restaurants where I was working, an unexpected incident occurred. As the night progressed and the kitchen buzzed with activity, a mischievous mouse entered the kitchen, causing chaos among the staff. At first, the chefs and kitchen staff were startled and tried to chase the little intruder away. However, the mouse seemed determined to explore the culinary haven, darting between pots, pans, and ingredients, much to everyone’s amusement and surprise. It even managed to snatch a small piece of cheese and scurry away. Instead of panicking, I decided to approach the situation with a sense of humor and gathered the staff, and turned the encounter into an impromptu team-building exercise. I divided them into teams and initiated a friendly competition to see who could come up with the most creative solution to capture the elusive mouse. As the teams strategized and devised clever contraptions, laughter filled the kitchen. Some used innovative techniques, while others relied on classic mouse traps disguised as miniature food displays. The atmosphere transformed from one of panic to one of camaraderie and shared amusement. Ultimately, one team managed to trap the mouse, using a humane catch-and-release method. I praised their creativity and quick thinking, turning the event into a valuable lesson about problem-solving, adaptability, and teamwork. I emphasized the importance of maintaining a positive attitude even in unexpected situations and the power of collaboration in overcoming challenges. The incident with the mischievous mouse became a memorable tale that staff members shared with amusement and fondness. It served as a reminder that even in the high-pressure environment of a professional kitchen, it’s essential to find joy in the unexpected and foster a supportive and light-hearted atmosphere. I learned that laughter and a positive attitude can turn a potentially stressful situation into an opportunity for bonding and growth. Also encouraged my staff to embrace the unexpected, adapt to changes with grace, and maintain a sense of humor amidst the daily demands of their culinary journey.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Sure. When I first started my journey as a chef, I faced a lot of hard times. I was young and inexperienced, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I worked long hours, for little pay, and I was often treated poorly. I was also constantly under pressure to perform, and I made a lot of mistakes. One of the hardest times I faced was when I was working as a cook at a restaurant in NYC. I was responsible for running the station, and I was constantly under pressure to produce perfect food, on time, and within budget. I made a lot of mistakes, and I was often yelled at by the head chef. I felt like I was never good enough, and I was constantly on the verge of quitting. However, I eventually overcame these obstacles by learning from my mistakes and never giving up. I worked hard to improve my skills, and I eventually became a respected person on the roof. I learned that the key to success in the culinary world is hard work, dedication, and a passion for food. Here are some of the things that helped me overcome the hard times I faced when I first started my journey as a chef:
• I learned from my mistakes. Every time I made a mistake, I took the time to figure out what went wrong and how I could avoid making the same mistake in the future.
• I never gave up. No matter how hard things got, I never gave up on my dream of becoming a chef. I kept working hard and learning, and eventually, I achieved my goal.
• I found a mentor. I was fortunate enough to find a mentor who believed in me and helped me to develop my skills. My mentor was a great source of support and guidance, and I am grateful for his help.
• I surrounded myself with positive people. I made sure to surround myself with positive people who believed in me and supported my dreams. These people helped me to stay motivated and focused on my goals.
If you are facing hard times in your journey as a chef, I encourage you to remember these things:
• You are not alone. Every chef faces challenges. The important thing is to never give up.
• Learn from your mistakes. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn and grow.
• Find a mentor. A mentor can provide you with support, guidance, and advice.
• Surround yourself with positive people. Positive people will help you to stay motivated and focused on your goals. I believe that if you have these things, you can overcome any obstacle and achieve your dreams.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
Creating a dish that customers are crazy about requires a combination of factors. While I don’t have personal experiences or tastes, I can offer insights based on culinary expertise and industry knowledge. Here are key elements that can contribute to the success of a dish:
1. Flavour: The flavor profile of a dish is crucial. It should be well-balanced, harmonious, and intriguing. Incorporating a combination of complementary ingredients and spices that create depth and complexity can make a dish stand out.
2. Quality Ingredients: Using high-quality, fresh ingredients can significantly enhance the taste and overall experience of a dish. Opting for seasonal produce and sourcing ingredients from trusted suppliers can elevate the flavor and make a noticeable difference.
3. Creativity and Innovation: Offering something unique and memorable can captivate customers. Chefs who experiment with creative flavor pairings, innovative techniques, and unexpected twists can create dishes that intrigue and excite diners.
4. Presentation: Visual appeal plays a crucial role in enticing customers. Thoughtful plating techniques, attention to detail, and an artistic touch can make a dish visually appealing, enhancing the overall dining experience.
5. Textures and Mouthfeel: Incorporating a variety of textures in a dish can add depth and interest. Combining crispy, creamy, crunchy, and tender elements can create a delightful experience for customers.
6. Consistency: Consistency in taste, presentation, and quality is key. Customers often return to a restaurant because they know they can rely on consistently excellent dishes. Maintaining high standards across all aspects of the dining experience is essential.
7. Attention to Dietary Needs and Preferences: Accommodating dietary restrictions and preferences, such as vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, or allergen-free options, are important.
Providing a range of choices that cater to different needs can expand the appeal of a dish to a wider audience.
8. Receiving and Incorporating Feedback: Actively seeking and listening to customer feedback can help refine and improve dishes over time. Paying attention to customer preferences and adjusting accordingly demonstrates a commitment to customer satisfaction.
9. Storytelling: Sharing the story behind a dish, such as its inspiration, cultural significance, or unique preparation method, can create an emotional connection with customers. It adds an extra layer of depth and intrigue to the dining experience.
10. Passion and Love: Infusing a dish with genuine passion, love, and attention to detail can make a significant impact. When chefs pour their heart and soul into creating a dish, customers can often taste the difference and appreciate the care that went into its preparation.
Ultimately, the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about lies in combining flavors, quality ingredients, creativity, consistency, and a commitment to customer satisfaction. By continuously striving for excellence, listening to feedback, and infusing dishes with passion and innovation, chefs can create culinary masterpieces that leave a lasting impression on their customers.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
The concept of a perfect meal varies greatly from person to person, as it depends on individual tastes, cultural backgrounds, and dietary preferences. However, a perfect meal often combines several key elements:
1. Delicious Flavours: A perfect meal typically includes a harmonious blend of flavors,balancing elements like sweet, savory, tangy, and umami. Each dish or component contributes to a well-rounded and enjoyable taste experience.
2. Quality Ingredients: Using high-quality, fresh, and seasonal ingredients can elevate a meal’s overall quality and flavor. Locally sourced, organic, or sustainably produced ingredients often add an extra dimension to a perfect meal.
3. Varied and Well-Prepared Courses: A perfect meal may consist of multiple courses, allowing for a diverse culinary journey. It could include appetizers, soups, salads, main courses, side dishes, and desserts, each prepared with care and attention to detail.
4. Presentation: The visual appeal of a dish can enhance the dining experience. A perfect meal often includes beautifully plated dishes with attention to colors, textures, and artistic presentation.
5. Balance and Harmony: A well-balanced meal offers a variety of flavors, textures, and nutritional components. It may include a mix of proteins, carbohydrates, and vegetables, providing both satisfaction and nourishment.
6. Shared Experience: Sharing a meal with loved ones or friends can add to the enjoyment of a perfect meal. The company, conversation, and shared appreciation for the culinary experience contribute to the overall satisfaction.
Everyone’s idea of a perfect meal is subjective and unique to their personal preferences and experiences. It could be a comforting home-cooked dish, an elaborate multi-course feast, or a cultural specialty that holds sentimental value. Ultimately, a perfect meal brings joy, contentment, and a memorable experience to the individual enjoying it.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My inspiration for creating comes from a variety of sources, including:
• The world around me, including people, places, and things.
• My thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
• The work of other artists and creators.
• The challenges and problems that I face in my life.
I find that I am most creative when I am open to new experiences, when I am willing to take risks, and when I am not afraid to fail. I also find that creativity is a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly. The more I create, the easier it becomes.
Here are some things that I do to boost my creativity daily:
• I read. Reading exposes me to new ideas and perspectives, which can help me to see the world in new ways.
• I listen to music. Music can be a great way to relax and clear my mind, which can make it easier for me to focus on my creativity.
• I spend time in nature. Being in nature can help me to connect with my senses and to appreciate the beauty of the world around me.
• I take breaks. When I am feeling overwhelmed, I take a break from my work to do something that I enjoy, such as going for a walk, listening to music, or reading.
I believe that creativity is an important part of what makes us human. It allows us to express ourselves, to solve problems, and to make the world a more interesting place. I am grateful for my creativity, and I am always looking for ways to foster it.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Oh Yes, I’m currently drafting a book about the Rich Culinary History of India I think that writing a culinary history book about India would have a positive impact on the world. It would help people to learn more about the rich and diverse culinary history of India. It would also help to promote understanding and appreciation of Indian culture.
India has a long and complex culinary history that dates back thousands of years. The country’s food has been influenced by a variety of factors, including its geography, climate, religion, and culture. Indian cuisine is known for its use of spices, its variety of vegetarian dishes, and its rich flavors.
A culinary history book about India would provide a comprehensive overview of the country’s food. It would discuss the different regional cuisines of India, the history of Indian food, and the impact of Indian food on other cultures. The book would also include recipes from different regions of India.
I believe that a culinary history book about India would be a valuable resource for people who are interested in learning more about Indian culture. It would also be a great way to promote understanding and appreciation of Indian food.
Here are some specific examples of the impact that I believe a culinary history book about India could have:
• It could help people to learn more about the rich and diverse culinary history of India.
• It could help to promote understanding and appreciation of Indian culture.
• t could inspire people to try new Indian dishes and to learn more about Indian cuisine.
• It could help to break down stereotypes about Indian food.
• It could help to promote tourism to India.
I believe that a culinary history book about India would be a valuable resource for people who are interested in learning more about Indian culture and food. I hope that I will have the opportunity to write such a book one day
What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
As a chef or restaurateur, it’s crucial to prioritize your well-being and avoid burnout to thrive in the industry. Here are some pieces of advice to help you on this journey:
1. Establish a work-life balance: Set boundaries between your personal and professional life. Dedicate specific time for rest, relaxation, and spending time with loved ones.
Remember that taking care of yourself is just as important as taking care of your business.
2. Delegate and empower your team: Build a strong team of talented individuals who can share the workload. Delegate tasks and responsibilities, allowing yourself to focus on high-level decision-making and strategic planning. Trust in your team’s abilities and empower them to take ownership of their roles.
3. Streamline operations and processes: Continuously evaluate and optimize your restaurant’s operations. Look for areas where you can streamline processes, improve efficiency, and eliminate unnecessary tasks. This will help reduce stress and create a more sustainable work environment.
4. Prioritize self-care: Make self-care a priority in your daily routine. Engage in activities that help you relax, such as exercise, meditation, hobbies, or spending time in nature. Taking care of your physical and mental well-being will enhance your overall resilience and ability to handle stress.
5. Continuously learn and stay inspired: Keep yourself motivated and inspired by seeking out new culinary trends, attending industry events, and connecting with other chefs and restaurateurs. Learning and experimenting with new techniques and flavors can reignite your passion for your craft.
6. Foster a positive workplace culture: Cultivate a supportive and positive work environment for your team. Encourage open communication, provide constructive feedback, and recognize and appreciate their hard work. A positive workplace culture can contribute to higher employee satisfaction and lower burnout rates.
7. Seek support networks: Connect with other chefs and restaurateurs through industry associations, forums, or networking events. Sharing experiences, challenges, and successes with like-minded individuals can provide valuable insights and support.
8. Develop systems for work-life integration: Rather than striving for a perfect balance between work and personal life, focus on integrating the two in a way that works for you.
Find ways to enjoy your work and make it a part of your lifestyle, ensuring that it aligns with your personal goals and values.
9. Take regular breaks and vacations: Allow yourself time off to recharge and rejuvenate.
Schedule regular breaks throughout the day and plan vacations or extended periods away from work. Disconnecting from work-related responsibilities will help you maintain a fresh perspective and prevent burnout.
10. Stay organized and prioritize tasks: Efficiently manage your time and tasks by using tools like calendars, to-do lists, and project management software. Prioritize your tasks based on importance and urgency, focusing on high-impact activities that contribute to your overall goals.
Remember, thriving in the culinary industry is a journey, and taking care of your well-being is essential for long-term success. By implementing these strategies, you can avoid burnout and create a sustainable and fulfilling career in the culinary world.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
“5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Chef” is based on common insights and advice from experienced chefs. Here they are, along with a story or example for each:
1. Time Management is Key: Effective time management is crucial in the fast-paced culinary world. Many chefs wish they had known early on the importance of prioritizing tasks, planning, and efficiently organizing their time. Without proper time management, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and struggle to meet deadlines or maintain a healthy work-life balance.
For example, I had a habit of multitasking without a clear plan. This resulted in constant stress and missed opportunities for creativity. Once I learned the art of time management, I developed a structured approach, creating schedules, and allocating specific time blocks for different tasks. As a result, I became more organized, focused, and better equipped to handle the demands of my role.
2. Embrace Lifelong Learning: The culinary world is ever-evolving, and there’s always something new to learn. Aspiring chefs need to cultivate a mindset of continuous learning and improvement. This includes seeking out mentorship, attending workshops or culinary classes, and staying updated on emerging trends and techniques.
Early in my career, believed that completing culinary school was enough to succeed.
However, I soon realized that the learning process had only just begun. I actively sought out opportunities to expand my knowledge, attending industry conferences, participating in workshops, and collaborating with other chefs. Embracing lifelong learning allowed me to stay ahead of the curve and continuously elevate my culinary skills.
3. Adaptability is Essential: The culinary industry is known for its fast-paced and unpredictable nature. Chefs must be adaptable to thrive in this environment. From sudden changes in the menu to unexpected staff shortages, the ability to adapt quickly and think on your feet is crucial.
I faced a challenging situation when a major ingredient for my signature dish was unexpectedly unavailable. Instead of panicking, I adapted by substituting the ingredient with a suitable alternative. The dish turned out to be a hit, and customers loved the creative twist. This experience taught me the importance of flexibility and adaptability in the face of unexpected obstacles.
4. Build Strong Relationships: The culinary world is built on relationships — with suppliers, staff, fellow chefs, and customers. Building strong connections and fostering positive relationships can open doors to new opportunities, provide support during difficult times, and create a sense of community.
I learned this lesson early in her career when I faced a challenging financial situation.
Through the strong relationships I had built with my co-workers and friends, they offered me extended credit terms and worked together to find solutions. These relationships not only helped me overcome the obstacle but also solidified my belief in the power of cultivating a strong network of support.
5. Take Care of Yourself: The demanding nature of the culinary industry can take a toll on physical and mental well-being. Chefs often wish they had known the importance of self-care and work-life balance from the start. Prioritizing self-care helps maintain creativity, prevent burnout, and sustain long-term success.
I struggled with finding a healthy work-life balance, working long hours, and neglecting my well-being. It wasn’t until experiencing burnout that I realized the importance of self-care. They made changes to their routine, such as setting boundaries, prioritizing rest and exercise, and spending quality time with loved ones. By taking care of themselves, I found renewed energy, creativity, and overall satisfaction in their culinary journey.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
If you’re visiting Altro Paradiso in New York’s Spring Street in SOHO, where I used to work, there are numerous classic and delicious dishes to consider. While it can vary depending on the restaurant and its specialties, one iconic dish that you must try is “Spaghetti Carbonara.” Spaghetti Pomodoro is a beloved Italian pasta dish that originated in Rome. Here’s a description of the traditional preparation: Start with al dente spaghetti, cooked until firm to the bite.
The pasta is then tossed with a creamy sauce made from eggs, grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, crispy pancetta or guanciale (Italian cured pork jowl or bacon), freshly ground black pepper, and sometimes a splash of pasta water. The heat from the just-cooked pasta gently cooks the eggs and forms a luscious, silky sauce that coats the spaghetti strands. The combination of the salty and rich pancetta, the creamy sauce, and the slight sharpness of the cheese creates a harmonious and deeply flavorful dish. The simplicity of Spaghetti Carbonara is part of its charm. It embodies the essence of Italian cuisine, where a few high-quality ingredients are combined to create a dish that is greater than the sum of its parts.
While Spaghetti Carbonara is a classic, it’s important to note that Italian cuisine is incredibly diverse and regional. Each region and even individual restaurant may have its signature dishes and specialties. Exploring the menu and seeking recommendations from the restaurant staff can lead you to discover other authentic and delightful Italian dishes that showcase the restaurant’s unique offerings like Cacio E Pepe, Rigatoni all amatriciana, etc.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, it would be focused on promoting sustainable and regenerative practices in all aspects of life. This movement would aim to address the pressing environmental challenges we face while also considering social and economic aspects. Here’s an outline of the key principles and actions this movement could encourage:
1. Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems: Promoting sustainable farming practices, supporting local and organic food production, reducing food waste, and encouraging healthier and more sustainable dietary choices can have a significant impact on human health and the environment.
2. Renewable Energy Transition: Advocating for the transition to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, and supporting research and development in clean technologies can help mitigate climate change and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
3. Conservation and Biodiversity Protection: Fostering efforts to protect and restore natural habitats, conserving biodiversity, and promoting sustainable land and resource management practices can help maintain ecosystems, support wildlife populations, and preserve natural beauty.
4. Circular Economy and Waste Reduction: Encouraging a shift toward a circular economy, where resources are used efficiently and waste is minimized through recycling, upcycling, and responsible consumption, can reduce the strain on natural resources and decrease pollution.
5. Education and Awareness: Promoting education and raising awareness about the importance of sustainability, climate change, and environmental stewardship can empower individuals to make informed choices and take action in their daily lives.
6. Collaboration and Partnerships: Fostering collaboration between governments, businesses, NGOs, and communities to develop innovative solutions, share best practices, and create a collective impact that can accelerate progress toward a sustainable future.
By inspiring and mobilizing individuals, communities, organizations, and governments to embrace sustainable practices, this movement can bring about positive change on a global scale. It has the potential to protect the environment, mitigate climate change, improve public health, enhance social equity and create a more resilient and prosperous future for generations to come.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!