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But her age has not come in the way of her considerable achievements. A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York, (Anthony Bourdain also studied here), Shreeya graduated with high honours and won the President’s Award for the highest Grade Point Average in her fifth term with a scholarship. She did her Bachelor’s in Baking and Pastry Arts Management. She also won the Management Award for excellence and The Katharine Angell Academic Achievement Award. Katharine Angell and Frances Roth were the two gritty women who founded the CIA in 1946.
How did you become interested in food? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
I was always interested in baking, even as a little girl. Watching something baking in the oven was a magic show for me and it still is. I am also very good at art and baking is a beautiful form of art. I like the fact that I can not only see but also feel, smell, and taste my creation.
Who most influenced you?
My parents were always there when I had to make big decisions. After I finished high school, I was excited about baking, but was a little fearful about whether I was making the right decision by going to a culinary school. Plus, the fact that the culinary school I wanted to attend was half way across the world. My parents strongly supported my decision as they saw the passion I had for baking. Their confidence in me influenced my decision to pursue this career.
Did you have to overcome any obstacles or challenges to come to the CIA?
In my country, the culinary industry is dominated by men and it is somewhat of an unspoken taboo for women to be in the kitchen. When people heard about my decision to go to culinary school, I must say it raised a lot of eyebrows. Learning to ignore these people was one of the biggest challenges I have ever had to face in my life.
Why did you choose the CIA?
The Culinary Institute of America is considered the “Harvard” of culinary schools. The CIA is one of the few schools that focuses on hands-on training, besides theoretical classes. I feel that this will give me an added advantage when I enter into the culinary field. I wanted to be at the best school. Naturally, my choice was the CIA.
What do you like best about CIA?
The best thing I like about the CIA is that administration really cares for your well-being. By this I mean they not only help you cope up with your academics but also provide other services and activities which are essential for personal, social, and physical wellness. We have a recreation center, counseling and psychological services, learning strategies, state of the art library, and much more. I am overwhelmed by the resources available to me.
Shreeya says she was exposed to the best of chefs and food at CIA. And of all the cuisines, it was French food that caught her imagination. “It is a cornerstone of cuisines, isn’t it? So many take their inspiration from French food and its many and varied techniques.” But it was not all easy as pie, as Shreeya who grew up a vegetarian found out. “I had to work with meat and fish and often the lobsters that I had to cook came to me alive!” But more difficult than that was her struggle to comprehend the thick French accent of an instructor and, as a consequence, not be able to follow his instructions much to his annoyance and her mortification. “But that just made me more determined than ever to prove to him that I could do it,” she says. It was a sweet moment when the same instructor appreciated her achievements.
What was the highlight of your CIA experience?
The highlight for her in her American culinary adventure was working under Thomas Keller. “I worked at his three Michelin-starred restaurant, Per Se, and it was a huge boost to my self-confidence.” Her first challenge in his kitchen as an intern was to make ginger tarts from a complicated recipe. But she did it and won kudos from the chef there. She recalls her first encounter with her idol Thomas Keller. “I was preparing chocolate cookies when someone put their arm around my shoulder and asked how I was doing. I looked up and was stunned. It was Thomas Keller himself,” she gasps, clearly still in awe. Stalwarts such as Keller made all the difference to her culinary education and work experience in the U.S.. “I learnt so much. They unleashed my creativity, allowed me to use the most expensive ingredients and encouraged me to do the best I could.”
That is why there is no compromising on the ingredients she uses in her food. And why she has worked within a strict budget for the decor and created a fabulous ambience with bargains from flea markets, antique shops and inherited furniture from fond grandparents. So there are old wine bottles, wrought-iron lamps instead of the chandeliers she had originally dreamed of, lace mats from a store in Coonoor and pots and pans. “My only indulgence is the Ralph Lauren wallpaper; that I just couldn’t resist” she smiles sheepishly.
Why a restaurant in Coimbatore?
Shreeya chose Coimbatore for her first restaurant as it is her home. “I feel very positive about the Coimbatore crowd and I wanted to give something back to the city where I grew up. And I know this is an opportunity for me to stand out.” She hopes the guests to her restaurant will linger over their meal and savour every mouthful. “We take a lot of pains with each plate we send out of the kitchen. So many techniques are used to prepare food that not just smells or tastes good but also looks beautiful.”
Any advice for prospective students?
I would advise people who are interested in pursuing this career path, that they should come to the CIA with an open mind to learn new things. It’s a college for people with a passion for food. Everybody here is a learner. If you are sure that this is the career path you want to be in for your entire life, and you want to be the best in this profession, then the CIA is the place you should be.