(Originally published November 17, 2015 on Examiner.com).
Some chefs receive classical training from a culinary program while others learn exclusively on the job in kitchens. Some chefs cook food that reflects their training, while others cook food that reflects their upbringing. For those chefs who’ve received classical training from school or in another chef’s kitchen or both, many have embraced culinary traditions different than those they grew up with. Other chefs who followed this path, later rediscovered their roots, and blended their training with their roots to modernize or elevate traditional cuisine with more technique. Still other chefs have become completely enamored with the culture and food of other countries, and cook food that reflects their admiration rather than what they ate growing up. For these chefs authenticity isn’t a matter of ethnicity. Rather authenticity is a matter of passion and respect.
When Akasha was twenty-one, she travelled through Northern India. She went to temples, climbed the Himalayas, and dipped in holy water. She had fun. Though she also got sick, and that wasn’t fun. Akasha originally learned how to cook Indian food with people in their homes in the Punjab region of India. She has been studying Indian cuisine ever since, refining it, and learning more. Everyone who lived there cooked. She was a vegetarian at that time so she cooked vegetarian food. When Akasha returned to California, she went back to “The Golden Temple.” She loved cooking and by this time figured she wouldn’t make a living as a fine artist. So instead she decided to become a cook instead. She though wasn’t motivated by money. Instead Akasha was motivated by passion. Cooking was always all about passion for her.
Every day Michael Jackson use to eat at The Golden Temple. He was a vegetarian back then too. So Akasha got to know Michael due to his daily visits to the restaurant. There was another chef who worked at the restaurant who went to work for Michael. Akasha helped this chef cater all the parties at Michael’s house. Eventually this other chef stopped working for Michael in order to concentrate on his bakery, Mani’s Bakery. So Akasha took over the other chef’s responsibilities and became Jackson’s personal chef. Akasha subsequently worked on and off for Michael for ten years, and then full time for four years. During any year she travelled with him for four months then did parties and other events at his ranch in Neverland Valley. Whether or not she cooked for him daily depended upon where exactly on the planet they were
Since Akasha travelled with Michael on a lot of his tours, including Jackson’s Back and History Tours, Akasha literally travelled with Michael all around the world to a total of thirty four countries including japan (Tokyo three times), Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, India, and all over Eastern and Western Europe. While touring, she had time to explore and wherever she was the first thing she did in the morning was go to the markets. No one else got up early like she did. So she always was up early and off to the market at seven in the morning. Michael didn’t eat breakfast until noon or one o’clock. So she had a lot of time every morning to explore. On tour there are three shows a week for four months. So Akasha went to a number of shows. However unlike the guy who did the clothing and had to be back stage, she didn’t have to go to shows since Michael didn’t eat until he got back to the hotel. So on concert nights that she didn’t go to the shows, she’d go out for dinner to restaurants all over the world. Depending where they were, she also interacted with street vendors. Though she didn’t eat on the street in India. She did that the first time she went and got really sick. But if she was someplace like Germany, Italy or France she’d eat on the street
Where she cooked for Michael while touring depended on the hotel they were staying in and whether or not she had kitchen access. Some hotels provided access to a room service kitchen she’d cook out of for Jackson’s meals. In other hotels, Michael would have a big suite with a kitchen and she’d use that kitchen. Other times, she’d cook right in the middle of the hotel’s kitchen where they’d always give her one assistant. Some of these hotel kitchens were amazing and really clean while others were pretty disgusting. She remembered once in Moscow they gave her a table and it was covered in grease so she had to clean everything. In these hotel kitchens she also got to work with a lot of different chefs. Additionally Akasha had a traveling pantry and brought certain items with her she knew she couldn’t get traveling in many of the countries where Jackson toured. So she brought things that Michael really liked like dry masa, and a tortilla press since Michael loved Mexican food. Thus if Michael wanted enchiladas, she’d make fresh tortillas wherever they were.
After all of these world travels with Michael Jackson, in 2008 when Akasha opened up her namesake restaurant Akasha in Culver City, she decided to do a menu with every day foods like burgers, wings and ribs infused with more worldly flavors that utilized local and sustainable ingredients with strict quality guidelines for sourcing what ingredients they used including produce from farmer markets, good eggs and good chicken like Mary’s chicken. The restaurant also gave Akasha a place to store many of her cook books including many of her books on Indian cuisine. Like with her travels, cook and food books gave and continue to give Akasha a way to explore and research the culinary world especially the vast world of Indian cuisine.
A country’s or region’s cuisine is often thought of as static unchanging, a collection of recipes based upon local ingredients and cooking traditions. Though with trade, war, conquest and colonization what’s now viewed as a static or an ethnic cuisine evolved over a period of time and is shaped by both internal constraints and external influences. This is especially true of Indian cuisine. As Akasha Richmond noted, “Indian food came together from many cultural references.” Even prior to opening up her restaurant Sambar in Culver City, Akasha did a lot of research over the past twenty to thirty years to understand where specific Indian dishes came from plus why certain ingredients are used the way they’re used. The vast culinary library that Akasha has amassed includes many Indian cook books.
So, for example, she has read a lot of books on the history of curry and how it came to be. That history includes all the different influences that different cultures have had on India like that of the Portuguese who brought chilies to the country. The Portuguese also turned Indians onto vindaloo. Vindaloo is a Portuguese meat dish cooked with garlic, vinegar, and spices. Indians adapted the dish and the dish was further modified by the British who created their own dishes like chicken tikka. As Akasha further elaborated, “People came there for the spices and it’s a real fascinating. Than the moguls came from the Middle East and they brought all the kebabs, things marinated in yogurt as well dried fruits and nuts. That all came from the Persians in the Middle Ages. The moguls coming into Northern India. They brought fruit and seeds. When people conquer another country, they want to have some of their own food there. In India you can grow so many things….Many people think Indian food is something like chicken tikka… but Indian food is a blend of many cultures and many micro climates. “
India’s history is reflected in its beliefs, and those different religions have different dietary restrictions. A lot of Hindus are vegetarian, but a lot of Sikhs eat meat. Whereas Muslims don’t eat pork but in southern India there are a lot of Christians like the Syrian Christians in Kerala who eat pork and beef. Those Hindus that aren’t vegetarians don’t eat beef. Plus twenty to thirty years ago everything was local in India. Thus due to the different climates, there were large differences in what ingredients were available. So until more recently in the north or Himalayas there weren’t many bananas available during the winter. However in Kerala in the south on the West Coast, bananas, coconuts, pineapple and mangosteen were available. In the Himalayas, they ate yak butters, and yak meat. Whereas in Kerala they instead cooked with coconut milk. In the north they might also use yogurt. So curries, especially, vary a lot from place to place. Furthermore in the north they traditionally ate more bread whereas in the south they ate more rice. Now in India in the cities they’re doing a lot of the Pan-Indian from all over the country plus things like their versions of nachos and burgers. There are some very hip restaurants in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore and Goa where Indians can eat all kinds of food.
Before opening Sambar in Culver City, Akasha also did a lot of research on what restaurants all over India are currently doing. Akasha understands that what she is doing at her new restaurant isn’t unique, other restaurant in major India cities are doing things very similar. People are very sophisticated in the big cities of India. So Sambar has a multi-regional menu as well as “new wave Masala” dishes that are items like burgers and chicken wings with Indian spices. Sambar itself is a southern Indian dish. They eat sambar in the north too but it’s still a southern dish. Akasha has other southern Indian items on the menu like the uttapam and Goan chicken shakuti. This chicken dish from Goa is a lot different from chicken tikka which is tomato based. The shakuti has a coconut sauce. The restaurant has some Northern dishes too as well as items from other regions, so the menu is truly Pan-Indian.
The lunch menu features kati rolls, a Calcutta street food. There’s a chicken, pork and two vegetarian kati rolls on the menu. Kati rolls are a big paratha, a type of Indian flat bread, that’s put on the griddle and brushed with a little bit of egg. The paratha is flipped over, which cooks the egg, and then filled with different things like spicy slaw, chicken, and chutney. Sambar didn’t open with lunch, lunch was added the second week of October. Lunch is geared towards the neighborhood with salads and burgers, all with Indian flavors in addition to the kati rolls. One of those lunch time salads, the vindaloo steak salad, is also the only item on any of Sambar’s lunch menu that contains beef. There is one dinner item too, the masala braised short ribs though, in general, beef isn’t a primary ingredient since a large portion of India’s population doesn’t eat beef.
As noted above, Indian cuisine evolved from an array of internal and external influences. Akasha stated what California adds to this cuisine is local California ingredients. For example, Akasha’s chef de cuisine Kirk Plummer took some fairytale squash from the market and roasted it with garam masala and palm sugar. He also did a spiced goat cheese where he takes goat cheese and mix it with another masala, and serve this with a mango chutney and arugula salad. So the arugula is a bit new, though if you went to New Delhi you’d probably find arugula. New Delhi is very cosmopolitan. California also adds a different perspective regarding what’s perceived as healthy. A lot of Indian restaurants put a lot of cream into their sauces. Akasha feels people in LA don’t want to eat a lot of cream. So Akasha and her executive chef Kirk instead try to do things with coconut milk, fresh tomato and or chicken stock that are reduced to make sauces a little lighter.
Before opening Sambar, and after training her chefs and team, Akasha hadRagavhan Iyer come out for a week and worked with Akasha on various things she wanted to perfect. Ragavhan is originally from Chennai but he’s been living in America for thirty years. He’s written five cook books and has a sixth book coming out. He wrote one book 660 Curries which Akasha asserted is a great book to have at home for anyone who wants to know curry. So Akasha just wanted to stand and work with someone who really understood things she didn’t fully understand. But she wanted to train her chefs before Ragavhan looked at everything. Thus Akasha wanted to first have her team re-imagine everything with her rather than have someone from India saying “no this is the way you have to do it.” Akasha noted, there are certain ways to cook things like breads and spice blends but, in general, she first wanted to reimagine the cuisine. So she said to herself and team, “Okay where can we go with this and not be bogged down like you have to make vindaloo this way.” So Ragavhan wasn’t in from the beginning. He helped towards the end with further refinement on items including the spice blends. There are a lot of different grades of spices. Akasha and her team use really high quality spices. Every Indian family has a different blend to come up with their garam masala. Sambar came up with a garam masala they really like. There are the dry blends of masala. There’s also wet masala which includes onions, ginger, and garlic cooked together to make a paste to which spices are further added to make a base for a curry sauce that gets tomatoes and other ingredients. Akasha and her team, though, are always fine tuning since she noted “With food sometimes you make it, and like it, but other times you go hmmm not as much.“
Akasha has received some really nice compliments about the food at Sambar including from customers that live here in the States but are originally from India. She has had young girls born here of Indian descent who tell her that her food is like elevated home cooking. Akasha also had a woman from Bangalore who told Akasha that the sambar was perfect. So despite being a white Jewish woman who grew up in Miami, Akasha has received really positive feedback from guests who really know Indian food. Akasha’s dedication to plus passion and respect for Indian culture and cuisine has help here transcend boundaries. But Akasha isn’t complacent, she realizes she has so much more to learn. So she finally noted, “I could research Indian food for the rest of my life and be happy and just study and write about that though I’m not much of a writer. I’m just a cook. Though I feel like I’m just starting to get it…This is the kind of cuisine you can spend your whole life studying it and still need another life to study it. It’s vast. It’s huge. It’s a lot and that’s what I love about it.”