Ashish Mehta has broken a spell that lasted over 100 years. In 2016, he became the first Indian chef to make it to the elite team that cooks for the prestigious Nobel Banquet in Stockholm. On December 10, he prepared a meal for 1,300 guests at the City Hall in Stockholm, for a dinner attended by the cream of academia, culture, industry, diplomatic corps, government, the Royal Family of Sweden and, of course, the Nobel Laureates.
Mehta, who is the chef at the official residence of the Ambassador of Sweden to India, said he had never been ambitious as a young chef.
“Even though I loved cooking since the age of 10, I was not striving for anything like this,” the 30-year-old said. “I was content if I managed to make decent money. Fresh out of college, that was all that mattered.”
In 2010, Mehta joined the kitchen of the Embassy of Sweden in Delhi, where he finally received the kind of international exposure which stoked his ambitions. “At the Embassy, I worked with Swedish chefs from whom I got a close-up of the real world of cooking – I understood the meaning of fine dining, restaurant-style cooking and food presentation skills. I observed things around me looked for answers within me... in that process I discovered my real passion for cooking.”
In the summer of 2015, Mark Phoenix, a Nobel Chef who was associated with the Embassy for the Sweden-India Nobel Memorial Week, casually mentioned the Nobel Banquet to Mehta and asked him to apply as a volunteer. Enthused, Mehta sent an application, but did not make the cut.
In November 2016 however, culinary innovator chef Sayan Isaksson visited the Swedish Embassy’s kitchen in Delhi. Isaksson, who runs Esperento – one of the 50 best restaurants in the world – was also the man who designed and executed the Nobel Banquet in 2015. No one knew that he had been asked to lead the team once again (chefs are bound by non-disclosure agreements), or that he was in Delhi for a mission. Finally, when Isaksson revealed his secret to the young chef he had observed and selected for the team, Mehta was over the moon.
All proceedings from that moment were conducted in secrecy, with the official line being: “Ashish Mehta is going to Sweden to work in a restaurant for a week.” When Mehta reached, he realised that he was one of the six members of a core team which would work closely with Chef Isaksson.
“The Noble Banquet caters to a large audience of very high profile guests, we had to work for extended hours every day, which required us to be physically fit and mentally agile at any given point in time,” Mehta said. “As an Indian I was not used to working in such cold weather. I was shivering there.”
Mehta improvises by adding Indian ingredients like cumin and garlic to Swedish food like meat balls and has served Tandoori Salmon at official dinners at the Embassy. With his experience at the Nobel banquet, he is ready to bring more improvisation to the culinary space back home.
“You learn so much from Chef Isaksson, he is such an inspiration,” Mehta said. “What I am never going to forget is that for any event, if you plan, are clear about your logistics and how to handle stress, the event will be a success no matter how large the audience is.”