Elna Yepthomi’s journey to becoming a chef at one of the well-known clubs in Canberra, Australia, is somewhat of an inspiration. “Much like any other art form, culinary art–the art of cooking–requires practice, sacrifice, and devotion,” says Elna. Originally from Nagaland, she studied Hotel Management from Kolkata and went on to learn cheffing at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Australia.
Her experiences with cooking have taught her much about life and art. In her attempts to make a mark in the culinary world, she has harbored a deeper love for her Naga culture and food. “Being a Naga chef and proudly representing the Nagas, I do see the influence of my roots. Majority of the international chefs have little knowledge about our local ingredients. This gives me the opportunity to promote our Naga food here,” says Elna. We spoke to her about her love affair with food, and how she decided to carve out a path for herself in this field.
Hi, please tell us something about yourself!
I am Elna Yepthomi, a Naga chef working in Australia. I completed my bachelors in hotel management from International Institution of Hotel Management, Kolkata. I did my 6 months internship as a trainee chef at Keystone Ski Resorts in Colorado, US, and currently based in Canberra, Australia.
How has your journey been so far as a chef?
I started out as a cook when I got my first job at Rydges Hotel, Sydney. I had to make a lot of sacrifices, it wasn’t easy as I was just starting my journey to become a chef. A kitchen isn’t a great place to be in. It’s hot, loud, messy, sweaty, and worst of all fiercely competitive. Long hours of standing, chefs yelling, the mental and physical pressure I had to overcome and endure through patience, determination, sacrifice and humility has led me to where I am today. Now I am a chef at one of the well-known clubs in Canberra, which can cater to over 250 people.
What inspired you to pursue this career?
I was always a rebellious child; I wasn’t keen on studying. My interests were more towards music and fine art. After 12th, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to pursue, so my dad decided to enroll me at Loreto College Kolkata for my bachelors in art. Having no choice, I agreed but felt something was missing. After a month I realized this wasn’t for me so stopped attending college without the knowledge of my dad. It was during that phase of depression and frustration, not knowing where I was heading in life, I decided to wait and leave it to the Lord, that was when one of my friends informed me about IIHM.
I decided to give it a shot so I enrolled myself without my parent’s knowledge again, gave my interview and test and the next moment I received the news that I got through. During the 3 years of hotel management, we had to decide what line we wanted to pursue as our career with an option of being a chef, housekeeping, front of house or food and beverage.
Art being my passion and background, I decided to choose the path of becoming a chef with the belief that art and cooking go hand in hand. For instance in art, you blend in colors to bring out the characteristic of your work and imagination in the same way cooking you use different ingredients with different colors, textures, tastes and aromas to create and present your food. Art and cooking is never limited, you can go wild and crazy with your creativity and imagination.
After my graduation, I decided to study French culinary course at Le Cordon Bleu, Sydney. This was one of the best decisions that I made in my life. It was the platform that gave me a broader perspective of becoming a chef in a finesse way. I fell in love with cooking and this has become my passion ever since.
- Being an international chef, do you think you can see the influence of your roots in your work?
Being a Naga chef and proudly representing the Nagas, I do see the influence of my roots. One way to describe Naga cuisine is most of our food is directly from the ground in other way it means its fresh and organic. Majority of the international chefs are less acquainted having less or any knowledge on most of our local ingredients. This gives me the opportunity to promote our local ingredients. When I was working for Novotel one of my signature dishes was with Roselle flower. Our guest loved it so much that it was sold out by the end of the week. In saying that, with every opportunity I get, I use traditional Naga techniques and ingredients to create and introduce something unique in the world of gastronomy to help me go further as a Naga chef. Hopefully, one day will open my own Naga fusion restaurant!
What do you hope people take away from your recipes and cooking?
I believe in the saying ‘your heart is where your home is’. Using that concept, I wish to create dishes that invoke beautiful memories for people. Recipes that take them back to memory lane, give them a nostalgic feeling, remind of the comfort and pleasure of home, especially for the Nagas living here in Australia or overseas. We all get cravings for Naga food but are unable to cook because of the pungent smell or limited ingredients.
Any message for upcoming and aspiring chefs?
Be it anything in life-food, photography, design etc-it has to come from your heart and soul. You have to be willing to give it your all or nothing. Watching the inspirational life-stories of famous chefs on TV seems glamorous but in real life the job of a cook/chef is a tough battle everyday.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to receive inspiration and learn from what’s out there but you must be driven from within or else you are not going to be happy. Always stay humble, be determined and learn to make self-sacrifices in everything you do. With passion, consistency and putting God first, everything is possible. The secret of being a good chef is to respect and have connection with your ingredients. It’s not all about using a complicated or expensive ingredient but the ability to take the simplest ingredients and creating something magical.
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