Elna Yepthomi’s journey to becoming a chef at one of the well-known clubs in Canberra, Australia, is truly inspiring. According to Elna, much like any other art form, culinary art requires practice, sacrifice, and devotion. Originally from Nagaland, she studied Hotel Management in Kolkata and went on to learn cheffing at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Australia.
Through her experiences with cooking, Elna has learned a great deal about life and art. In her pursuit of making a mark in the culinary world, she has developed an even deeper love for her Naga culture and food. “As a Naga chef and proud representative of the Nagas, I see the influence of my roots in my cooking. The majority of international chefs have little knowledge about our local ingredients. This gives me the opportunity to promote our Naga food here,” says Elna.
We chat with Chef Elna Yepthomi from Nagaland to know more about her journey, how she incorporates her Naga culture into her work, and her experiences working as a chef in Australia.
R&L: Hi Elna, thanks for chatting with us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Elna: I’m Elna Yepthomi, a Naga chef currently based in Canberra, Australia. I earned my bachelor’s degree in hotel management from the International Institution of Hotel Management in Kolkata. I also completed a 6-month internship as a trainee chef at Keystone Ski Resorts in Colorado, US.
R&L: Can you tell us about your journey so far as a chef? Additionally, we’re curious to know how you ended up studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Australia and pursuing your career as a chef there.
Elna: My journey as a chef has been challenging but incredibly rewarding. I started out as a cook when I got my first job at Rydges Hotel in Sydney, Australia. It wasn’t easy, as I was just beginning my journey to become a chef. The kitchen is a tough place to work in, with long hours standing, loud noises, mess, sweat, and intense competition among chefs. But with patience, determination, sacrifice, and humility, I was able to overcome the mental and physical pressures that came with the job, and this has led me to where I am today.
As for how I ended up in Australia, I moved there to study at Le Cordon Bleu, a prestigious culinary institution. After completing my studies, I began working in the culinary industry and eventually landed a position as a chef at one of the well-known clubs in Canberra, where I can cater to over 250 people.
R&L: That’s really fascinating. And as a young Naga from a small town, could you tell us more about how you pursued this path in the first place?
Elna: I was a rebellious child, and I wasn’t keen on pursuing higher education. Instead, I was more interested in music and fine art. After completing high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so my dad enrolled me at Loreto College in Kolkata to pursue a bachelor’s degree in art. However, after a month, I realized that this wasn’t the right path for me, and without my dad’s knowledge, I stopped attending college.
“During this phase of depression and frustration, not knowing where I was heading in life, I decided to wait and leave it to the Lord. It was during this time that one of my friends informed me about IIHM (International Institute of Hotel Management).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 the house, or food and beverage.
R&L: And what inspired you to pursue a career as a chef?
Elna: As someone with a background and passion for art, I chose the path of becoming a chef with the belief that art and cooking go hand in hand. Just like how you blend colors in art to bring out the characteristics of your work and imagination, in cooking, you use different ingredients with different colors, textures, tastes, and aromas to create and present your food.
“There is no limit to Art and cooking; you can go wild and crazy with your creativity and imagination. This belief and interest led me to pursue my studies in hotel management, and I ultimately chose to become a chef, where I could combine my love for art and cooking.”
Then after my graduation, I decided to pursue a French culinary course at Le Cordon Bleu, Sydney. This was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. It provided me with a broader perspective on becoming a chef in a finesse way, and I fell in love with cooking. Cooking has become my passion ever since.
Beef Carpaccio by Chef Elna Yepthomi
Crispy pork belly with celeriac remoulade pickled beetroot and jus
R&L: As a Naga chef working in a foreign land, how do you see the influence of your Naga roots in your work?
Elna: As a Naga chef, I take great pride in representing my culture through my work. Naga cuisine is known for its fresh and organic ingredients, most of which come directly from the ground.
However, many international chefs are not familiar with these local ingredients (used widely in Nagaland). This presents an opportunity for me to promote and showcase the unique flavors of Naga cuisine. One of my signature dishes at Novotel was made with Roselle flowers, which our guests loved and sold out by the end of the week.
Crispy Duck Breast with Ricotta Stuffed Zucchini, Parsnip Mash, and Roselle Puree by Chef Elna Yepthomi
I try to use traditional Naga techniques and ingredients whenever possible to create something truly unique in the world of gastronomy. My ultimate goal is to open my own Naga fusion restaurant, blending the flavors and techniques of my heritage with global culinary influences.
Stuffed truffle lamb strap wrapped in pork caul
Grilled Bonito with Root Stew and Seafood Oil
R&L: What do you hope people take away from your recipes and cooking?
Elna: I believe in the saying ‘Your heart is where your home is’. Using that concept, I wish to create dishes that invoke beautiful memories in people. Recipes that take them back to memory lane, give them a nostalgic feeling, and remind them 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.
R&L: Do you have any message for upcoming and aspiring chefs?
Elna: 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 a connection with your ingredients. It’s not all about using a complicated or expensive ingredient but the ability to take the simplest ingredients and create something magical.”
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