Smita Chutke had never cooked before, let alone tasted ostrich fillet.
That was until he had to cook it for professional chef Jordan Andino as a contestant on the Netflix cooking competition show Cook At All Costs.
But with a migraine, less than 45 minutes on the clock and up to $18,500 on the line, she was determined to make it work.
But determination was not enough. With two other top chefs as her competition, she wasn’t confident in her ability to win. And to add insult to injury, most of the ingredients she was given to cook with were foreign to her.
I’m going to lose, Chutke thought.
She took a deep breath and recalled over three decades of cooking experience leading up to this moment, her debut on an international television show. Her “survival instinct” kicked in and she won both rounds of the competition with her Indian cuisine.
“I think it was very surreal because I never imagined that I could be on Netflix, which is a global platform,” she said. “Especially wearing a traditional sari, the Indian traditional dress.”
Just 22, Chutke immigrated to the US from India to complete his master’s degree in biomedical engineering at the City College of New York. Now, some 20 years later, she is a student at UB M&T Bank Program for Minority and Emerging Women Entrepreneurs, where she further developed Smita’s Cookery, her cooking business. She also worked as a senior portfolio manager at M&T Bank and as a private chef. In January 2022, she was selected as a chef contestant on Cook At Any Cost, where she competed and won $9,600.
Chutke took pride in cooking authentic Indian dishes on the show. She hopes her appearance will counter some of the colonial “misinformation” surrounding Indian cuisine.
“Through my food and the way I presented myself, I wanted to present myself as we do [Indians] I saw our grandmothers,” Chutke said of her time on the Netflix show.
After leaving India, Chutke grew up with authentic Indian food, but after moving to find that Indian food, if not completely absent, is misrepresented in many parts of the world.
“I saw cauliflower with just yellow turmeric and I don’t know what they used, but they would label it Indian cauliflower or Indian food,” she recalls. “And for me, it hit me really hard, because growing Indian food meant a lot more than just putting curry powder or turmeric on [on it] and they call it Indian and that’s why many people would say that the food smells really bad.
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So when Netflix’s casting call came to her in early January 2022, she jumped at the chance to showcase Indian cuisine on a global platform.
Cooking at Any Price began filming later that month in Toronto.
“I had to really rush every single thing,” she said. “Whatever they wanted, I had to fill it all out and send it right away.”
Chutke feels a sense of pride that he has been able to represent India on a global platform in a “right way” with his wins on the show.
“When the judge, Chef Naisha, says, ‘The Indian spice in this dish is the winning ingredient,’ I think that speaks volumes,” she said. “It’s very powerful because it shows how you can turn frozen fish sticks into something really tasty, and it can be done in any dish if you have the right kind of spices – and you know how to use them.”
Chutke learned to cook from elementary school by watching her grandmothers and the people around her. She learned more cooking techniques while living with her grandmother for three years.
But she wouldn’t look at cooking as a career until she moved to New York.
While studying for a master’s degree in biomedical engineering, Chutke cooked in her spare time, letting her creativity run wild by experimenting with different foods. She begins to realize her deep love for cooking and the potential she has in this field.
“I think it is because it just gives me the freedom to create something,” she said. “Because I know the techniques. I just want to keep doing something different all the time.”
Chutke realized that there was a lack of American food that was both delicious and healthy.
She saw this as an opportunity to start her own home catering business. Orders poured in, opening a new window of opportunity for her.
She moved to Buffalo 10 years ago to teach cooking socials and classes, mainly to counter misinformation about spices in food and how to properly add flavor.
These teaching experiences allowed Chutke to further develop her craft and reach her next business venture idea: her own spice blends.
“So through that I’ve developed my blends and people will love them because before they were really surprised by the taste, how balanced it is,” she said. “They can’t get that in commercial mixes.”
She launched her spice blends in 2021. Each blend represents the different recipes she grew up with.
The spice blends are part of her cooking business, Smita’s Cookery, which she launched in 2019 with her first pop-up event.
“It’s been a dream of mine to collaborate with chefs in the area and be able to showcase traditional Indian food,” she said.
In addition to his cooking career, Chutke is a commercial real estate portfolio manager for M&T Bank, a commercial loan manager.
“It’s certainly very challenging to sustain a business, grow it and then work full-time in that portfolio management,” she said. “It’s very challenging, but then you have to take it day by day and not think about the bigger picture all the time.”
On Feb. 8, Chutke spoke to fellow UB students at Blackstone LaunchPad’s Founder Stories event, a group of Q&A events that host local business founders for students to learn from.
Dominique Lavigne, a junior mechanical engineering major, led the question-and-answer session. He believes that Chutke being a “success story” as a former international student is reassuring and inspiring to the audience.
“So she came here on a visa and now she’s a successful business owner working in the United States, and I think a lot of students at our university are struggling,” he said. “A lot of these students come in, their visas expire and they don’t know what they’re going to do. I think she gave them a lot of confidence, to follow your dreams and follow your path and everything will work out no matter what happens in the end.”
Chutke believes that Indian food is the concept of eating “local and seasonal”. Spices are just a means of flavoring.
“I hope more people will learn what Indian food is and what spices are and how they can elevate any dish [with Indian spices],” she said.
AJ Franklin is the Assistant Features Editor for The Spectrum and can be found at [email protected]