"You've studied so much, and now all you want to do is cooking!" – a question Chef Sohini Banerjee frequently faced from her Indian Bengali community in the UK when she decided to start her supper club. And this attitude of considering cooking as something secondary and shameful is what Banerjee aims to challenge with her own culinary and unique supper club, 'Smoke and Lime'.
'Smoke and Lime' is gaining attention for its innovative approach to Indian cuisine and offering culinary masterpieces that transport us back home.
It was also in the limelight as Banerjee showcased Bengali cuisine at the launch of Indian Culinary Week at the Nehru Centre in London. The four-day culinary festival celebrates the authentic styles of four chefs presenting the varied regional flavours of India. Indian High Commissioner to the UK Vikram Doraiswami was joined by wife Sangeeta Doraiswami at the launch event this week, which also features flavours from Assam, Maharashtra and southern India.
In this edition of the Big Bite Series, iGlobal catches up with the talented chef who believes in sharing her childhood nostalgia for Kolkata through her flavourful dishes.
Banerjee was working as a Business Manager across two restaurants in Soho, London and as a cookery teacher in London when she started her supper club in 2018. What began as a hobby became her biggest passion as she grew closer to her food business while striving through the uncertainties of the pandemic.
"Creativity is always encouraged in my family. My father is a doctor but also a musician and singer. My mother can cook fantastic food singlehandedly for 50 people and make it look like a breeze," Banerjee shared.
Incidentally, her father, Dr Rajat Shubhra Banerjee, is a popular name in the British Indian cultural circuits for his singing. She moved to the UK with her parents at nine but still considers Kolkata and India deeply rooted in her heart.
The unique thing about her supper club menus is that they are not the typical everyday Bengali traditional food. Yet, her platters are dipped in the same essence and ingredients, creatively prepared and presented.
"I'm also a private chef. I do private dining, I go to people's houses and cook. But I don't like doing big events. I think it takes away from the stories of the food. And the biggest reason I started this business is to share the stories," she said.
"Food seems to have taken a back seat these days. I've seen this in my house and others. Not everybody is good at cooking. And yet, those who are don't get as much recognition. That's what I'm trying to bring out and reclaim the kitchen space. This is my way of saying 'Thank you' to the women in our community," Banerjee added.
Newly married, Banerjee considers her husband Rijul Bohra, a doctor by profession, to be the "backbone" of her business.
"While I take care of the cooking and the creative side of things, he looks into the management part and also helps in hosting," she explained.
However, Banerjee noted that it pains her to see that her generation is moving away from this simple pleasure of life – cooking and nourishing.
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"But many of my friends and those from my generation feel cooking and hosting is shameful, and they would rather focus on their job, their career. But without cooking and eating, none of us would be alive.
"You're nourishing your body and soul and creating memories through cooking and eating. Moving away from that means much of our culture is lost. And honestly, westerners don't do that. Why shall we?" Banerjee reflected.
Apart from hosting weekly supper clubs for 10 to 15 people each time, Banerjee is reflecting on such questions and researching the position of women of yesterday and today. She tells us she's also busy picking the brains of her grandmothers for recipes and anecdotes.
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And, is there a book under the wrap, then? "But that's a chef's secret," Banerjee serves us the answer with a sweet smile.