Smita Chutke had never cooked, let alone tasted, ostrich loin before.
That was until she had to prepare it for professional chef Jordan Andino as a competitor on Netflix’s “Cook at All Costs,” a competitive cooking show.
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 distinguished chefs as her competition, she wasn’t confident in her ability to pull off a 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 to herself.
She took a deep breath and remembered the over three decades of cooking experience that has led to this moment, her debut on an international TV show. Her “survival instinct” kicked in, and she won both rounds of the competition with her Indian-based cuisine.
“I think it was very unreal because I never imagined that I could be on Netflix, which is a global platform,” she said. “Especially wearing a traditional saree, the Indian traditional outfit.”
At just 22, Chutke immigrated to the U.S. from India to complete her master’s degree in biomedical engineering at the City College of New York. Now, about 20 years later, she is a student in UB’s M&T Bank Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs Program, where she further develops Smita’s Cookery, her cooking business. She also works as a senior portfolio manager at M&T Bank and as a private chef. In January 2022, she was cast to be a competing chef in “Cook at All Costs” where she competed and won $9,600.
Chutke took great pride in cooking authentic Indian dishes on the show. She hopes her appearance countered some of the colonial “misinformation” surrounding Indian cuisine.
“Through my food and the way I presented myself, I wanted to represent myself the way we [Indians] 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 found that Indian food was, if not entirely absent, then 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 as Indian cauliflower or Indian food,” she recalled. “And to me, that struck really hard because Indian food growing up meant a lot more than just putting curry powder or turmeric [on it] and calling it Indian, and that’s why many people would say the food smells really bad.”
So when Netflix casting called her in early January 2022, she jumped at the opportunity to represent Indian cuisine on a global platform.
Filming for “Cook at All Costs” started later that month in Toronto.
“I had to really rush through every single thing,” she said. “Whatever they were asking, I had to fill out everything and submit it immediately.”
Chutke feels a sense of pride for being able to represent India on a global platform in “a proper way” with her wins on the show.
“When the judge, chef Naisha, says that, ‘The Indian spice in this dish is the winning ingredient,’ I think that says a lot,” she said. “It’s very powerful, because that shows how you can turn frozen fish sticks into something really delicious, and that can be done in any dish if you have the right kind of spices — and you know how to use them.”
Chutke had been learning how to cook since elementary school by watching her grandmothers and those around her. She learned more cooking techniques while living with her grandmother for three years.
But she wouldn’t see cooking as a career path until she moved to New York.
While studying for her master’s degree in biomedical engineering, Chutke cooked in her spare time, letting her creativity run wild by experimenting with different foods. She started to realize her deep love for cooking and the potential she possessed in the field.
“I think it’s because it just gives me the freedom to create something,” she said. “Because I know the techniques. I want to just keep on doing something different all the time.”
Chutke realized there was a lack of American food that was both delicious and healthy.
She saw this as an opportunity to start her own home food catering business. The 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 the 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 idea for a business venture: her own spice blends.
“So through that, I developed my blends and people will love that because they used to be really surprised by the flavor, how balanced it is,” she said. “They cannot get that in commercial blends.”
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 started in 2019 with her first pop-up event.
“That was my dream — to collaborate with chefs in the area and be able to introduce the traditional Indian food,” she said.
On top of her cooking career, Chutke is a commercial real estate portfolio manager for M&T Bank managing commercial loans.
“It’s very challenging for sure to maintain a business, grow it and then to do a full-time job in this portfolio management,” she said. “It’s very challenging, but then you have to take one day at a time 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.
Dominic LaVigne, a junior mechanical engineering student, was leading the Q&A session. He believes Chutke being a “success story” as a former international student is reassuring and inspiring for the audience.
“So she came here on a visa and is now a successful business owner working in the United States, and I think that a lot of students at our university struggle with,” he said. “A lot of these students come over, and their visa is expiring, and they don’t know what they’re going to do. I think she inspired a lot of confidence in them, to pursue their dreams and follow your path and it’ll work out no matter what ends up happening.”
Chutke believes Indian food is the concept of eating “local and seasonal.” Spices are just a means to flavor it.
“I’m hoping that more people will come to know about what Indian food is and how the spices are, and how they can elevate any dish [with Indian spices],” she said.
A.J. Franklin is an assistant features editor and can be reached at email@example.com