As the recently-appointed Executive Chef at The Hake in La Jolla, California, Aarti Sanghavi combines her Indian heritage with global culinary techniques to present straightforward, honest and responsibly-sourced dishes that span a variety of gastronomic cultures and traditions.
Congrats on your new appointment as Executive Chef at The Hake. You’ve worked at some well-regarded restaurants around San Diego (Puesto, Seersucker), what aspects to your new role are you most excited about?
Getting back to the foundations of cooking again, no tricks, just honest food and old school technique. I am also excited about creating a culture where cooks are learning and teaching one another like my mentor taught me to do. I want to honor the people that helped me get to where I am.
Obviously Baja Med is enjoying its moment in San Diego’s culinary spotlight, what can you tell us about the Asian and Indian touches you’ve added to The Hake’s new menu and how do they play off some of your other dishes?
Honestly, I don’t like classifying what we are doing to any specific origin. We are just a melting pot of flavors. What I get inspired by is how I cook. Walking through the markets, seeing what’s coming from the farmers market, that’s what inspires me. All these cultures share similarities in ingredients, only their application of the ingredient is different. So what we are trying to accomplish is finding the commonalities and utilizing it to create our own style of cuisine.
Any personal favorites?
The menu is my heart song, it’s hard to pick one in particular because they all tell a story for me but the first dish that started the whole menu writing process was the seared hiramasa tartare. It was kind of my F U to tradition by putting fish and cheese together. I remember working an event with my mentor, chef Shane, and he did this amazing hamachi tartare with crème fraîche. I was blown away by what the fattiness of the crème fraîche did for the balance of the dish, so he was the inspiration for this. My menu is dedicated to him and the path he put me on to get to where I am today.
How closely did you work with Joan Villanueva when planning the menus and bar program?
Joan is like a mad scientist. He would pick apart the flavors I was thinking for the menu and just started coming up with all these ideas to pair. His cocktails are like the overture to the symphony of the meal.
You began teaching yourself to cook at 10-years old, what are some of the earliest dishes you remember playing around with while growing up?
Growing up in a vegetarian family was rough, but it taught me to appreciate food and what grows from the earth. As a kid, I wanted to learn how to cook meat but my mom wouldn’t allow anything but chicken in the house so I worked a lot with that. I would read a lot of cookbooks and watch cooking shows and just start throwing stuff together. I guess that’s why you could say I’m chickened out haha, that’s all we were allowed to eat if we wanted meat.
Coming from a traditional Indian family how do your parents feel today about your success as a professional chef?
It was a rough path. I think it was hard for them to understand why I wanted to cook for a living. When they realized this wasn’t a phase in my life, and I moved up quickly in the ranks, I think they finally started to accept it. It wasn’t until I became the Executive Chef for Searsucker they finally became proud of me and that was one of the most rewarding feelings.
Photography courtesy of Sergey Kolivayko/Field Guide.