Initiating her culinary odyssey in Chandigarh, Devika Manchanda embarked on an exciting adventure. During her formative years, she collaborated with her sister in the kitchen, nurturing her fervor for cuisine.
At the young age of 18, she embarked on a path to excellence, enrolling in The Culinary Institute of America, New York, to attain an Associate’s Degree in Baking and Pastry Arts. Her unwavering commitment bore fruit, earning her the esteemed President’s Scholarship award, bolstered by invaluable experiences at the iconic Walt Disney World and the renowned Le Bernardin restaurant.
Devika’s journey of triumph extended to the SkillsUSA Baking and Pastry Arts competition, where her prowess shone brightly. Securing a gold medal at the state level and a silver medal nationally, she demonstrated her culinary finesse within a high-stakes arena. Notably, as the singular Indian contender, she gracefully represented her heritage and the vibrant culinary realm.
In an exclusive interview with Devika Manchanda, we delve into her remarkable journey from Chandigarh to becoming a celebrated figure in the culinary world!
Can you share your journey from Chandigarh to the United States? What inspired you to pursue culinary arts abroad?
I was always a curious child. My earliest memories include mixing whatever seemed outlandish or fun and observing the results – much like that memorable scene in the animation “Ratatouille” where Remy combines cheese and a strawberry, leading to fireworks display of flavors! My mother, a single parent, often cooked with my sister and me to manage household tasks. Being the youngest, my role usually involved handing over ingredients and watching in fascination. I was never allowed to perform exciting tasks like cracking eggs! Watching chefs like Nigella Lawson and Rachel Allen inspired me. When my sister left for college, I began experimenting with recipes on my own, and my passion for cooking ignited. The dream of becoming a pastry chef had been with me for as long as I could remember. My first professional kitchen experience was as a 17-year-old intern at the Oberoi New Delhi. It was then that I realized my destiny as a baker. This journey led me to New York, where I sought to gain a comprehensive education in pastry arts by absorbing as much knowledge as possible.
Congratulations on winning the President’s Scholarship Award! Could you tell us about the application process and what this scholarship means to you?
Thank you so much! The President’s Scholarship Award was bestowed upon me upon completing my Associates Degree in Baking and Pastry. This honor recognizes the student who maintains the highest GPA within the cohort over two years, and I was fortunate to be the recipient in my graduating class. This scholarship holds immense significance as it enabled me to pursue my dream of attaining a Bachelor’s degree in Food Business Management. Both my family and I had aspired to achieve this dream, yet the financial constraints were formidable. Thanks to the scholarship and my earnings from working in Philadelphia and New York City kitchens, I am now equipped with the skills to eventually establish and manage my own culinary enterprise.
Working at Walt Disney Florida must have been an incredible experience. How did that opportunity come about, and what were some memorable moments from your time there?
The opportunity to work at Walt Disney Florida was indeed remarkable. I connected with representatives from Walt Disney World during my second month of study in New York. After a series of interviews, I was selected for an internship. Disney’s corporate ethos resonated deeply with the culinary industry’s objectives – creating enchanting experiences in people’s lives. However, at Disney, this magic extended to crafting extraordinary experiences for colleagues as well, fostering a culture of positivity and excitement. This perspective on food resonated with me, and I aim to perpetuate this ethos throughout my career. It serves as a reminder of the enchantment inherent in culinary pursuits.
Winning an award for a 5-hour long bakery item cooking competition is impressive. Could you describe the competition and the strategy you used to excel in such a challenging event?
My preparation for the competition, a representation of my college, commenced in November 2022. After competing against over 20 peers, I was fortunate to be chosen for the state-level competition. Balancing early morning training, two on-campus jobs, and a demanding class schedule was a formidable feat. Admittedly, I tend to thrive when constantly engaged in activities. The unfamiliarity of a new kitchen, equipment, and the absence of a familiar environment posed challenges. Yet, the novelty and excitement fueled my determination. Winning the gold medal at the state level validated the endeavor.
The strategy for both state and national competitions was straightforward – concentrate on my own creations, abstaining from comparing myself to others. My mentor, Certified Master Baker Jesse Jackson III, equipped me to execute tasks relying on muscle memory. His constructive feedback bolstered my self-assurance and competence, contributing to my victory of the silver medal at the national level.
Moving to a new country for studies can be daunting. What were some of the challenges you faced during your transition, and how did you overcome them?
The transition to the United States posed substantial challenges, with the initial hurdle being the journey itself. Securing a student loan for my education proved arduous due to the non-STEM, non-traditional nature of my chosen field. Prominent banks often declined our requests, but our determination prevailed. Critics often suggested alternative career paths, given my academic prowess, perpetuating the misconception that culinary pursuits are for those who cannot succeed elsewhere. I aspire to reshape perceptions about the hospitality and culinary industry in India, advocating for its worthiness.
Culinary arts are a diverse field. What specific areas of culinary arts do you find most fascinating, and how do you hope to contribute to this industry in the future?
Baking and pastry have always captivated me as they meld art and science harmoniously. When encouraged to pursue STEM careers due to my grades, I countered that baking constitutes my chosen scientific exploration. It’s an ever-evolving field, where the realm of possibilities is limited only by imagination and innovation. This fascination extends to chocolate and confectionery, which amalgamate precision and science. My dream is to establish an artisanal bonbon shop, fusing these elements.
In your opinion, how do culinary arts in the US differ from those in India, especially in Chandigarh? Are there any unique elements you’ve brought from your cultural background into your culinary creations?
Raised in a close-knit family originating from Chandigarh, I absorbed a deep appreciation for food and hospitality integral to Punjabi culture. While India’s culinary landscape is burgeoning, the perception of it as a valuable profession poses a challenge, hindering its growth potential. However, pioneering chefs and restaurateurs are challenging this perception.
Modern pastry encapsulates myriad cultural flavors – Japanese, Indian, Filipino, and others – within the framework of traditional French foundations and contemporary techniques, yielding captivating desserts. India’s flavors serve as a perpetual wellspring of inspiration, guiding my innovative endeavors. I’m privileged to showcase India’s offerings and heritage, incorporating spices, traditional techniques, and a reverence for local produce. The essence of growing up in India, where every meal is cherished, guides my quest to elevate significant life moments through delectable endings.
Lastly, what are your future goals in the culinary industry? Are there any specific projects, dreams, or aspirations that you’re currently working towards?
As the lead pastry cook at a 2 Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City, I’m currently engaged in honing my craft. My interest in wine beckons me toward achieving sommelier certification. Every day, I glean insights from experienced chefs, mentors, and colleagues, recognizing the value of each experience. A restaurant or chocolate shop of my own remains a distant but cherished goal. Ultimately, my aspiration is to return to India, giving back to the community that facilitated my journey. Integrating my affinity for writing with culinary arts, I document my voyage as a chef on Instagram (@devsfoodfiles), showcasing my roots while traversing this path. I’m dedicated to reshaping perceptions about the hospitality industry in India, contributing in my way to its transformation.