With Diwali fast approaching, the looming question at hand is what to serve at those upcoming gatherings? Well, your search ends here, because we’ve consulted on the matter with Chef Guntas Sethi, who’s a patisserie chef from Cordon Bleu, is a European Union (EU) food ambassador in India and regularly inspires her half-a-million followers with innovative recipes.
Coming from a “food fervent” family, Chef Guntas understands the pivotal role food plays in the success of your parties. And so, she’s recommended the perfect flavoured cheese ‘tuckle’ charcuterie board, which is easy to put together and promises to elevate your Diwali bash. The cheese platter and this cranberry pistachio and garlic herbed cheeseballs are the ultimate crowd-pleaser for your festive feast! Here’s the recipe...
For Herbed And Garlic Cheese Balls
1 small cup Cream Cheese
1 tbsp Cheddar Cheese, grated
1 tsp Salt
1 tbsp Chilli Flakes
1 tbsp Fried Garlic
1 tbsp Spring Onion
2 tbsp Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Roll the flavoured cream cheese on the mix of spring onion, fried garlic & chilli flakes!
For Cranberry Pistachio Cheese Balls:
Chopped Cranberries and Nuts
1 cup Cream Cheese
1 tbsp Chilli Flakes
1 tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
Roll the flavoured cream cheese on chopped cranberries and nuts.
Furthermore, we took this opportunity to talk to Chef Guntas and learn more about her journey from creating the tempting and viral ‘pull me up’ cakes to becoming a master chef (pun intended), while also chatting about what she’s making this festive season. Here’s an expert from our chat:
In Conversation with Chef Guntas Sethi
HELLO!: Where did your love for food first begin?
Chef Guntas Sethi: “I belong to a very food-fervent Punjabi family from Guwahati, where the discussion during breakfast is what we are going to be eating for lunch. And during lunch, we decide what we’ll be having from dinner (laughs). Food is basically the epicentre of everything. We used to celebrate every small and big occasion on the farm outside our house and my dad loves to cook and the science that goes behind cooking. So, we would get really excited and interested when he would explain it to us. For example, he taught us that your dish has to have five flavours and sourness is one of the flavours, which can be induced using amchur powder, lemon, curd or even tomatoes. And those conversations, they got me really, really excited. We would cook a lot at home and I used to love it. I would cook something new, as a way to impress my parents and I think that’s how it also kind of became about creating something new every day.”
H!: What were some of your favourite dishes to cook or eat, growing up?
GS: “I grew up vegetarian, so the first thing I ever made was paneer chilli. And the first cake I ever made was a chocolate cake, which got burnt! (laughs) So then, I took out all the unburnt bits, crumbled them up, added some chocolate ganache and made rum balls out of it! Without rum, of course!
But, what was my favourite while growing up? Back then, there were limited restaurants in Guwahati that served international cuisine. It was more Indian, Chinese and continental—which basically meant mashed potatoes, pizzas and inauthentic pastas. So, because of that, my family and I would prefer cooking at home and that’s where my love for food came from. We used to source the freshest ingredients and make dishes at home.
One of my most favourite dishes that my parents cooked would 100 per cent have to be makke di roti and sarso da saag. I also really enjoyed my dad and auntie’s home-cooked chinese.”
H!: Did the decision to go to Cordon Bleu come naturally to you?
GS: “No! My parents were particular that I had to get a degree, so I did Chartered Accounting first and then I even did an internship at Ernst & Young (EY). It was great but it wasn’t something I enjoyed… I mean, I enjoyed studying the subject but I didn’t like the work. And I remember clearly, it was my CA finals and I had become obsessed with MasterChef Australia. So, I had this weird idea that I should try to make kulchas in the shape of tacos, add chole as the filling and top it up with pickled onions, and basically created a kulcha chola taco. And my mom was so pissed with me because she was like, ‘you have your finals tomorrow and you’re doing this!’
But for me, it was always about the food. So, after a stint at EY, I signed up to do my Masters’ in Patisserie from Cordon Bleu, London.
H!: Can you share some important life lessons you learnt at Cordon Bleu?
GS: “I think Cordon Bleu taught me the science behind food and not the recipes. It made me understand that food is more than just recipes that you can follow. It’s about the application of the science that you learn, which you can then use with any produce, products or ingredients. There were too many lessons — another thing that I learned was that you have to treat the produce and ingredients with respect and not just mindlessly add everything to it, making a ‘khichdi’ out of things all the time.
Sometimes, less is more. It’s about letting each ingredient shine and do its thing—there has to be a reason for everything that goes on a plate.”
H!: Freshly having graduated from Cordon Bleu, how did you kickstart your culinary career?
GS: “This has been more of an accidental career for me. I got married and moved to Mumbai. I wasn’t doing anything after that for a while. But soon after, I started off making marble cakes and brownies at home. I’d get compliments and the orders followed soon after. But when I started, I worked four hours a day, put a newspaper on the dining table and used one oven to sell my bakes. But then, it picked up so much, touchwood, that within nine months, I had to employ people and get a proper studio.”
H!: And that was the beginning of the infamous patisserie (cloud kitchen) called Chef Guntas, based in Khar! Which recipe from its menu was the most special to you?
GS: “Yeah! It would have to be the ‘Pull Me Up’ cake for sure, and it was insanely popular too! It’s what got me the hype and the reason why it is special is because it wasn’t supposed to end up like that, it was created by accident!
A client had asked for something specific, they didn’t turn up. So, when we removed it, the plastic sheet wasn’t coming off and we had no option but to pull it up, and that’s how it happened! So, even though it’s an accident, it’s really It’s extremely special to me.
That being said, a lot of people have trolled it and debate about whether its a cake or not, I still get requests for it. It’s been 22 months since I shut down the patisserie, but like literally until date, I at least get five calls a day asking for ‘pull me up’ cake. And yeah, I think, it tasted great to be honest. It was basically a really moist chocolate cake topped off with a hot chocolate sauce. And since it was so indulgent, we even came up with a sugar-free and gluten-free version as it got popular! So yeah, it remains very special to me.”
H!: What advice do you have for people who want to start their own brand like you?
GS: “I think for a business to run and be successful, the thing to keep in mind is that while your product has to be great, your marketing and finances also have to be strong for it to be sustainable. I think that’s something people miss out on.
Sometimes, you may have a great product, but if you’ve not paid attention to your finances and making sure it’s profitable, eventually you will shut down right? Because, how long can you run a passion project for? It has to be worth the time and it has to be profitable. At what point will you draw the line? You also have to think about paying the bills and paying salaries, so you need to be earning enough for that. I think that’s pretty much the business behind it, and I think my CA degree also came in very handy. I’m proof that no education ever goes to waste.”
H!: India has a vast variety of sweets and desserts. How do you incorporate these traditional flavours in innovative ways?
GS: “For me, fusion doesn’t have to be about confusion. They’re different things, so it’s good when they complement each other, but it’s not okay when you just put things on top of one another, without thinking about the flavours.
Indian dessert recipes have remained unchanged for many years, there’s new takes on it, but the core recipes remain. Back in the day, India didn’t have access to ovens, so all our mithais and desserts were never baked! We have had fried or steamed but never baked. However, they always featured beautiful flavours ranging from saffron, pista, rose, spice, nuts and even chai! There’s so many things you can do with those ingredients. So why not take techniques from the West and use our own flavours to enhance it or work around it? Then again, you don’t want it to be like a trifle with gajjar halwa, jalebi and kulfi, that doesn’t make sense! Like I’m not a fan of mixing gulab jamuns and ras malai with ice creams. I think simple desserts with bold flavours that shine bright is the way I like to do this.”
H!: With the festive season coming up, what are you craving to eat? Do you cook any particular dishes for your friends or family?
GS: “Yeah, we always make aate ka halwa at home and on Diwali, we have maa ki dal (kaali dal), which is considered auspicious. I also can’t wait to eat bhakarwadi and sandwich dhoklas, which we don’t make that often but I really enjoy eating them.”
H!: When did you decide to take your skills to Instagram? And what are some things you had to learn for creating content? Which dishes do your followers request you to make the most?
GS: “The lockdown happened and my cake studio was shut. And because I enjoy cooking, I used to just cook at home. During COVID, we could only get out once a week to get our groceries, so the list became based on what everybody at home wanted to eat, because we all wanted something fancy. With our head cook on leave, I was left to figure out what to make. So, I started studying and researching techniques and recipes, and that’s when I figured out hacks like using raw papaya to marinate chicken, make it softer and turn into a kebab. I had less than thousand followers on Instagram at this point, I just randomly put up a picture of what I had prepared saying I made this. Slowly, I started tracking the #ChefMoi trend, and began participating in it.
But yeah, I never thought I would be comfortable with putting myself on a public platform. People began asking me for recipes, and not knowing that you can charge fees for this, I would just type them down and send it. Slowly, I started learning the business aspect of it and that’s when it started getting interesting for me. By the time the lockdown opened, I had 20,000 followers. I went back to cakes, ‘Pull Me Up’ happened and over a span of a year and a half, I had 40,000 followers, which had come organically and I wasn’t even putting out content regularly, in that aspect.
Slowly, brand deals began coming who wanted to work with and pay, and that’s when I became a European Union food ambassador in India. I realised something was working well here. So, I decided to take a sabbatical from the patisserie and really get into this.
As for highly-requested recipes, my audience is always looking for how to make restaurant-style or cafe-style dishes at home.”
H!: You were invited to be a guest judge for MasterChef India last year. What was your experience like being alongside the top chefs of our country? And who are you rooting for this season?
GS: “It was absolutely amazing and I felt very privileged because being someone so new in India, for them to give me that respect and honour and to be noticed for your credibility means a lot. And all the three judges were absolutely amazing and super warm. But for this season, I’m definitely rooting for Uncle Harry (Harish Closepet) and Prachi (Agarkar).”
H!: The Indian culinary scene is receiving so much attention globally, off lately. What direction do you hope it will grow in?
GS: “I really hope that with time, Indian food is regarded as more than just butter chicken and paneer tikka masala. India has so many micro cuisines—every hundred kilometres, the topography changes, the language changes, the cuisine changes. And there are so many gems. Even someone like me, who’s lived in India, I don’t still don’t know all of it. Food in Punjab is so different from food in Gujarat, which is so different from Konkani food, which is so different from Kerala food, which is so different from the food in Northeast, in Bengal. So within India, we have so much. So yeah, I hope there is rise of more Indian regional cuisines worldwide.”