The Chef Who Likes Her Thali Full – Shagun Mehra for Feministaa

By Avilasha Sarmah in Editor's Pick 03/09/2019

“I am a chef in some manner, successful, and it seems that my life is pretty but I am just like any other girl who has gone through difficult moments.”

 

Chef Shagun Mehra, the Director of Cuisine at Coco Shambala describes herself as a “thali kind of person” – somebody who likes her “thali full”. “I like to have lots of different aspects in my life that are working well for me, and I like it full.”

 

Shagun’s enthusiasm for life is visible in her outlook as she declares that “I want to be able to make this little life that God has given me into a great life.” A woman of inspiring ambition, she says that she wants to break boundaries and live on her own terms, while keeping her friends and family close, build a career and finally give back to the planet. She adds, “I want everything, and why not?

 

 

 

 

Her current life is a proof of this declaration. Apart from being a celebrity chef, Shagun is an entrepreneur, co-owning a luxury chain of resorts with her partner Giles, and a conservationist with the “Ear to the Wild Foundation”, while also training professionals about wine and food. Managing it all alongside motherhood and family life isn’t a cakewalk, she shares, yet it is her struggles through time that has made her capable of beautifully balancing. “You may find that I am someone who usually has her things collected and together, because I like my life in a certain way. I have to work hard towards it.”

 

Especially at my age, at 41 years old, very rarely will you meet anybody that has not been through some major struggles.”

 

Describing her journey as “intense, interesting and difficult” she talks about her battles with depression, a broken marriage and abuse. These scars have become part of her identity, she says smiling triumphantly, but it has made her who she is today and hence she is really happy. “I have been able to convert them into opportunities that motivate me”.

 

It’s almost like I did not give myself a choice. I said that my life is so precious and I have to be able to get over these hurdles.”

 

Once we learn to come out of our struggles, we come to a point in our lives where we learn to organize it, she says. This then becomes second nature. “Once you start to do it and you see the change in your body and you say, my god, I am feeling good, I am looking good, and that itself is motivating.” We have to focus on the positive aspects of ourselves that propels us forward.

 

 

 

 

This is reflective of her relationship with her partner, Giles, who is an Englishman. She says that her family’s reaction on her dating an Englishman right after her divorce wasn’t a positive one.  “My family freaked out! They just said we have nothing to do with you if you want to see this man.” This is common in India when the family tends to become answerable to the society. “To actually accept a foreigner in your child’s life can be a very difficult and traumatizing experience for parents.” But she beams when she proudly declares how it has been 6 years and now her family loves Giles! Her 10-year-old daughter from her previous marriage is close to him and so is her ex-husband. “It’s a very different but a very healthy, and a very inclusive way of living.” Both men are an integral part of her daughter’s life and together make a modern family and it is very much possible, she adds.

 

She strongly believes that the key is to have your basics sorted. By basics she means family, close friends, and to be in a good relationship with them. “It naturally allows me to work more, to explore more, to focus more.” She says how if these basics are scattered, it hinders her to do great things in life. So she makes sure that love coexists mutually.

 

“You keep the sex aside and skill comes on the table.”

 

Shagun says that being a woman in her profession wasn’t easy. Especially in the field of wine, coming from a Marwari teetotaler family, wine was a cultural barrier. Furthermore, being a female chef in a commercial kitchen, surrounded by men all the time was another experience of growth. But while in a kitchen, she says, there is no space of differentiating on gender, everyone works together and they are all cooks first.

 

 

 

 

For Shagun, food was a natural calling. She attended the prestigious Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu which refined her culinary journey. Interestingly her vegetarian upbringing which she initially considered a handicap, became her forte alongside seafood. Her niche, she explains, is in structuring the local ingredients with the purpose of converting them into worldly flavors.

 

Shagun is very particular about her craft. She stresses, “As a chef I feel that it is my responsibility that alongside flavor, I also balance the nutrition part of it.” From the first course until the dessert, she prioritizes on the balance of the nutrients such that her guests leave with a healthier, lighter feeling.

 

Explaining gastronomy as the marriage between food and wine, she says that the idea is to enhance the flavors of both. This reasons out her inclination towards wine. She says that India not being a wine-drinking country culturally, there is a lack of knowledge when it comes to wine. “I realized that the person pouring the wine, which is the waiter, had no idea what he was doing and the person tasting the wine again had no idea.” This prompted her to co-found a wine school because she felt we needed to educate people on the subject of wine.

 

 

 

 

As a conservationist also, she says that her natural incline towards wildlife motivated her to co-found the “Ear to the Wild Foundation”. Today they work with the Wildlife Institute of India and the Ministry of Forests and Environment, on a very specific wildlife cause – that of preventing elephant and train collisions, one of India’s biggest wildlife problems currently. Based on the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the government, the foundation will be setting up sensors that will warn the train-driver ahead of time of the presence of elephants and prevent accidents. This technology called the bioacoustics is the work of the Rolex award-winning professor Michele Andre from Barcelona, whom Shagun have had managed to rope in!

 

“I have been there and there is an end to it.”

 

Shagun is a firm believer of change being inevitable. Our hard times are meant to try us, she says. “This is the time that you have to find that energy, that motivation inside you and believe in yourself.” We mustn’t use the difficulties in our lives as our handicap. We ought to rather turn them into opportunities. Referring to it as the only truth, she adds, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

 

 

 

 

Currently curating a creative team for Feministaa! Apart from that I am a wanderer who loves to write. Places call out to me and I enjoy making poetry out of moments. Do check out my book – “When the Cuckoo Called”.


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