Feeding the Ashram: Chef Ambika and the Brunch Shift
by Grace Welker (Annapurna Devi)
It’s 6:30 am on a Friday in mid-October. While the rest of the ashram community are in satsang transitioning from silent meditation into the daily chant, I am gathered with the kitchen’s brunch crew to begin preparations for today’s 10:00 am meal. They will be feeding around 80 people. The shift begins with a chant to invoke protection, inspiration, and guidance and ends with the ashram’s traditional shout-out to Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda, the masters of the lineage and, ultimately, the reason there is an ashram to be cooking in at all.
Chef Ambika then reveals the menu so the team can figure out who will be doing what. There’s a glitch today, “I ordered eight packages of the nori seaweed sheets for veggie sushi rolls but we only received four,” she tells everyone. She lays out the options: forge on and hope there’s enough to satisfy diners or switch to something else. Forge on, everyone agrees.
Never having worked in a kitchen, I am impressed by their calm. If I were faced with this situation three hours before serving 80 people, I would probably start crying and catch the first boat out. When I mention this to Chef Ambika, she laughs, “That? That was nothing. We always have to think on our feet — not just at the ashram, in any professional kitchen.”
And she would know. Ambika came to the ashram following a very successful career as a high-end food and beverage consultant throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. She was, in essence, born into kitchens; her father was a career restaurateur in their native Italy. A lover of good food with a strong business sense, Ambika worked as a chef for five years and then naturally found a niche in the international hospitality and food and beverage industry.
Looking quite at home in the signature yellow t-shirt and white pants of the ashram’s Karma Yogis, she confides to me at one point that there was a time when the only shoes she wore were Prada. I ask her how the ashram got lucky enough to have her serve as brunch chef.
“I came to yoga through permaculture,” she tells me. “I was living in Dubai and went to Thailand for a consulting job that would take a few weeks.” Those few weeks ended with her quitting her career and taking a permaculture course. She then became a self-admitted nomad, traveling and volunteering at farms in Central America. Given the overlap of permaculture and yoga — living in harmony — she decided to train as a yoga teacher and came to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas to take the Teacher Training Course. She, of course, checked out the ashram kitchen, and, well, the rest is history.
What is notable about the dishes Chef Ambika and her team serve at the ashram is their beauty and creativity. In addition to the various flavors, when Chef Ambika plans a menu, she also pays attention to the interaction of colors, textures, and shapes, as well as overall presentation. I noticed this the first day I arrived; what might have been a simple spinach salad held a couple of intriguing — and delicious — surprises: pistachio nuts and orange slices.
In the kitchen, Chef Ambika’s motto is “Fast, focused, and accurate.” Today’s menu, like every day’s, will require a lot of peeling and chopping and I have set off to the prep area with the Karma Yogis to get down to business with the sweet potatoes, cucumbers, avocados, and carrots. One girl has stayed behind in the kitchen to work on the baked tofu dish, which begins with preparing a marinade. The crew hail from many places, including Montreal, Mexico, New York City, and only one of them has prior kitchen experience. We talk about Karma Yoga and the philosophy of turning everything we do into spiritual practice. It’s hard sometimes. “That’s why it’s a practice,” one of them says.
Brunch that day is a success. By some mystery, there are actually a few leftover sushi rolls and everyone loves the baked tofu and sweet potato fries. For me, it was only one shift. For Chef Ambika and her team of Karma Yogis, each morning at 6:30, they gather, chant, discuss the menu of the day, and get to work preparing to serve the many hungry yogis who will arrive at 10:00 am.