To all of you who take Instagram photos of the dishes you cook at home: let Ulka Simone Mohanty be a shining example of why you might be on to something. When Mohanty, aka Little Ninja Chef, began posting photos of food she prepared online, she developed a bit of a cult following. One catering gig led to another and the Montreal native eventually relocated to LA where she now teaches cooking classes and workshops and caters parties, all the while pursuing her love of acting. We caught up with Mohanty to find out where she eats in her down time and why she’s called “litte ninja chef” around the kitchen.
Feed us an appetizer. Who are you and what do you do?
I was born and raised in Montreal, Canada to an Indian father with a penchant for international and classical French cuisine and a French-Canadian-Italian mother who was a skilled baker and food stylist, herself. We grew up surrounded by international gourmet food choices as cooked by our parents, an anomaly in the small, sleepy, suburban town we lived in. I grew up studying dance, computer science, yoga, martial arts and acting. I worked in the IT industry for several years until very recently leaving it all behind to move to LA to pursue a dream, realizing what I loved doing most was acting and cooking. Now, why “Little Ninja Chef”? I coined that moniker for myself after remembering that I’ve been called “little chef” (for being rather petite) and “ninja chef” (because I move quite fast in the kitchen and often go unnoticed until right at your elbow). So I combined the two.
What do you love most about food?
Food, ah food! I have always had an intense love for eating and eating well. I love the sheer enjoyment I get out of a meal well crafted, presented and then eaten. I love the soul-and-body-healing properties a good meal has and discovering new ingredients and methods.
What do you love most about the food scene in LA?
The food scene in LA is not an obvious one as say, SF, where the entire city is vibing with foodieness out of every pore. In LA, you have to work a bit harder to find the great places, but they are easy to find once you start looking (YELP has been a great help), and once you meet another foodie, they are very happy and excited to share their own great finds.
What’s your favourite type of food and where do you go to get it?
The west coast has so many more East Asian choices, which is pretty exciting for me. The little izakayas and ramen joints in little Tokyo and around the city have been great and exciting finds for me. Also, there is a gastronomic grilled cheese shop that’s open until 3am near me that I find absolutely brilliant. Other than that, in terms of produce, the many farmers’ markets are lovely, and Trader Joe’s never fails for most things I need for cooking.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
Wow… let me think. A meal that nearly made my cry as I sat alone at the cramped bar of La Bodeguita Casablanca in Old Sevilla, which I found by surreptitiously following some hungry locals after a flamenco show to wherever they were headed. At the bar, I managed to convey in my incredibly broken Spanish, “Just serve me what you like, and a vino tinto, please,” and I wasn’t disappointed. After a divine mouthful of slow-cooked chicken, chick peas and the softest puree of potato, I nearly cried right there. I then quickly made some new local friends who asked me to join their tapas counter, and I had the most delectable things I would not have known how to order: grilled cordero (baby lamb) on the bone, razor clams straight off the shell and a crisply cooked angel hair pasta served atop hard Spanish cheese, drizzled with honey, a local specialty. (And now, I’m hungry all over again.)
What’s the one restaurant you have to try before you die?
It would have been El Bulli, just outside of Barcelona, but they closed their restaurant to open up a learning centre, instead. The French Laundry would probably be the closest second, although I’m sure there are plenty others I have yet to hear about and hanker after.
What’s your biggest restaurant pet peeve? (Play nice)
Baby corn. Nothing angers me like baby corn! Why anyone would put those hateful, tasteless things in a dish is beyond me. A strong second would be good wine served in cheap wine glasses – it makes a difference!
Let’s get social for a mo’. How can readers stay up-to-date on your foodie foraging?
“I cook deliciousness, in the form of highly entertaining dinner parties and custom catering. While fighting off ninjas.” Follow my gastronomic adventures on my food blog at littleninjachef.com and on Twitter! I’ll be featured also in a new show on Food Network (USA) hosted by Alton Brown, coming this fall. Join my FB fanpage as well.