By Jill Duncan, Marketing Director, Washington University in St. Louis
Diners at the Indian Station in the Bear’s Den at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, often marvel at the quality, variety, and authenticity of the meals served there. While those qualities may be standard at Bon Appétit, Wash U does have some secret ingredients: two special cooks who work there: Sona Kukal, born in Kolkata in east India, and Zach Khan, born in Karachi, Pakistan.
“Celebrate Shadi,” a Chefs’ Table featuring a 10-course meal by Sona and Zach, highlighted the special Southeast Asian foods typically enjoyed at an Indian wedding celebration.
The guests — both students and members of the media — arrived to find the room decorated in pink in the traditional Indian manner. As they served each course, Sona and Zach explained its significance in the celebration, offering attendees a rare peek into Indian culture. Sona went all out, going so far as to order special clay vessels from India for the final dessert course of phirni — a thick rice pudding with real sheets of silver leaf. Following dessert, platters of candied Indian spices were presented as digestive aids in authentic Indian fashion. Students loved having the opportunity to talk to the cooks about their backgrounds and learn more about their special passion for the food they cook.
Sona lived with uncles, aunts, parents, and grandparents in one house. She fell in love with cooking in her teens. In high school, she watched cooking shows on TV, read cooking magazines, and listened to food-centric radio programs. For special occasions, Sona and her female relatives cooked huge traditional meals for family and friends. Even if there wasn’t an occasion to celebrate, they would create one so they could cook!
In 1999, Sona moved to the US with her husband, where she started cooking for a woman who was ill — just one, very simple dish. The dish was so good that the woman began to tell all of her friends, and as word of mouth spread, Sona began catering for dinner parties. One day she was out food shopping at a local Middle Eastern shop and saw a flyer whipping in the wind. She looked down and saw that it was an ad for a “tandoori cook” at Washington University. Sona had always dreamed of working in a professional kitchen, so she was thrilled at the opportunity.
Sona’s philosophy is that “happiness, love and affection must go into the cooking of the food” in order for the students to fully enjoy their meal and to benefit from its nutrition. You can taste that philosophy in every bite.
Wash U’s Tandooriya, Zach, was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but moved to the US when he was 10 years old. His father helped open and worked for six years at House of Indian, one of the top-rated Indian restaurants in St. Louis, MO.
Zach’s first memories of America involve going to visit his dad at the restaurant, which was initially quite the culture shock. He had never seen a restaurant before! He liked the new experience, and his dad started to teach him to cook. He wasn’t accustomed to South Indian flavors – his heart was still at the tandoor, the food he knew and loved.
Now he loves all types of Indian and Pakistani foods, and when his dad opened his own Pakistani restaurant in St. Louis, Zach perfected his skills. He even cooks at night after work for his five roommates. “I love cooking! It gives me peace,” he says. ‘Now I am here working for Bon Appétit. Our global kitchen rocks!”