Semma Chef Vijay Kumar on Running New York’s Hottest Restaurant

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What was your dream job as a child?
An engineer. Cooking was a passion of mine, but I also wanted to be an engineer. I chose cooking because I couldn’t afford to go to engineering college. Coming from a middle class family in India, it’s hard to go to engineering school—it’s super expensive. But cooking was my ultimate passion so I was like, why not go to culinary school?

What is one ingredient that will always be on your menus?
Curry leaves! They’re pretty expensive and very hard to find here, but they give a unique flavor to your food. We use curry leaves in a lot of dishes at Semma, but a dish where you can really taste the curry leaves is the sambar dipping sauce that comes with the gunpowder dosa, or the whistle podu cocktail with curry leaf-infused gin.

Rani Fresh Curry Leaves 3oz

What dessert do you request for your birthday?
I’m not really a sweets person and don’t need a lot of dessert, but definitely kozhukattai. It’s a rice dessert, of course, from my home state, made from rice flour with grated coconut and jaggery filling. My sister used to make it growing up, and sometimes we would make it together. It’s absolutely delicious and nostalgic—It reminds me of my school days.

What’s on your playlist when you’re prepping for service?
Folk Tamil and South Indian music give energy in the kitchen before service—I like to play something very fast like that. I love listening to SP Balasubrahmanyam, Janaki and Chitra. And Ilayaraja and AR Rahman, if we’re talking about composers.

What are you making for breakfast on your day off?
I don’t like to cook on a day off, but if I am cooking, I’ll make idli, a type of savory steamed rice cake made with a fermented rice and lentil batter, and I’ll dip them in sambar, coconut chutney and gunpowder—a flavor-packed dry blend of spices and lentils. But typically, there’s only one day when I don’t work and have the opportunity to leave the kitchen, so I try to explore other cuisines.

Where are you going to eat on your precious day off?
I have a bunch of lists and have been exploring restaurants slowly, one by one. I’ve been to Lady once and I really want to go back. It’s really, really good. I think of Dame as being exactly how a New York neighborhood restaurant is supposed to be: The food is simple, but the flavor is amazing and they use the highest quality of ingredients. And I just love their fish and chips.

What dish on the Semma menu do you like cooking most?
Definitely the gunpowder dose. It’s something I grew up eating that I learned to make from my mom and grandma and it’s been my favorite ever since I was a child. So I’m blessed that I have the opportunity to cook it at Semma.

Who taught you to cook?
Mainly my mom. My grandma too, but we didn’t live with her, we just visited her once in a while during the holidays. I started off just helping out in the kitchen—when you grow up in India, you help your mom always. I eventually went to culinary school in India and developed more culinary skills.

When you’re not at work, any shows you’re watching right now?
I love watching old Tamil movies from the ’80s and ’90s—it’s sort of the only connection I have to my childhood—like Moondram Pirai and Mumbai, both romantic dramas, and Kannathil Muthammital, a movie based on the story of the Sri Lankan civil war and the struggles that the Sri Lankan Tamilians went through. I also love a lot of food-oriented things like Chef’s Table. I loved the episodes with Dominique Crenn, Gaggan Anand, and Virgilio Martinez.

If you had to pick one, what dish would you eat for the rest of your life?
People make fun of me all the time, but the thing that I always eat is rice. There’s no way I can live without it. I can eat it three times a day. Plain basmati rice, fried rice, anything with rice—I’ll eat it. Without rice, I just feel my meal is incomplete.

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