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.


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One thought on “Feeding the Ashram: Chef Ambika and the Brunch Shift

  1. Diane

    I agree with a commenter above–I’d love to have a cookbook with Ambika’s recipes! We recently stayed at teh Ashram in the Bahamas and the food was wonderful.

  2. Isabelle

    Went 2 Times in sivananda…
    I met unique and wonderfull Ambika..
    I Was not on a volonter program,
    but I offered Help to the kitchen…
    And the magic began…
    iI went back every morning after,
    having such satisfaction and fun and learning opportunities with Ambika.

    Big huge hug to you Ambika!

    Isabelle front Montréal

  3. Kathy Mele

    I have been coming to the ashram for 17 years. I am here for 12 days and I can say that the food has never been better! This chef has taken it up a notch to the delight of the guests. Thank you

  4. Gigi

    It would be nice if we could be assured there would be ample provisions for those with celiac disease who cannot intake gluten and diabetics who cannot intake processed sugar.

    • Todd

      hi Gigi

      I suspect you have been replied to already, but in the event you have not, know that I just returned from a stay at the Ashram and I had no trouble eating enough without eating any wheat or dairy. As far as processed sugar, they don’t use any in the food they cook in the kitchen. If you choose to put peanut butter, jelly, or any foods not made there on your plate, well, then you will get whatever is in them.
      There is no “dessert”. There is always salad, some complex carbs like rice, quinoa, dahl, millete, etc…and starches like potatoes and sweet potatoes. Yeah, there where a couple meals where it was more vegetable based and without going to the homemade bread to feel full, yeah, I had to get more salad or roasted veggies, but it all worked out, and I felt fantastic.
      To eat minimally processed foods always feels wonderful.
      No worries going there if you don’t want to eat gluten.

  5. Tannis

    It would be wonderful if Ambika could find a way to share the recipes in a cookbook.

  6. Madhusudan Inamdar

    My wife, Geeta and I were there mid October for two weeks and we enjoyed Chef Ambika’s creations to the ninth degree. She is phenomenal in her creativity and the meals were all delicious. We first visited the Ashram in 1988 and in the last few years we have been coming almost twice a year. I can honestly say that this is the first time that we have really enjoyed the food. The variety of the food; the presentation and the taste was simply amazing.
    Chef Ambika has definitely notched up the menu. Nothing was repeated during our stay. Ofcourse there were left overs served in the evening. The evening food was terrific as well.
    The yoga teachers were excellent in their programs.
    We look forward to coming there in the Spring.
    OM OM

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