Lata Tondon is as passionate about cooking, as is her persona. Arms emblazoned with culinary tattoos – a chef’s knife, cutlery, and more, tossing ingredients, stirring staples, she imbues colour and life into each signature dish. She is the first woman in the world to have set a world record for the longest time spent cooking – a distinction previously held only by men. In 2019, Chef Lata cooked non-stop for 87 hours and 45 minutes to bag the coveted Guinness World Record title, a good 20 hours more than the previous record.
“Food has always been my first love,” declares the chef, who loves exploring regional flavours, cooking techniques and discovering unexplored ingredients from across India. An alumna of Chef Academy, London, Lata is determined to take unusual hyperlocal Indian ingredients and create dishes that change the limited perception of Indian cuisine.
Working at renowned restaurants like Bibendum and The Ninth, and learning under award-winning chefs like Claude Bosi and Jun Tanaka, have helped her further hone her culinary skills.
From MP to London
The 1980 April born from the well-known Digwani family of Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, Lata’s childhood revolved around cooking. “Academics did not interest me. Though I was good at sports, food came first,” says Lata, speaking exclusively to Global Indian.
Her tryst with cooking began during school days, when she learnt about Sindhi cuisine from her family, and even participated in several cookery competitions. “As a child, I would wait for my mother to leave the kitchen so I could spend hours trying out my own recipes. I would experiment with easy-to-cook and healthy recipes. A major part of my early years went into cooking,” recalls Lata, who schooled at Jyoti Senior Secondary school after which she did her BCA from Jabalpur and MCA from Pune. Incidentally, her father Narayan Digwani is a businessman while her mother Jyoti is a homemaker.
The cooking marathon
Over the years, Lata has carved a niche for herself in the culinary world. Her record for the longest cooking marathon is most cherished, as the recognition changed her life.
She learnt about the cooking marathon while training at the Chef Academy of London. Ever since, she wanted a shot at it.
“It was difficult to think of cooking non-stop without sleeping. But I told myself that I had to make my country proud. I prepared for the marathon for a full year,” recalls Lata, who spent many sleepless nights before the event.
The previous title for the longest cooking marathon was held by Rickey Lumpkin from Los Angeles, who cooked for a straight 68 hours, 30 minutes and one second in 2018. Lata surpassed his record by over 20 hours and cooked more than 1,600 kilograms of food grains, made 400 vada pavs, 250 sandwiches and a host of other delicacies over four days. The food was served to the over 20,000 visitors, including children from orphanages, blind schools and senior citizens from old age homes. The chef and environmentalist used the platform to encourage people to plant over 17,000 saplings too.
Among the other accolades she has won, are the India Book of Record, Asia Book of Record, Indo-China Book of Record, Vietnam book of record, and Nepal Book of Record, etc.
The Indian culinary way forward
A travel enthusiast, Lata aspires to promote regional Indian food, and has travelled thousands of miles across the subcontinent in search of unexplored flavours and techniques. “There is nothing like Indian food; it’s immensely diverse. A lot from Indian cuisine still needs to be showcased. I am working on doing just that,” says the chef, who has also participated in the International Indian Chef of the Year contest where she won first prize.
Living in a joint family of 11, she learnt the value of rich traditions and culture. “I am fortunate to be surrounded by family and friends who have always encouraged me to turn my passion into a career. The passion to create something new is what keeps me going. I believe that every individual should learn how to cook their own food,” says Lata, whose favourite chef is Gordon Ramsay whom she admires for his bold attitude and cooking skills.
Besides traditional Indian dishes, Lata whips up Italian, Mexican and Mughlai food. “Every chef has his/her own style of cooking and set of skills. I do not compare myself with others. Like most chefs, I am always prepared to take compliments as well as criticism. Obviously, you cannot satisfy everyone all the time,” says Lata, who prefers north Indian food. “Just keep moving and treading your path, no matter what,” is her advice to all those embarking on their own journeys.
The pandemic and beyond
The pandemic gave birth to several amateur cooks, a trend that makes Lata happy. “Cooking has been rekindled. In these times, creative fields are doing well and cooking is booming, and many are opting to become chefs. People have also realised the importance of healthy eating,” adds the Indore resident.
But, records aside, there is a lot more Lata has set out to do. “I am looking forward to opening my own restaurant in London and introducing my style of Indian fusion cooking,” informs Lata.
Her culinary journey has made her calmer. Her best critic? She quips, “My son. I take his reviews very seriously.”
Deeply attached to her tattoos, she feels they speak volumes about the art of cooking. The follower of Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, Lata, is gearing up to launch a coffee table book that showcases India’s unexplored cuisines, and ingredients.