(June 6, 2022) Chetna Makan was all set for a career in fashion, complete with a degree and experience with well-known fashion brands. She had even designed clothes for a couple of music videos and looked forward to her future in Mumbai. Marriage, however, changed it all when her husband, a doctor, decided to move to the UK for training. There, she discovered a love for baking. At 41, she’s a baker, cookbook author, YouTuber, chef and fashion designer, with a sixth book, Chetna’s Easy Baking, to be out in June. The Indian chef tells Global Indian about her journey from Jabalpur to Great Britain and the transformations it brought to her life.
Born in Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, Chetna would dream of a glamorous life as a fashion designer. She certainly had the talent for it – always a good student, she moved to Mumbai when she was 17 to study at the National Institute of Fashion Technology. “After training for a few years, I ended up designing and working at a few companies,” Chetna says. Later, she joined Benzer, a Mumbai-brand known for ethnic fashion, western-formals, casuals and even bridal wear. It was an exciting time – Chetna designed clothes for a couple of music videos, worked as a fashion stylist for a few magazines and even started her own label. “All in all, it was a great experience,” the Indian chef reflects.
In 2004, Chetna found herself moving to Broadstairs, Kent, in the UK, with her doctor husband. It was a big change and when her husband was away, Chetna began looking for ways to keep herself occupied, trying different things to find what she loved. As it turns out, she loves baking. First, she noticed her family enjoyed her creations and then praise began pouring in from friends. And slowly, a simple hobby turned into a passion.
The Great British Bake Off
In 2004, ten years after she first began dabbling with baking as a hobby, came the Great British Bake Off and with it, the start of a new career. “In 2014, I applied to be a part of the biggest baking show. Getting in became a turning point and it is how I began my career in food. It wasn’t actually a planned shift,” says the Indian chef.
Being part of the show involved a rigorous, four-round elimination process. “It was nerve-wracking but an amazing experience on the whole,” Chetna recalls. “Being in the tent with the group was exciting, I made amazing friends and we are all in touch with each other still. The shoot went on for four weeks and each episode involved shooting for two days straight.” Her vibrant canapes blew the judges away and there has been no looking back since.
On the cook-book trail
Chetna’s earliest memories of the kitchen come from her childhood, when she would watch her mother cook, never once imagining that it would be her own profession one day. Later on, as she explored the kitchen in her own right, she found that she truly enjoyed the process of baking and cooking – it relaxed her. “I enjoy every step, from cooking to cleaning up afterwards. Feeding the people I love and watching them enjoy the food is very rewarding.” These personal experiences have found their way into The Cardamom Trail, Chetna’s first recipe-book.
Soon after emerging as a semi-finalist from the Great British Bake Off 2014, the Indian chef, who was now more confident in herself, made a pitch for her debut book, The Cardamom Trail. Described by the Evening Standard as “a sumptuously styled cookbook (that) brings to life Chetna’s background in fashion and recipes infused with fragrant Indian spices,” the book covers cakes, pies, tarts and breads. There’s also information on Indian spices, scattered generously across the pages, made compelling by a warm narrative style that includes Chetna’s own childhood memories. “The show gave me the confidence to experiment with Indian flavours and western baking. It also gave me a platform for my book.”
Two years in the making, The Cardamom Trail was published in 2016 and “is loosely based on what I did on the show,” the Indian chef says. “I knew Indian food as I grew up with it, and I love western bakes and I thought, why not combine those two and create something new and different. And that is what I tried to bring out.”
Since then, Chetna has published five more, with her 2020 book, Chetna’s 30-minute Indian: Quick and Easy Everyday Meals receiving a great response. “We all have busy lives but that doesn’t mean we don’t want delicious food at the end of the day. I see people across the world learning from my book, which offers simple recipes.”
Finding fame on YouTube
Apart from working on her book, she runs a YouTube channel called Food With Chetna. If you browse through her food channel, you will come across very simple, easy recipes, even for the biryani! “I started my YouTube channel after I finished writing my first book and the idea was to just share my everyday food with the audience.”
The channel is mostly dedicated to vegetarian food and there is a reason. “We are vegetarian for six days a week at home, which is why those recipes dominate my YouTube channel,” the Indian chef explains. Her channel has over 200k subscribers.
Despite being a well-known name, running a food channel and writing cookbooks, her own restaurant has never figured in the plan. “Restaurants are not for me, really; it’s not the kind of work I want to do. I just love cooking and baking.”
Both her kids enjoy Chetna’s YouTube channel. In fact, after the first lockdown in 2020 because of the pandemic, her kids (age 10 and 12) started filming her YouTube videos. “They play a big part in my channel. My husband is a doctor and a huge support to me.” When she’s not baking or cooking, you will likely find her at the gym. “A bit of exercise is what I enjoy in my downtime. I also love gardening, so now that we are in spring, I like to spend a lot of my time in the garden,” she wraps up.