Recipe for humanity

Rajni Menon, garde manger at The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges, is designing a cooking program to support the children of the world.

When creativity, talent and passion are combined, it can yield glorious results. Such is the case with Rajni Menon, the force behind the enterprise “Creative Rajni: Creativity in Food.” With a background in engineering, fashion, art and cooking, and a penchant for spreading kindness and humanity, Menon has the goods to become a force to be reckoned with.

She is building a business and a brand that has married her love of cooking with a mission to help children around the world — a passion project she has begun via numerous outlets and is still developing.  WAG first encountered Menon when she offered a cooking demonstration during an event at Williams-Sonoma at The Westchester in White Plains this spring, but let’s back up for a moment to her interesting upbringing and the roots of her present undertaking.  

A native of Kerala in South India — a region of the country known for its more natural surroundings and greenery, as Menon describes it — she grew up with her younger sister in a caring home.  As a family, they enjoyed the experiences of cooking together, eating and sharing with others, and Menon speaks particularly of her many fond memories of time spent in the kitchen with her mom.  It instilled in her, she told me, a deep concern for others.  “My mom taught me that, and it’s something I try to do in my life.  I always have that in my mind — to be positive and to be kind to every human being.”

It’s a worthy mantra and one that has opened up many worlds to Menon as she obtained her education in her native India, a member of the first graduating class from Amrita Institute of Technology and Science in Tamil Nadu, where she obtained a degree in electrical engineering.   As a young woman, this enabled her to apply her engineering expertise to her father’s business, which manufactured electrical and resin-cast transformers for the building trades, including everything from brand new construction to housing for the underserved. 

In 2000, a new world opened up to Menon when she immigrated to the United States, having just married her husband. (They met while he was vacationing in India.) She began her American life in Chicago. Coming from the warm, 90-degree average climate of southern India, she was taken off-guard by the Windy City, telling me, “When I first stepped outside from the plane, it was like walking into a freezer, but I enjoyed it there.  I always try to find the positive.”

When the couple eventually relocated to Westchester County, Menon commuted to New York, working as an electrical engineer, helping to design the new World Trade Center site, an opportunity she could not resist.  Then along came baby and she made the decision to make her now ninth-grade son her first priority. During the time spent dedicated to raising him, she found that she wanted a creative outlet and turned to art, creating about one oil painting per month.  

“There were so many things I wanted to do,” she says. “I love fashion, art, food, anything colorful, really, so I took a two-year program in textile designs at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) and began painting designs for fabrics.”  For about a year, she ran a small business producing artful blouses, but her real calling was food, especially her desire to bring the world of South Indian cuisine to her new homeland.  

“Indian cuisine here is mostly dominated by dishes from the north, with an emphasis on cream-based curries and heavy sauces.”  She explains the cuisine from her native Kerala as one that employs the authentic old curries in more coconut- and veggie-based elements, creating more variety, but still producing the spice and harmony of flavors typical of the region.  And, in Menon’s case, the artistic style of presentation is also on full display. 

For about a year she started to offer cooking classes in partnership with the owner of Masala Kraft Café in Hartsdale, and they became incredibly popular, much to her delight.  “To be hands-on with the cooking and impart the technique to others was very rewarding,” she says. “People would come back each month because they were interested.  That gave me a very good feeling that I could take it on (professionally).”

She parlayed her newfound confidence in her cooking abilities into a new part-time career at The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges.  “I didn’t want to commute to the city any longer,” Menon says, “but I wanted to find a place that had not only a strong kitchen, but one with high design and artistic plates.”  In her new role as garde manger, she is responsible for salad and appetizer production.

Last November, via her website, Menon started to develop her own branded cooking classes with the goal of turning this avocation into a worthy project.  There are two different components — one is a series of cooking classes at various adult schools and the second is private classes in people’s homes, teaching the basics of South Indian cuisine.  

Already on her schedule for the year’s end is a cooking class and festive dinner with wine pairings during the holiday season on Dec. 17 at Zwilling Cooking Studio in Pleasantville.  “For the private, in-home events, I take my spice box with me and the hosts supply the rest.  A big reason that I started the cooking parties was to create fashionable food with a purpose. 

“Everything will be about children and their emotional development,” she says.  “I feel that the most important thing for a kid is building up their self-confidence and that is what I want to promote so that the funds reach the ones who need it most.”  

This July when she returns to her native Kerala, an annual excursion, she will spend time at a home there for 20 orphaned girls.  “I’m starting in my hometown, with an aim to build a program on a global level,” she tells me.  

“I know that I want to help kids, but I need to have a medium so people understand that it’s legit.  With the cooking classes, half the money goes to buying ingredients and half goes to the charity,” Menon adds.   The process and the momentum are building slowly, she tells me, but she sees the potential.  

“When you surround yourself with positive people you can do anything,” is Menon’s new mantra, but “one step at a time,” she says.  

From the sound of things, it seems her step is in double-time. 

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