The Other Olympian

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Meet the only Indian who made it to Beijing, London and the just-concluded Sochi Olympics
Very few Indian athletes took part in both the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, and none made it to this year’s Sochi Winter Olympics as well. One Indian, however, participated in all three events. Gurgaon-based pastry chef Swathi Venketasan headed the pastry operations for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) venue at all three events. In her 18-year career, Venketasan has worked in several Indian kitchens, and headed celebrity chef Aston Mosimann’s pastry operations in London. A few years ago, after she became a mother, she moved to Gurgaon where, through Great Desserts Company, she runs classes for pastry professionals and enthusiasts. But when Mosimann landed the catering contract of the IOC for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and subsequently for the London and Sochi events, Venketasan was asked to join. “How do you say ‘no’ to an opportunity like that? For us chefs, it’s like our Olympics,” Venketasan says over the phone from Sochi.

Preparing pastries for the Olympics is nerve-wracking. She usually works with about four pastry chefs; another six help out. “Nothing quite prepares you for an event like the Olympics. Every single day, we get between 700 and 1,000 guests. So that means preparing at least 18,000 pieces of different types of pastries... 20 kilograms of chocolate mousse vanish in just one dinner,” she says. Preparations usually begin more than a year in advance, but complications are common. At Beijing, Venketasan realised the pastry chefs helping her weren’t fluent in English. “Sometimes I would write down hurried notes, for instance ‘10 No of eggs’ in such and such dish. And the other chefs would think I meant ‘no’ eggs.” At Sochi, she had to do without Swiss cheese. “700 kilograms of Swiss cheese was on its way from Switzerland by road. And the next thing I hear, it got lost somewhere in Poland... All sorts of crazy things happen.”

After Sochi, Venketasan is headed to London where, she says, pastry preparations for the 2016 Brazil Olympics have already begun.