Chef Manuel Oliveira Seller sleeps just four or five hours a day. A year after he moved from Barcelona, Spain, to Mumbai, he has already accustomed himself to the frenetic pace, long hours and heightened stress levels.
As chef de cuisine and sous chef at JW Marriott’s Spanish restaurant, Arola, Seller can’t afford to have an ‘off day’ at work; cooking under Michelin-starred chef Sergi Arola, the restaurant’s namesake, means every dish must look, smell and taste just about perfect.
It’s the kind of pressure 28-year-old Seller thrives on, though. And most of it is familiar ground, since he worked with Arola in Spain too, before he was asked to help set up the Mumbai restaurant.
Here, Seller’s job includes overseeing daily activities, hiring and training mid-level chefs and devising new dishes for the menu.
Waking up at 9 am, Seller, who lives alone, starts his day with a simple breakfast of toast and biscuits. “I never cook for myself. It’s too much effort,” he says, smiling. “I can’t start the day without a cup of coffee, though.”
When Seller came to Mumbai, he knew very little English and no Hindi. He has since picked up more of both and, as he makes his way to his Bandra-based English classes from his two-bedroom home in Andheri, he has learned to startle rickshaw drivers with “Nahi, bhaiya, seedha! Seedha!” if they are taking him for a ride.
Seller attends these two-hour classes three times a week. On non-class days he heads to Juhu beach instead, for a run before work.
“In this profession, you’re constantly on your feet and in very high-pressure situations,” he says. “You have to be physically fit to sustain yourself through that kind of day. Working out also means some peaceful time to yourself, vital if you are to keep your calm in the kitchen.”
The runs are often productive for Seller too, since he thinks up his best new dishes then. “I never have bright ideas if I go into the kitchen with the intention of creating a new dish,” he says. “They come when I’m unwinding.”
At work by 2 pm, Seller downs a second cup of coffee and a quick lunch at one of the Marriott restaurants before his daily meeting with Arola. Here, the chefs discuss the day’s menus and how to address any complaints customers may have had the night before.
Next comes two hours of mise-en-place or setting up, where the kitchen prepares its ingredients so that all that’s left when an order comes in is the last stages of cooking, and plating.
“We have a monthly record of how many portions of each dish are ordered on average, so we have a general idea of how to prepare,” says Seller.
Once a week, while his team of six handles mise-en-place, Seller scours local markets for new or seasonal ingredients. “If I see that a particular kind of fish or vegetable is available, I know to ask my suppliers for it,” he says.
Once service begins, at 7 pm, Seller is focused on cooking, plating and making sure orders reach diners on time. “This part of the day is always a blur to me,” he says.
The last order usually goes out at 12.30 am, after which the chefs take an hour to shut the kitchen and do a careful inventory to make sure everything is in order for the next day.
Home at 2.30 am, it’s a shower, food and sleep for Seller. “Ours is a demanding but satisfying profession,” he says. “It’s definitely worth it to see a guest enjoy a meal that you created for them.”
(This weekly feature explores the lives of those unseen Mumbaiites essential to your day)