When chefs are on prime time

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Sep 10, 2016 22:16 IST
(Getty Images)

Around four years ago, I was a judge on a cookery contest called Foodistan. The idea was to pit a team of Indian chefs against a team of Pakistanis. There were three judges, a famous British TV chef, a French-Pakistani actress whose mother ran a restaurant in Pakistan and, like a thorn between the two roses, yours truly.

The idea, I suspect, was to make the show something like an India-Pakistan cricket match and the promos suggested that the hostility between the two countries would extend to the studio. The concept attracted immense attention in the international press and articles about the show appeared in British and American papers.

But by the time we started shooting, I realised that it was going to be difficult to maintain the fiction that the chefs were deadly enemies fighting for national honour.

First of all, when you shoot a TV food competition, nobody has the energy to hate. Though you only see one hour on TV, the shoot takes much longer. In the case of shows like MasterChef, they often shoot for the whole day (and sometimes longer) just to get one hour of usable footage.

Foodistan was efficiently produced so we knocked off two episodes a day but it was a very long day. And though I only to had to appear on camera briefly and say cutting things like “there is enough oil in this pakora to power a jumbo jet” or “I think the fish could be a little firmer, so I’ll give you four and a half”, I was knackered by the end of the shoot.

The poor chefs, who had to do the actual cooking, were even more exhausted. In the circumstances, it was simply too wearying to say – as I imagine the journos thought we would – things like “my mutton curry is far better than the rubbish you chaps make on the other side of the border”.

With one notable exception, the chefs got on incredibly well and we soon realised that they bonded as chefs with a camaraderie that cut across borders.

Since Foodistan aired, Indian Accent has always been packed out and Manish Mehrotra became a star

The exception was a senior Pakistani chef who got into a fight with one of the judges and left in the middle of the competition. When he returned to Pakistan, he gave many interviews saying how the contest was biased against Pakistan and bad-mouthed the hapless Pakistani judge (“she is just a housewife” he sneered, while others helpfully added that she was – shock! horror! – “married to a Hindu!”).

This could not have done wonders for the show’s ratings when it was finally aired in Pakistan (though I gather they dubbed me so that I spoke throughout in fluent Urdu – which must have been fun to watch!) and I doubt if they were delighted by the final where Manish Mehrotra wiped the floor with the very nice lady who had emerged as the best Pakistani chef. (But then Manish would have wiped the floor with most Indian chefs, too.)

I knew Manish from his time at Tamarai in London and had given Indian Accent its first rave review, making Manish my Chef of the Year in my Annual Food Awards. So I was a little surprised when he signed up for Foodistan. Why did a chef of his calibre bother to put himself through this test?

I got my answer a few months later when I met Manish at Indian Accent. Had Foodistan been worth it for him? Oh yes, he said. Until he won the competition, critics like me wrote nice things about him. But Indian Accent was rarely full. It was Foodistan that turned things around for the restaurant. After the show aired, Indian Accent has always been packed out and Manish became a star in the eyes of the wider public, not just a small circle of foodies.

The Foodistan experience taught me two things. One: the so-called tension and conflict in these shows is nearly always manufactured by the producers. Viewers don’t see the twelve to fourteen hours of footage recorded by the various cameras. What goes on TV is a carefully edited 45-minute version which is meant to be entertaining.

And second: never underestimate the power of food competitions. The main reason (apart from the fact that he is a genius) that Manish Mehrotra is so famous today (he was on the cover of Brunch a couple of weeks ago) is because he broke through to the mass audience with Foodistan.

It is that power that drives great chefs like Heston Blumenthal or Marco Pierre White to do guest spots on MasterChef. They already have the respect of their peers. But it is TV that promotes their brand.

Floyd Cardoz won Top Chef Masters in the United States a few years ago (Getty Images)

Take Floyd Cardoz. When Floyd won Top Chef Masters in the US a few years ago, I was not surprised. He is the one Indian chef who, ever since he worked in New York’s (now defunct) Lespinasse in the 1990s, has been part of that small, inner circle of America’s top chefs whom other chefs respect and admire. Obviously, he was going to be the star of Top Chef.

But why would Floyd agree to take part in a show like that? Well, he says, the producers called him just as he was preparing to open North End Grill in New York. He was due to go on a research trip with Danny Meyer, his boss, to Spain and Italy during the period of the shoot so his instinct was to say no. But he spoke to Danny Meyer, who said, “We’ll postpone the trip. Do this. It is great PR for the restaurant.”

Meyer, who is rarely wrong when it comes to restaurants and food, was right again. Top Chef broke Floyd through to a wider audience and turned him into a brand; he is the only Indian chef most Americans have heard of.

I asked Floyd about the conflict that is an integral part of these shows. He said that because he was cooking with chefs he admired, all of them decided that they were not going to play the I-am-better-than-you game. Their approach was one of camaraderie and mutual respect.

He had no desire to run down his rivals or to create dishes that would please the judges. He stayed true to his roots and made food that originated in his memories: a version of the upma they made at his home in Bombay, a fish that represented his first real food memory – based on a dish he ate at Bombay’s Gourdon’s as a boy – and a short rib that recalled the cuts of meat that his parents would get from the slaughter house in Bandra.

By some coincidence, Manish and Floyd have both recently opened restaurants in New York. Manish has the NY outpost of Indian Accent and Floyd has Paowalla. I haven’t been to New York recently but everyone I have spoken to says they are the two best Indian restaurants in the city.

Aarthi Sampath (above), a young New York chef, has just become the first Indian to win Chopped, a competition on America’s Food Network

Food competitions can also create stars out of lesser known chefs. For instance Aarthi Sampath, a young New York chef, has just become the first Indian to win Chopped, a competition on America’s Food Network. Aarthi spent five years training with the Taj group in India before going to America for further studies. She saw Chopped there and wondered if she would ever make it to the show. She joined Rajesh Bhardwaj’s Junoon (where my pal Vikas Khanna is the star) as an intern and quickly rose to be Chef de Cuisine, a position she still holds.

Chopped was a gamble because it is a daily show with a strong American theme and when Aarthi went on, she was given mystery baskets full of very American ingredients. It is a tribute to her skill that she was able to make Indian-influenced dishes with those ingredients so successfully that she won the show.

I think it is safe to say that we will hear more of her.

I guessed Shipra Khanna would go on to win the Indian edition of MasterChef, right when I saw the very first episode of Season 2 (Hindustan Times)

We already know a lot about Shipra Khanna. Perhaps it is my own ignorance, but she is the only winner of the Indian MasterChef whose name I remember. While the competition has been great at making stars out of its judges (Ranveer Brar, Kunal Kapoor and Ajay Chopra for example), Shipra is the only winner I can think of who has become an established chef thanks to the Indian MasterChef.

I guessed Shipra would go on to win right when I saw the very first episode of Season 2. The producers made her talk about her personal life (young mother, separated from her husband, etc.) and though she was clearly uncomfortable answering those questions, she held her own. Since then, she has become a sort of female Vikas Khanna, and is as famous for being pretty and personable as she is for the excellence of her food.

I asked her, a little rudely, if she thought her looks had anything to do with her success. Her response was that if she had been taking part in a beauty contest or a Hollywood talent show, then perhaps it would have mattered how she looked. But food is food, she said, and when you eat it you don’t care how the person who made it looks.

It is a good answer. And it explains why she is going to remain a foodie star for a long time to come.

From HT Brunch, August 21, 2016

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