Tales from a kitchen | india | Hindustan Times
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Tales from a kitchen

An assistant to a chef for a day, Nivriti Butalia shares her experiences from under the hat.

india Updated: Jul 19, 2008 23:51 IST
Nivriti Butalia

“Don’t eat and go, you’ll get better food there.” Sharp advice from two colleagues who knew I was headed to My Humble House, the ‘modern Chinese’ restaurant at the ITC hotel where I was deputed to be the chef’s little helper. I still grab a bite. Just in case.

En route to the hotel, photographer-designate, Ronjoy asks if I can cook. I stay quiet, but apparently a facial twitch gives me away. “Ha ha, this should be fun,” he says, test-clicking from behind the lens.

Ten minutes later, we enter the hotel’s kitchen, and are introduced to Chef Shivneet. He looks young, but he is the Senior Sous Chef. This is his kitchen. He calls the shots.

First things first: fresh hats and aprons. Novelty of the headgear apart, there’s no time wasted getting the size right.

We’re taken on a tour of the kitchen. There’s steel everywhere, and ingredients lie about in plenty. Immediately striking is the level of hygiene. There’s meat, but nothing smells. I learn that to avoid contamination, chopping boards have been differentiated by colour. The green silbatta is for fruits and veggies, red for raw meat and poultry, blue for sea food, yellow for dairy products and so on.

The Sichuan area is pointed out; Chinese for the rest of the hotel is prepared here. You mean Punjabi-Chinese? I ask the chef. “No,” he sets me right, “the correct term is Sichuan.”

We’re shown a walk in cooler — for storage naturally. I spot broccoli heads. Unless they’re beans, or could they be sprouts? It’s a dumb question; I keep it to myself, and blame the light bouncing off the cling wrap for my inability to call a vegetable a spud.

It was down to business soon. The chef is getting started on Crispy Prawns With Wasabi Mayonnaise served with a Mango Salsa. We’re taking it in baby steps, and he shows me how he needs the mango done. Use peeler, slice the green skin off in one direction, cut a wedge, make thin incisions. “Yes, ok.” I interrupt. “I get it. May I try?”

He hands me his knife. It’s like one broad butcher weapon. Except the blade has a thermocol jacket — a personal touch I doubt butchers bother with. Both thermocol jacket and wooden knife handle have a triangle on them. It takes a moment to register why the sketch is familiar. And then I see the light. Turns out that the chef identifies with Superman — they even have that ‘s’ initial in common.

I’m allowed to hold this sacred knife and even slice mango with it. Too broad, Chef says. Start again. This time I go too fast. He stresses the use of a set of hands, stating flatly that he’d rather something go waste than a finger be cut. The logic I’m fed is that mangoes can be replaced, but a hand injury would mean one man down, three days leave, and a short-staffed kitchen. That’s obviously not how it works.

Ronjoy is tickled. He takes a few shots, says something about hopelessness and suggests house keeping.

Next task is easier. It’s for the same dish, but can even be used for others. We’re taking perforated rice nets, making cones out of them and placing in between two pre-heated steel katoris, all the while keeping a watch on the oven time and temperature — they mustn’t over-brown. You can’t be too slow, but there’s nothing really to it.

Last thing I observe before calling it a day, is the making of a black pepper sauce. Pepper balls are roasted on a giant wok with a big glob of butter. Once cooled, all I have to do is dump the whole batch of peppercorns in the mixer and ensure a powdery consistence. Easy enough.

At the end of which task, I even get an indulgent thumbs-up. The sauce will live, and I am relieved, hungry, and somewhat thankful for the bite I had grabbed earlier.