As course after course of fragrant Moplah dishes emerged from the state-of-the-art kitchen at Masala Bay at the five-star Taj Land’s End hotel in Bandra, chef Abida Rasheed remained invisible.
She was still tenderising meat in coconut milk, turning unpolished brown rice into traditional fish biryani and packing mushrooms into dumplings.
When she finally emerged, it was to loud applause. The 50-year-old home chef from Kozhikode, north Kerala, bowed gracefully to acknowledge the praise.
“I have been cooking since I was 11,” says Rasheed, who cooks Moplah food at the Taj’s Gateway Hotel in Calicut, in her capacity as consultant chef. “These recipes have been passed down in my family for generations. It feels good to use them to feed people and preserve our culture.”
It’s not just cooking either. Rasheed designed and executed a special menu for an eight-day Moplah food festival at Land’s End that ended on March 30, and trained the Bandra chefs in Moplah cuisine.
But training and academic knowledge can only go so far in the kitchen — which is why home chefs are finding themselves increasingly in demand in five-star hotels and among publishing houses across the country.
“After exploring different cuisines from around the world, the focus — among professional chefs and foodies — has shifted back home,” says Rita D’Souza, food editor for publishing house Popular Prakashan, which is publishing four niche, regional cookbooks this year — on the Karwar, Sindhi, Marathwada and Kokanastha Brahmin cuisines. “India has such a variety of cuisines to discover, with no two communities cooking the same way. Now, Indians want to reconnect with these hidden food traditions.”
Home chefs such as Rasheed, with their heirloom recipes and trove of traditional knowledge and experience, are the perfect means of filling this gap.
In addition to cooking for The Gateway in Calicut, for instance, where she uses spices that she grows in her own backyard, Rasheed has been hosting chefs from China, Korea and across India at her residence, teaching them to cook the cuisine. She has also organised food festivals for the three-star Ashok Residency and New Residency Park hotels in Kozhikode.
Meanwhile, home chef Jacinta D’Souza, who works part-time at the Goa Marriott Resort & Spa, Panaji, was flown in to organise a Goan food festival at the five-star Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre Hotel in Powai.
The ITC Maratha in Sahar, Mumbai, offers its resident guests a traditional Malwani thali prepared by a home chef.
And at the five-star Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers, Chennai, home chef and retired corporate personal assistant Rathnam Subraya Danapati was roped in six months ago to cook traditional Tamilian food and to serve up the famed filter coffee in the lobby.
“The truth is, nobody knows traditional food as well as a home chef,” says Sheraton Park executive chef Pravin Anand. “They have learnt the nuances, know the secret tricks. Guests love Danapati and her food. She takes them back to their childhood.”
Anand says about 40 guests walk in every day just to have the 58-year-old’s home-style brewed coffee in the lobby.
“Hotels have realised that their guests, particularly businessmen on the move and frequent travellers, are yearning for that personal, home touch in their food,” says food writer Antoine Lewis. “There are not many professional chefs who are trained to prepare regional cuisines. Home chefs fill this vacuum.”
A home chef in the kitchen also gives the hotel an exotic USP, adds food blogger and consultant Nikhil Merchant.
For Stuti Duggal, 21, a recent graduate in fashion communication who attended the Moplah festival inauguration, Rasheed’s tamarind, coconut and tomato chutneys and mushroom dumplings were a treat.
“Rasheed’s food was like nothing I have ever tasted before,” she said. “Fresh, tangy, earthy and sumptuous. I would love to see such food on hotel and restaurant menus.”
‘I love to feed people’
Surjan Singh Jolly first met Jacinta D’Souza in 2006. He was then executive chef at the Goa Marriott Resort & Spa, Panaji, and she was the cook at his friend’s house.
“When I tasted her food, I fell in love with it,” says Jolly. “Jacinta Aunty was exactly what I had been looking for.”
Jolly offered her a job at the Marriott, cooking traditional Goan food, and she accepted. She now works there part-time, while continuing to cooking at Jolly’s friend’s house.
A Class 3 dropout, D’Souza has been cooking since she was 15, using heirloom recipes handed down by her mother. Her earnings have helped the widow raise five children.
And now, her skill is taking her places, literally. This past week, D’Souza was flown to Mumbai to organise a Goan food festival at the five-star Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre hotel in Powai.
“I was always very good at remembering the recipes,” she says, speaking haltingly and giggling. “I love to cook. I love to feed people.”
Now, Jacinta is passing on her knowledge to her son, who wants to become a chef. “He will be an even better cook than me,” she says.