A flourish of a wok, a swivel in the right direction, a drizzle, and voila! The mundane transforms into the extraordinary on a charmed platter. Few things can put a smile on your face like a well-cooked meal.
And that skill starts early. Says chef Malkhani, head of operations at Purple Rain restaurant in Sobo Central in Mumbai, “As a child, the kitchen was my playground, and mother didn’t stop me. That allowed me to experiment and hone my interest in cooking.”
While Ananda Solomon, Executive Chef at the Taj President, Mumbai says, “I learned the art of slow cooking from my mother.”
For others like Aniruddha Roy, Executive Chef at the Taj Lands End, Mumbai, it was a matter of chance. “I got into the hospitality industry because I could not get into engineering. While I was at service in a restaurant, I would often go into the kitchen and find that, despite the working conditions, the people were happier. That was because cooking gave them a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. That’s when I decided I wanted to train and work in the kitchen.”
According to Chef Roy, the job is both fun and fulfilling. “ You are constantly in a race against time. It is like working backstage before the curtains open up. It is also challenging, because you are only worth what you made ten minutes ago,” he declares.
Being a chef satisfies the very human need to feed people as well. “ You make food so that it can be consumed, and add value to people’s life and happiness to their life,” points out Chef Solomon.
When asked what cooking means to them personally, Chef Massimiliano Orlati or Chef Max, the manager of the restaurant Penne, at Juhu, Mumbai, says, “Cooking is a therapeutic activity that allows for self expression.” For others like Chef Solomon, cooking is a spiritual activity: “Good food is a result of good values. The saying, ‘You are what you eat’ holds more true for this profession than any other.”
There are also lessons to be learnt from the act of cooking. Says Chef Malkhani, “Food is made by human hands, so there is always scope for imperfection.” Chef Roy adds, “Someone else may not like something you like. A dish is not the food itself, but how you interpret it.”
In a business where there is scope for favouritism, rivalries are surprisingly hard to find. “Contrary to what people might think, chefs are a very close knit fraternity. There is a spirit of sharing and learning between most of us,” says Chef Malkhani. “At a gathering of chefs, we do not discuss the dishes that go into our planning, but there is no harm in sharing numbers of suppliers and such-like. Finally, as we say in Hindi, it is the haath mein barkat (the innate talent of the individual) that makes a dish. So where is the need to feel threatened?”
“We are like war veterans,” says Chef Max. “ Just like in the military, where you can see a person’s uniform and know where he is coming from, when we see a chef, we know where he is coming from. We have all been through the same tests.”
Pick and choose
Just like artists, chefs too have their favourite pieces of work. For Chef Malkhani, his favourite dishes are Prawn Currry with Mango, Grilled Chicken with Mango and Saffron Sauce etc. For Chef Solomon, his favourite dish is one made by his mother. “My mother’s fish curry is irreplaceable. I have tried making it several times, but I don’t think I will ever be able to achieve that taste,” he confesses.
The dish Chef Roy loves the most is one he learnt from a senior chef in the UK.“ Butter -poached lobster with vanilla dew is my favourite. The flavour of the sea that comes from the lobster combined with the sweet scent of vanilla that comes from the land, is an amazing combination. So simple but so exquisite,” he says.
So, are good cooks born or can they be made? “One cannot deny that cooking can be learned, but you also need to get your hands dirty if you want to become a good cook,” says Chef Solomon.
“Books and television are inanimate,” says Chef Roy, “they simply give you the mechanics of a dish. But a true cook will only use it as a reference, and experiment with the dish. The important thing is a passion for cooking, which will add character and soul to what you make.”
This weekly column examines the diversity of urban communities