Machindra Kasture, 52, likes to read about Presidents, Prime Ministers, and monarchs. And when he does so it is not politics but palate that is on his mind. For Kasture is a chef who cooks for the highest and the mightiest.
Kasture, the executive chef at Rashtrapati Bhavan, plans and executes menus for state banquets, high teas and luncheons at which the President of India hosts his counterparts and other VIPs from India and abroad.
“It is both an honour and a challenge to be head of the kitchen at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. I cannot afford to make mistakes because unlike others, when I cook the culinary reputation of my country is at stake,” said Kasture, who has cooked for a host of world leaders, including US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on their state visits to India.
Dressed in spotless kitchen whites, Kasture was busy planning the menu for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf , the visiting President of the Republic of Liberia, when we dropped in to meet him. While planning the menu for visiting foreign dignitaries, Kasture not only keeps in mind their likes and dislikes but also if they are allergic to certain foods.
“Some foreign dignitaries do not eat pork, while there are others who do not eat prawn. There are some cases when a visiting head of a state asked for dishes from his own country. We get feedbacks from the External Affairs ministry through the President’s secretariat on this. The menu has to be passed at various levels, including the secretary to the President. She is encouraging and offer suggestions on how we can improve and innovate,” said Kasture.
The grand, sprawling kitchen at the Rashtrapati Bhavan is divided into various sections on both side of a long corridor — a main kitchen for preparing Indian, Continental and Chinese cuisines, a vegetable chopping section, a separate vegetable preparation area, butcher shop, dish-washing area, bakery and confectionery sections and a sweets preparation section.
Besides, it also boasts of its very own grocery store and a store for dry fruits, juices and squashes. There is a training area too.
The Rashtrapati Bhavan kitchen has evolved over the years, said Kasture. A major revamp took place in 2009 when the infrastructure of the kitchen was upgraded, with a whole new imported range of combi-ovens, steamers and boilers, deep freezers, tilting pans, etc. “Today, the Presidential kitchen has better infrastructure than that of any five-star hotels in the city,” said Kasture, who leads a team of 21 people.
The kitchen has strict norms for procuring chicken , fish , mutton, etc, he said. “It has to be certified by a veterinary doctor before it is cooked,” he said.
While the kitchen specialises in dishing out cuisines from around the world; it also has its own signature dishes, which includes Pineapple Halwa , Sitafal ka Halwa, Mutton Raan, Raisina Dal (whole urad dal), Achari paneer and Anjeer Kofta.
And which one are his favourites? “I love cooking butter chicken and mutton kolhapuri the most and prepare the curry myself. You see you have to be a good cook to be a good chef,” say Kasture.
The kitchen plays an important role in India’s food diplomacy. “Indian cuisine is quite popular and the Rashtrapati Bhavan kitchen shoulders the responsibility of showcasing the best of it to large number of Indian and foreign dignitaries who visit the Rashtrapati Bhavan. They expect to taste the very best of Indian cuisine at the office and residence of the President of India,” said Venu Rajamony, diplomat and press secretary to the President.
Kasture joined Rashtrapati Bhavan as Executive Chef in 2007 on deputation from ITDC (India Tourism Development Corporation).
“I was very nervous initially; I gave a presentation to the former President Pratibha Patil. She herself tasted my food before I was cleared for the job,” he said.
Talking about the favourite dishes of President Pranab Mukhjerjee, Kasture said the President is not fussy about what he eats.
“He is fond of various saags, aloo posto and sweet dishes such as gud ka sandesh,” he said.
Former President Pratibha Patil, he says, was a pure vegetarian and loved phulkas and dal and leafy vegetables. “She was fine if, at times, I wanted to experiment with her food. Kasture often travelled with the former President on her foreign trips. “I would often takeover the kitchen wherever she stayed. The chefs there did not mind.”
Kasture is usually busy on days of sate banquets and various ceremonies, including the swearing-in, award functions, etc. But the real challenge, he said, are on days such August 15 and January 26, when the President organises At Home, which is attended by around 1,500 people.
Recently, Kasture visited the White House as part of a delegation of Club des Chefs des Chefs, a worldwide association of Presidential chefs,which bills itself as ‘the world’s most exclusive gastronomic society’.
“I met chefs from 17 countries and they shared their recipes with me. I learnt a lot in terms of presentation, style and decoration. I also met President Obama at the White House.”
Prodded about the role of chef in state craft, he said, “Politics divide people, food brings them together”.
Ask him about his role at the kitchen at home and he smiles. “There, my wife is the executive chef; and I do not meddle in the affairs of her kitchen,” he laughs.