Tuesday, February 26, 2019

#ChefontheRoad Japan 2019

My first proper #Chefontheroad trip was nearly 6 years ago. I was a young chef cooking European food in Bombay without ever having visited France, Italy and Spain, the countries I was culinarily focused on. It was during those 4 incredible months traveling across 36 towns and cities when I fell in love with food travel. The idea was to immerse myself entirely in a destination, discovering and learning about its culture and people through food exploration.

It took me a few weeks to figure out a 'system' while on the road, being efficient about my time and money, and finding the right balance of detailed planning vs leaving stuff to chance. I was hooked. Clearly. Because I haven't stopped since.

Over time, I realised that these #ChefontheRoad trips have taught me more about food than any book, school or kitchen experience ever has. And in spite of the struggles and pain points involved, that's what keeps me going back and doing it again and again. 

After having life changing, food travel experiences across India and Europe over the last 6 years,  I’m coming up on my first #ChefOnTheRoad food trip of 2019. This time around mid March, I'll be heading overseas to incredible, timeless Japan!

Japan has always been on top of my bucket list of travel destinations, and for years I have yearned to be amidst those artisans and chefs who epitomise dedication to a craft. Japanese cuisine is steeped in ancient tradition and heritage, and just like in India, the food changes drastically from one region to another. Their respect for ingredients and seasonality is unparalleled, and there's a lot of care and thought put into techniques and presentation. And of course, there's a lot more to Japanese cuisine than sushi and ramen, and I'm super excited to explore and uncover it all!

I've already started putting together an itinerary that includes Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka & Hokkaido, and as always I'm looking to connect with food experts or local chefs in any of these cities, as well as for great local dining recommendations, sake breweries, bars, food markets and street food experiences. The idea is to not just get a crash course in the country’s wonderful food,  but also shed light on the unbelievable richness of the cuisine and culture of Japan. So damn excited for this one.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Making the Kitchen a Woman's Place

This piece first appeared on www.livemint.com on 8th March 2016. 
Consider the culinary scenario in India today. Opening value-for-money, concept restaurants is now the norm, not the exception. There’s a refreshing new focus on Indian food, and local sustainable eateries are gaining momentum. Pay scales in restaurants and hotels are also far better than they were even a decade ago. In short, there has never been a better time to be a chef in this country. Well, a male chef at least. 
That is still one major conundrum which plagues the hospitality industry in India: The huge gender disparity in the kitchen and, more importantly, how we treat the ones that do manage to be a part of these hallowed portals.
With just seven years of professional cooking experience, I’m pretty much a newbie in this line of work. I love being a chef and I thrive on the highs (and lows) of restaurant life. But this gender imbalance is the one thing I just cannot wrap my head around. 
The fact that we are pleasantly surprised every time we see a woman cook behind the pass is telling. With the exception of a few prominent chefs—Ritu DalmiaMadhu Krishnan to name two—women in restaurants and hotels are largely confined to front of the house. Which is surprising, especially in a cultural context that has always considered mothers and grandmothers to be “the best cooks in the world”. 
Why then is the female representation in this industry so low? Attempting to answer this is akin to figuring out why a nation of 1.25 billion people cannot come up with an 11-member team worthy of qualifying for the football World Cup.
The obvious crux of the problem lies within the kitchen itself. It’s a tough line of work and demands immense passion and dedication of anyone choosing this career path. It also means a substantial commitment of time and energy; and, consequently, de-prioritizing family life. The fact that sexism and sometimes, even misogyny, are still very much an intrinsic part of the restaurant culture only compounds the problem. Society has classified the restaurant kitchen to be a high-testosterone environment that encourages boisterous, abusive behaviour, where women “have no place”. Girls, therefore, are strongly discouraged even from applying to hotel management institutes.
Nevertheless, as in every male-dominated field (and, make no mistake, they are all male dominated) in India, thousands of women still do enter this industry with a passion to succeed and excel. As they mature, however, their environment pulls them down, family pressures takes their toll, and survival needs take over. This has a domino effect on younger aspirants, dampening their enthusiasm for the field, and giving their critics another handle. In short, the factors behind the woefully small presence of women in the professional kitchen are no different from the factors that keep them back in other challenging fields. 
It may be premature to be optimistic about something that’s so deeply ingrained in our society but I do think we are making a difference in our own way at The Bombay Canteen. We have nine women in our kitchen team, almost a third of our total strength and I’m unabashedly proud of the fact. Most of them are line cooks, while others are trainees from hotel management institutes. There are even a few from other fields of work testing waters in our kitchen with dreams of a career change. This would’ve seemed absurd say, 10 years ago, but today it’s possible. A good sign.
For women—and men—seeking a career in the kitchen, there’s also a new brigade of young female chefs and restaurateurs such as Pooja Dhingra, Gauri Devidayal, Naina de Bois-Juzan, Karishma Dalal, Anahita N Dhondy and Sanjana Patel who have carved a niche for themselves in India. We need more and more such women who fight the stereotype and emerge as role-models for young people considering this line of work.
I think the onus is also on industry leaders—chefs, restaurateurs, hoteliers and hotel management professors—to provide women a platform that will reinstate their faith in this career. 
For a good many years after its launch in 1994, the ITC chain of hotels had its West View restaurant brand run solely by women. They have since changed their women-only policy. Only two West View restaurants remain in the country, one in New Delhi and the other in Kolkata. When I called to enquire, I was informed that there were now only two or three women working in each of the outlets. 
While a fantastic initiative, I think such extreme steps could end up being counter-productive. What would be far more conducive to encouraging equality in the professional kitchen is a more equitable work environment. 
First and foremost, it is important for male cooks—who may never have worked with women before—to understand what women need, to respect boundaries and get accustomed to female co-workers. Being surrounded by men for 10-12 hours a day can be overwhelming and small gestures, such as respect for their personal space, can go a long way.
Policies regarding abuse, be it physical or verbal, need to be not only adopted but also strictly enforced. Superiors need to be approachable and accommodating, whenever possible, especially with regard to shift timings and travel arrangements (think going home alone at night through unsafe neighborhoods). It is equally imperative for women to know they don’t need to “man up” in the kitchen; but only to pull their weight to win their male colleagues’ respect. 
Empathy in a kitchen is a valuable trait. Nearly a year ago, not long after The Bombay Canteen opened, I noticed one of the woman cooks struggling to reach her station’s assigned shelf in the walk-in cooler. It may seem comical in hindsight, but shifting her mise-en-place to a lower shelf was a simple yet rather impactful step, one that I could very easily have missed.
A kitchen dominated by male cooks is boring and monochromatic. Women bring in a whole new dimension to the table. This is not to say that they cook better or worse than their male counterparts—just differently. That is definitely a welcome edge in an otherwise mundane setting.
Mint Lounge columnist Samar Halarnkar has argued long and convincingly about the need for men to start cooking at home. The other side of that argument is that more and more women need to enter the pro kitchen. 
As an Executive Chef, I do not go out there and scout for women cooks but if there’s an applicant with potential and the requisite experience, she deserves a place in our kitchen. We do not look to run a kitchen of women, just one where they feel equal. 
Thomas Zacharias’ inspiration to become a chef came both from his grandmother who gave him his first culinary lessons in Kerala, and his mother who constantly pushes him to do better. He now dons the clogs of Executive Chef at The Bombay Canteen, and looks forward to a world with many, many more women chefs.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Eating My Way through India

The travel bug is far deadlier than I had imagined. After my culinary jaunt through Europe in the summer of 2013 (read more here), I came back to India refreshed, recharged and brimming with energy. Soon after I settled back into my regular routine, I was itching to get back on the road, travelling and eating my way across the land. This time it would be in more familiar territory: India.
My learnings during the four months in Europe were immense and, in retrospect, indispensable in developing menus at the European kitchen I was running in Mumbai at the time. But, somehow, I suddenly felt disconnected with what I was doing. Here I was, so deeply in tune with the nuances of various Mediterranean cuisines, but so out of touch with the food of India, my homeland. Ironically, it had taken me four months of travelling through 36 towns and cities in Europe to realize how ignorant I was of our own country’s vast and varied cuisines. Armed with newfound vigor and an equal measure of guilt, I left my European kitchen and set out on a mission to explore as many regional Indian cuisines as I could.
By the time I set out on my India food trip, I had harnessed considerable culinary contacts across the country. That, coupled with the power of social media, helped me crowd-source not just suggestions and advice in each place I visited but also allowed me to connect with people who could give me deeper insight into local culture and cuisine.
In Coorg, I spent a few days with Nimmi Chengapa at her beautiful homestay called Elephant’s Corridor. Nimmi generously shared her knowledge on Kodava cuisine and taught me how to make dishes like paputtu (a super light, steamed rice and coconut cake) and kaad maange (wild mango curry), convincing me that there’s a lot more to Coorg than just pandi curry! 
During my travels in the northeast, a friend connected me with Naga chef Joel Basumatari, who runs a restaurant in Dimapur. Joel took me on a gastronomic expedition of his hometown, opening my eyes to dishes made with bamboo, smoked pork, multicolored corn, frogs and beef intestines, which I couldn’t possibly have experienced on my own.
In Tuticorin, near the southern tip of Tamil Nadu, I reconnected with a college friend, Anjana. After a fun evening exploring her family-owned saltpans, she introduced me to their ‘night clubs’: late night roadside stalls that serve kothu parotta, a spicy mash-up of flaky, fried parathas, eggs, onions and the previous night’s leftover chicken curry – perfect food for a drunken soul. 
Travelling in India was a little more difficult to execute compared to Europe. I couldn’t find any guidebooks that properly documented regional food in India, and getting from one place to another was either expensive or inconvenient. But what India lacked in accessibility, it more than made up for in sheer diversity. And in that regard, my food experiences during this trip were far more revelatory than the Euro-trip ever was.
I remember queuing up outside Jani Farsan in Surat before the break of dawn (try their famous Surti Locho, a kind of chaat I’d never tasted, made with a steamed mixture of chickpea paste and chutneys. I found out at a military hotel in Bengaluru that the Kannadigas make an excellent masala preparation of boti or goat tripe, which could very easily stand up against an Italian tripe stew.
And then there were the markets! In every place I visited, I was able to find amazing local ingredients that seldom make it to restaurant menus. Drumstick (moringa) leaves in Hyderabad, silkworms in Dimapur, peppercorn leaves in Guwahati, koorka or Chinese potato in Kerala, chhurpicheese and fermented soybean in Gangtok, aam ada(mango ginger) in Kolkata to name a few.
My food travels were by no means exhaustive but they were quite extensive. From deep down south around the backwaters of my home state of Kerala all the way up to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and from the plains of Gujarat to the hills of the North East, I covered 15,000 kilometers.
However, it was rather upsetting to see that while home cooks from an older generation were very rooted to their own cuisines and took pride in them, local restaurants seldom did. It was sometimes easier to find western food in restaurants than local cuisine. This wasn’t the case during my travels in Europe. There, one could quite easily find seriously good local grub, both traditional and modernized with integrity. The chefs and restaurateurs in these places continuously explored the depths to which they could take their native cuisines.
I’d like to believe that such a reverence for one’s own food existed in India too. But somehow, over the years, we’ve forgotten or ignored it. India has such an abundance of culinary wealth both in terms of cuisines and ingredients that remains to be tapped. 
Our food is as diverse as our people and our regions. In Kerala, where I grew up, the cuisine changes dramatically from one part of the state to the other. The Arab-influencedmoplah cuisine in the northern part of the state contrasts starkly with the European-influenced Syrian Christian cuisine in the south. Coastal Kerala boasts an abundance of seafood dishes while in the interiors of the state, meats like beef, pork, duck and quail are more popular. 
Fate would soon bring me to work with chef Floyd Cardoz at The Bombay Canteen, a restaurant that celebrates the regional diversity of Indian cuisine. Our restaurant, coupled with several other outstanding eateries in the country, is now making wholehearted efforts towards a revival of Indian food. Perhaps, for a true appreciation of our cuisines, more of us need to take to the road and travel to the far corners of this incredible country to see and taste for ourselves.
When he’s not on the road in search of the best markets or the most popular local dives, Thomas Zacharias dons the clogs of Executive Chef at The Bombay Canteen.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Chef's Grand Culinary Journey through Europe

This post was first published on December 31st 2015 in Mint Lounge's online portal, http://www.livemint.com
Long before shows like Masterchef Australia had me salivating, it was Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations that stole my heart (I should probably say stomach). Here was a series that chronicled a 50-something chef’s culinary adventures across the globe. Every action-packed episode portrayed him meeting superbly informed local guides, making pit stops at the best eating joints in a city and indulging in one incredible meal after another. 
Green with envy, I too dreamt of travelling like him one day and, in the summer of 2013, I finally set out on my adventure. I started out with an ambitious plan: A four-month sabbatical, hoping to cover as many gastronomic regions across France, Italy and Spain as I possibly could. My reasoning behind such a food-focused trip was two-fold. One, of course, was the lure of having the best food experiences of my life. 
The second reason, though, was far less obvious. I had, by then, finished six years of a predominantly western culinary education, worked at a French restaurant in New York City and helmed the kitchen at a Mediterranean eatery in Mumbai, all without ever having stepped foot in Europe. So this was the culmination of many years of yearning to explore the countries whose cuisines I’d been cooking for close to a decade.
The plan was to travel to over three dozen towns and cities, visit local farmers’ markets and producers, experience the best of street food as well as high-end cuisine, drink my way through the finest wineries and perhaps even apprentice at a few restaurants. 
While a travel show like Bourdain’s definitely had a fixer, I, unfortunately didn’t have that luxury. I also wanted to stay away from group tours and not be restricted to eating and moving about in accordance with someone else’s schedule. 
However, finding great non-touristy food on my own at each destination was extremely difficult. I chose my meals through a combination of guidebooks, website reviews, social media crowdsourcing and suggestions from locals. The formula I used was simple. If at least three out of these four sources recommended a particular restaurant, it usually ended up being fantastic. I made it a point to strike up conversations wherever I went. Whether they were vendors at farmer’s markets or fellow diners at a restaurant, it was these encounters that often led me to the best experiences later.
My itinerary was always limited to a week ahead. I wanted to plan only far enough to find the right places to stay and eat, but remain flexible to last minute changes. Transportation was always by train or road, and stay was either in a hostel or through couchsurfing.
My trip was further enriched by a few well-connected friends and acquaintances. Sarah, a batch mate from culinary school who had prior work experience at wineries across the world, connected me to at least four different boutique winemakers in France and Italy. Heather, a pastry chef I’d met while working in NYC, helped arrange free accommodation in Rome as well as an apprenticeship at a modern Italian restaurant called Settembrini .
I had met Spanish chef Dani Lopez during his visit to Mumbai years ago, and he’d agreed to let me intern at his one star Michelin restaurant Kokotxa if and when I ever made it to San Sebastian. I jumped at this opportunity and spent a week training in his incredible kitchen, cooking food people travelled across the world to come eat.
When it was time for me to leave his city, Chef Lopez coaxed me into extending my stay so that he could take me to his favourite restaurant Casa Urola . It turned out to be perhaps one of the best meals of my life. Planning is essential but it is equally important to leave certain things to chance; you never know where it could lead you, and sometimes that’s a good thing.
In the end, I covered 36 different places and it was a truly magical experience. From sampling a syrupy, 100-year-old balsamic vinegar out of a barrel in Modena to munching on a tripe panini off a street cart in Tuscany; scarfing down escargot in Burgundy and slurping down an authentic bouillabaisse in Marseille; savouring jamón ibérico de bellota in Sevilla to going pintxo bar hopping in San Sebastian, I pretty much did it all by the end of this Bourdain-esque trip. 
Perhaps my biggest learning in those four months was the realization that it is not the price or extravagance that determines the quality of a meal. Cycling 50km to a tiny Spanish town called Albufera to find true Valencian paella was just as special an experience as the exquisite multicourse dinner I had at Osteria Francescana 
Somewhat midway through my travels, at an Indian dinner I cooked up for a couchsurfing host in Bologna, I met an Italian student named Giorgio, who insisted I alter my itinerary and visit him in Verona. A few weeks later, I found myself breaking bread with him and some friends around a bonfire in a small farmhouse on the outskirts of his city. We chatted at length about the journey and my passion to understand the regional diversity of European food. Each one of them embarrassedly admitted that I’d seen more of their home country than they ever had, and suddenly a sense of shame dawned on me. I realized how little I myself had travelled around India and how ignorant I was about regional Indian cuisines. Freshly bitten by the travel bug and overwhelmed by this newfangled guilt, I vowed to change that at the next opportunity I got. And soon enough, less than a year after my epic Euro trip, I quit my job and embarked on yet another food excursion—a two-month long part-research and part-passion project—across India this time.
But that’s a story I’ll save for another day.
When he’s not on the road in search of the best markets or the most popular local dives, Thomas Zacharias dons the clogs of Executive Chef at The Bombay Canteen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Day in the Life of a Restaurant Chef

This post was first published on November 13th 2015 in Mint Lounge's online portal, www.livemint.com

It’s 9am on a Saturday when I get a call from my sous chef Shannon, telling me he needs me at the restaurant urgently. I jump out of bed straightaway. I take a quick shower, get dressed and make myself a cup of coffee, all in a matter of minutes. Having been in similar situations in the past, I’ve perfected the routine into a fine art. Time is so crucial to every aspect of a chef’s worklife that we take that philosophy and subconsciously apply it to life outside the kitchen as well.
I enter the restaurant a few minutes before 10am to find out there are multiple fires that need to be doused. Two of our line cooks have called in sick and our butcher had to be rushed to the clinic because of a bad knife cut. We also have an impromptu corporate group of 40 people coming in, which means that it’s going to be really busy lunch.
I gather all the cooks to the pass for a quick two-minute chat. “The next few hours are going to be insane,” I tell them, “but if we push ourselves a little harder, work smart and help each other out as a team, we’ll do great.” Irrespective of the madness that ensues in the kitchen, I need to make sure the food is top-notch and the guests coming in are completely oblivious of what’s happening on the other side of the pass. Hence a little morale-boosting goes a long way. I finish with, “Oh and don’t forget to have some fun!” 
Shannon starts breaking down the various meats where the butcher left off, while I jump in and help the cooks finish the prep and set up for the afternoon lunch. It finally gets down to the wire but we manage to cover up for the missing cooks and pull off a smooth lunch service. 
By now, fatigue starts to kick in, but my day is only half complete. I move on to working on general follow-ups and making the staff duty roster for the coming week. Suddenly I get a surprise package delivered from one of our patrons, Ujaala. Being an ardent supporter of our philosophy of using obscure regional produce, she thought I’d be interested in some aromatic Gondhoraj lemons she’s brought back from Kolkata. As I start thinking of what we can do with this amazing fruit, the fatigue wanes away. It’s the perfect pick-me-up in the middle of this crazy day.
On my way back to the kitchen, our general manager Devang notices the limes and suggests we try and conceive a cocktail with it. We taste a bunch of different combinations with various spirits and extracts before narrowing in on a winner: gin, house-made orange tincture, Gondhoraj lemon juice and its fragrant zest, shaken with egg whites and topped with soda – our desi version of the classic Ramos Fizz. Since the season for these unique lemons is short, we need to act quickly. We decide to try it as a special tonight to get guest feedback before putting it on the menu tomorrow.
At 6pm, the hostess hands over the reservation sheet for dinner. We have 175 guests on the books tonight. Lunch was just the opening act for the big show: dinner service. I notice Tejal’s name on the sheet and suddenly remember her mentioning her love for lamb brains the last time she dined with us. I immediately send our storekeeper to get bheja from a nearby mutton shop in the hope of cooking up something special for her.
With less than half-an-hour left for dinner service, it hits me that I haven’t eaten all day. One of the biggest misconceptions people have about chefs is regarding their eating habits. In reality, most chefs will admit that they are terribly poor eaters. It’s ironic, but true nonetheless. Today, however, I make it a point to sit down for a proper meal. I serve myself some rice, dal and sabzi and join Suvojit, Joshua and a few other cooks who’re already half way into their early dinner. 
Suvojit has worked with me for over four years, taking into account my last restaurant stint as well. I’ve seen him rise up the ranks from a dishwasher to now being in-charge of the entrée section. Joshua, on the other hand, is a hotel management graduate who spent a few years working at R&D labs and food television shows before joining our kitchen recently. They’re usually competing with each other but today I notice a sense of camaraderie as I overhear them share fun stories of their past kitchen experiences. 
At 7pm sharp, the first guests come in for dinner and the craziness begins all over again. I get that all too familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach which I get every night. It’s not fear or dread but a certain anxiousness and anticipation of what lies ahead. The printer starts humming and a sudden silence falls upon the entire kitchen. “New order, pick up two desi tacos, one arbi tuk, one kejriwal!” I shout out. And here we go again!
As the orders start pouring in, the kitchen turns into an anthill of organized chaos. For the next five hours, hundreds of plates of food are cooked, seasoned, plated, tasted and sent out to the dining room. Tejal’s table is seated a little after 10pm. I cook up a simple bheja fry – lamb brains sautéed with cumin, green chilli, cilantro and lime juice – and send it out to her table. Barring a few orders taking longer than usual, everything goes well and the night passes by in a flash.
The feeling of ‘crushing’ a busy dinner service is incredible. It is the solidarity within the team and the adrenalin rush that keeps us going through the evening. By midnight the kitchen slows down and the last orders are taken. The cooks finally begin to relax a little. Our feet hurt from the constant movement, our bodies ache from lack of rest, and we’re practically brain dead from the multitude of orders we processed. The exhaustion has now kicked in but we somehow derive a vicarious pleasure out of it. It reminds us of who we are, what we do, and how much we love doing it. 
Just before I wrap up and leave for the night, Tejal walks up to the open kitchen pass to tell me how my little gesture made her day. She asks me if we can make the Simple Bheja Fry for her every time she comes in and I tell her we’d love to. Amidst all the madness that happens in a given day, gratification in a professional kitchen is attained in the simplest of ways. Seeing a guest smile after the first bite, figuring out how to incorporate a seasonal ingredient into the menu or watching a young cook learn a new cooking technique, are some of the many rewards that compensate for the challenges and make it all so worthwhile. 
There are so many stimuli I constantly come in contact with every day that I’m on a perpetual high while at work. I have to be able to adopt numerous personas on a daily basis to do my current role justice. Switching from playing teacher to agony aunt, from grocery shopper to food stylist, or from firefighter to mathematician often has to happen within a matter of seconds. There’s never a dull moment. Every day is a new one that brings with it its own set of challenges and rewards. Anything can happen and its that uncertainty that keeps me ticking and makes me want to come back and do it all over again. Until next time then.
Whether he’s playing agony aunt, food stylist, firefighter or mathematician, Thomas Zacharias essentially dons the clogs of executive chef at The Bombay Canteen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Birth of a Dish

This post was first published on October 17th 2015 in Mint Lounge's online portal, www.livemint.com
Remember the last restaurant meal you had where you were genuinely impressed by the chef’s creativity? Ever wondered how those dishes were conceived? What it took to put that particular offering on a plate? There are a lot of things I love about being a chef but creating a new dish is perhaps the most exciting. There is a certain thrill in bringing a plate of food into existence that is quite like a tightrope walk. But it’s not always a rosy affair. A great dish is born out of a lot of thought, hard work, repeated trial and error and most often some good ol’ luck. 
Any new dish begins with an idea and the time it takes from ideation to finally making its way to a menu could range from a few days to even years, in rare cases. Ideas for new dishes constantly going through my head are often what keep me up at night and get me out of bed every morning. Every chef has his own cooking style that continues to evolve over time. The philosophy that drives me is to create honest, local, seasonal and India-inspired food with a ‘no-frills’ approach—nothing goes on a plate unless it’s absolutely necessary. 
The inspiration for a dish can come from anywhere. It could be an ingredient or technique or even an existing dish from a regional cuisine that stirs up one’s creative juices. Consider the Mallu Drumstick Soup, which was first served at an outdoor pop-up dinner we did before The Bombay Canteen opened. The theme for the dinner was modern Kerala cuisine, so off I went to scour the local market for ideas and inspiration. A very quintessentially Kerala ingredient, the drumstick immediately caught my fancy. Usually considered the underdog of vegetables, the drumstick is actually quite flavourful and versatile. I was really keen to showcase it in a unique way and figured that the creamy gelatinousness of the pulp would lend itself very well to a soup. 
The next step was the fun part of the exercise, what we chefs call ‘flavour mapping’. Or in simple terms, figuring out the other elements that would complement the drumstick to make a cohesive dish. 
Now, for the moment of truth – time to test out the combination of flavours I had in my head. Since the direction was towards Kerala cuisine, I made a tadka of coconut oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves and tamarind and added it to the pureed pulp from the cooked drumsticks. But the dish still tasted quite flat. It didn’t have the oomph factor and I knew it needed more work. I spent a couple of days racking my brains. There had to be an ingredient or spice that married well with drumsticks that would help take this soup a few notches up. Sometimes the answer to culinary woes lies in the simplest of solutions. Drumsticks were an integral part of a dish I grew up eating: the sambhar. Voila! I dashed back into the kitchen and tried blending in some cooked toor dal for body, caramelized onions for sweetness and green chillies for that much needed kick. Ah! Now it tasted so much better! 
The next problem was to deal with the flaw in any pureed soup: monotony! Every spoonful ends up tasting the same, which means palate fatigue is inevitable. Enter, the garnishes. At this point I must say, I have a pet peeve with non-functional garnishes, those that have little to do with the rest of the dish and are there merely for decoration and decoration alone. So in this case, I went with crispy moongdal and fried onions. Also why waste those beautiful, leftover drumstick seeds that have a nice crunch and are packed with flavor? A final balancing of flavors with a little salt and jaggery and the Mallu Drumstick Soup was now ready to be served.
The soup was hugely appreciated at the dinner. Most of the guests expected it to be bland and boring so the bold flavors came as a pleasant surprise. When developing the the menu at The Bombay Canteen, this was one of our first dishes listed as it reflected our philosophy and brought to the limelight an Indian vegetable that was so disregarded. 
Sadly, there weren’t many takers for the Mallu Drumstick Soup and we soon took it off the menu.
Creating new dishes for a restaurant is a slightly different ball game than say cooking up something for a party at home. Perhaps it was too out there to serve in a restaurant setting as opposed to the pop-up dinner where all the diners were the adventurous kind. The same dish, which might work in one context, may not necessarily work in another, no matter how good it tastes. Apart from the fact that it needs to be delicious, well rounded and look pretty, there are multiple other factors to consider.
Who are my guests and what do they want to see on the menu? Is the dish approachable and easy to eat? Is it easy to serve and will it travel well from the kitchen to the dining area? How easy is it to prepare from start to finish and will it bring the kitchen team down on a busy night? Are the price of the dish and its perceived value coherent? And will a regular guest feel they’re getting their money’s worth? Does the dish have the potential to bring any emotion or sense of awe to the guest?
It’s one thing to know which questions to ask. Being able to answer them honestly is quite another. Like most creative processes, constantly working on ideas gives rise to more new ones. Most importantly one also has to be sensible and leave the ego behind. Listening to another perspective whether it’s from members of our team or through guest feedback is critical to improving a dish as well as one’s own creative skills. 
I have to come to terms with the fact that there will be hits and misses and that food is often subjective. The bottom line is that you cannot please everyone. So I have to constantly remind myself to not take criticism personally. 
Even the best of dishes have a life span and eventually, it’ll be time to retire a dish. The old must give way to the new and it’s important to not be emotionally attached. Only if I let go of one dish will I get the opportunity to create another, and then do it all over again. And again. Such is the great circle of life, isn’t it?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Why I Became a Chef

This post was first published on September 26th 2015 in Mint Lounge's online portal, www.livemint.com 
The kitchen is a hot, intense and dangerous territory that thrives on organized chaos. There’s something about a busy kitchen that is comforting yet irksome enough to keep you on your toes. The other cooks, much like you, are overworked and underpaid, making them either terminally grumpy or irrationally eccentric! Your chef will not hesitate to scream or insult you for even the slightest of errors on your part – like the dots of vinaigrette around the salad on a plate not being evenly spaced. 
So why would any sane person take it on as a career?
Simply because if you can get past all the hard work, stress and drama and still love the daily grind of being a cook, it is rewarding quite unlike any other profession. You create something everyday —not just anything but meaningful, comforting and delicious food. 
You can also do this in a home kitchen but cooking for friends and family only relies on understanding the basics and applying a certain level of judgment and practicality. Preparing food in a restaurant on the other hand usually demands several intricate steps, juggling a plethora of ingredients and flawless execution from the cook. 
Like many chefs, my love for food and cooking can be traced back to my childhood. I was a relatively quiet kid growing up, timid even. Sports didn’t excite me. These days you would call me an introvert, but back then I was socially awkward, and the thought of speaking in public made me break out in a cold sweat. While my friends were out kicking balls on the field or playing video games, I dreamt of food.
I felt like the odd kid out at the time but in retrospect, I realize I was just different. The one place where I really felt at home was in the kitchen—my ammamma’s kitchen specifically. It was where I could lose my inhibitions, be myself and create something I cared about and also tasted delicious. 
But it was not just about the taste of the food. Here was this marvellous thing that not only satiated appetites but also brought people together unlike anything else. My grandmother’s cooking fascinated me because quite simply, it made people happy. I wanted to be like her, to have that ‘super power’ that gave so many people joy. 
In the late nineties, I decided to plunge into the metaphoric culinary fire and set out on the tough, drawn-out road to becoming a chef. Friends as well as acquaintances from the industry tried to discourage me. “The hours are crazy, it’s terribly stressful and you’ll have no social or family life,” they all said. “Oh and for all the hours you put in, the money is dismal,” someone else would chime in. 
People couldn’t quite understand my wish to make a career doing something I loved. But I was driven by the idea of ‘feeding people happiness’. So much that I believed that my passion would override everything else.
There were no dedicated culinary schools in India back then, so I enrolled in a hotel management course. It seemed to be a ‘left-over’ career option for kids who weren’t good enough to get into engineering or medical school. Most of my batch-mates didn’t care for cooking and even the few that did, ended up changing their line of work. Perhaps only six or seven out of the cohort of 92 at the Welcomgroup College I attended in Manipal went on to become full-time chefs.
For the few of us who persisted, we had to plough through the initial years of drudgery. It wasn’t until I started working at the three-star Michelin restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City that I realized that there is a whole other side to being a cook that was really exciting. The adrenaline rush from putting out hundreds of plates a night, each one made to exacting standards, at the right temperature and at the right time is akin to bungee jumping. Except that you’re doing it six nights a week. 
With every step I took on the culinary ladder, I discovered new challenges and joys in my job. Currently as an executive chef in charge of an entire kitchen brigade, there is never a dull moment. It is not uncommon that half the kitchen team calls in sick, a couple of refrigerators break down and the vegetable supplier is late on his delivery all on the very same day and in all likelihood, it is the busiest day of the week. The speed at which one has to switch from grievance counsellor to grocery shopper or guests relations personnel to accountant is unimaginable. 
Nevertheless I get to nurture young cooks, develop lasting relationships with suppliers, interact with people who truly appreciate food and of course create entirely new dishes. 
Of all the traits one needs to become a better chef and be truly happy in this line of work, being passionate is perhaps the most vital. Passion for food, serving people, the energy of a busy kitchen and leading a team of motivated cooks has its own challenges, and rewards. 
It is this passion that allows me to endure even the most stressful days on the job. As I lie in bed exhausted from a busy Friday night’s dinner service—feet cramped, back aching, missing home and craving some sort of a social life—it’s perhaps the one thing that makes me want to get back to work the next day and do it all over again. 
George Bernard Shaw once said, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” For me personally, cooking for someone is far more gratifying. But then again, Shaw never had the pleasure of being a chef. 
When he’s not travelling in search of new culinary experiences, crooning at karaoke bars or making Indian vegetables sexy on Instagram, Thomas Zacharias dons the clogs of executive chef at The Bombay Canteen.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Burgundy: An Epicurean Journey on Two Wheels

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all began, click here.

While most of the destinations on my extravagant itinerary were centered around food and a few like Champagne were planned with wine in mind, Burgundy was an exception. Known for its rich cuisine and widely regarded as one of the great wine regions of the world, a visit to this part of France was inevitable. I strategically chose Beaune--close to the Cote de Beaune wine region and home to some excellent restaurants-- as my base.

Usually, the first foods that come to mind at the thought of French cuisine are Burgundian-- think coq au vin, beef bourguignon, escargot or Dijon mustard. Though I did find the best places to sample these, the lesser known specialties of the area are what truly piqued my interest.