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.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Strasbourg: German Comfort Food Franco-fied

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

Even in my wildest imagination, I would never have expected to be cycling through a European city at night clad in my chef whites. But there I was, peddling briskly and keeping a constant ten yards behind rainbow girl who was leading the way. When we got to our destination, we were greeted by cowgirl and Captain America who then proceeded to introduce us to Caesar, Attila the Hun and Catwoman among many others.

No, this wasn’t a dream. How did I end up here, you ask? Well

La Petit France with the cathedral in the background

Strasbourg from above

My culinary conquest had eventually taken me to Alsace in the north-eastern corner of France. Strasbourg its capital city located just three kilometers from the German border is representative of everything splendid about the two nations. The cuisine unmistakably steers towards Germanic culinary traditions than French. This makes it very distinctive from the rest of the food in the country-- my raison d'être for visiting the city.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Champagne: Magic in a Bottle

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

Barring its price, I love everything about champagne. The delicate taste, the perfect balance of sugar and acid, the golden hue, the fineness of the bubbles and its ability to pair with any food imaginable.There's no doubt it's a magical thing.

Fully aware of the care and effort that goes into making a bottle, I included as part of my elaborate itinerary in France a detour to Reims, home of the finest producers of champagne in the world. 

By law, champagne can only be made from three grape varietals - pinot noir, pinot meunière and chardonnay. Though the first two are red grapes, most champagnes have a golden-green hue because only the colorless juice from the flesh is pressed. After an initial fermentation and bottling, the wine undergoes a second fermentation within the bottle. Careful aging for a minimum of 18 months at controlled temperatures and humidity levels and the interaction between the wine and the yeast produces both the delicate flavors and the bubbles which are characteristic of champagne.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Normandy: A Seafood Diet

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

Boom! It was the night of 6th June 1944. Nearly a quarter of a million troops had landed on the shores of Normandy in a secret operation of retaliation against the German occupation of France. The number of casualities were so high and the losses to both sides so catastrophic that the incident was henceforth referred to as D-Day.

Standing on one of the D-Day beaches near Caen, it wasn't hard to picture what went down on that fateful night. Though I haven't in any way been directly affected by the incident, it was hard not to feel for the thousands who lost their lives.

D-Day Beach


But this was a happier time and there were lots of things to be thankful for. For one, it was scallop season in Normandy, the leading region for the bivalve mollusks in France.

I love scallops almost as much as I love bacon. For those who know me personally, you know how much I love bacon and what that statement implies-- I sleep with a few rashers under my pillow every night.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Saint-Malo, Brittany: Fortress on the Sea

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.


Having conquered Paris, I set out to explore the rest of France. Like in Italy, the plan was to visit at least one town or city in each region known for having its own unique style of cuisine. While my route in Italy was mostly linear and easy to navigate, France was a bit more of a challenge owing to its hexagonal anatomy.

I decided to begin in Brittany in the north western tip of the country and then work my way clock-wise through Normandy, Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy, Rhone-Alps, Provence, Acquitaine and the French Basque country, collectively clocking a distance of nearly 3000 kilometers in three weeks. 

Of the several options I had in Brittany, I picked Saint-Malo mainly because of my affinity for the sea. Saint-Malo was unlike other fishing ports I had previously visited on this trip. In fact, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

Jutting out ever so slightly into the sea, this walled fortress city with its medieval charm was remarkably easy to fall in love with. There was an unmistakable smell of fresh oysters permeating the air and the beaches surrounding the city were so flat that I could tread several hundred meters inwards during low tide.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Paris: How to Live Like a Parisian

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

France, the country that gave the world champagne and camembert, cinema and haute couture. It's a nation that boasts of exquisite art, remarkable architecture and the most influential cuisine on the planet.

I had spent the better part of six years of my culinary education studying its food and wine, albeit from the outside. This was my opportunity to taste the revered cuisine and all its regional variations at the source, and visit the temples of gastronomy that I 'd been trained to worship.

My first stop was Paris, capital of all things elegant and chic, suave and sophisticated. Just a mention of the name evokes images of grandeur and finesse. 

With a social system that guarantees free healthcare and education and provides benefits during unemployment and retirement, the quality of life in France is perhaps better than any other country on earth. Paris with its beautiful public spaces, excellent transportation facilities and easy accessibility offers a whole lot more.

Atop Cathedral Notre Dame

Food and wine were still my number one priority but I had a specific mission here. I wanted to experience what it meant to be a Parisian. I was determined to get to the crux of daily life in this city and to not just witness the French art de vivre but also practice it.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Piedmont: Unearthing the Truffle

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

Tartufo. Even the name has a precious ring to it, doesn't it? It is perhaps the most expensive ingredient in the world and having previously worked with truffles, I felt it important to visit the region that boasts of having the world's best kind.

The town of Alba is particularly renowned for its white truffles, which are rarer and dearer in price than their black counterparts. It is also just a few kilometres away from Barolo and Barbaresco, which are among the top wine producing regions in Italy-- definitely enough reason to pay a visit.

White truffles

Truffles have a pungent fragrance akin to fresh earth soon after the first rainfall; the aroma of a good quality fresh truffle will permeate through a room instantly. While it is dry, crumbly, and almost tasteless when eaten on its own, thin shavings of truffle when added to a salad or atop pasta provide a certain umami-like flavor that mirrors it's aroma.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Verona: When Food Saved the Day

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

Every now and then, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. In my case, it was about time it did considering my travels had been flawless so far.

The first hitch happened minutes after I reached the city. I had decided to walk the three kilometre stretch from the train station to the Airbnb apartment where I was to be put up. As usual, I was trying to save two euros on a bus ticket only to later spend sixty at a good restaurant-- I had my priorities right.

The beautiful Verona!

Suddenly, one of the wheels of the suitcase I'd been lugging around came off its socket. My 30 kg three-month old American Tourister was now just a heavy box I was compelled to carry.

Then came the email from the wine importer who was supposed to show me around. Something important popped up and she had to leave town for a few days.

It also didn't help that the forecast for the following 48 hours called for intermittent rains.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Venice: Off the Beaten Canal

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

With its  fairytale of narrow bridges, colorful piazzas and breathtaking architecture, Venice is arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is surely the most romantic. Once I delved a little deeper into the city, I found that it's also a whole lot more.

The seaside near Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco

Nothing really prepares you for this floating city. Not the guidebooks or websites or even traveler hearsay. If you ever thought love at first sight was a delusive metaphor, Venice will surely change your mind.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Bologna, Modena & Parma: Will Surf For Food

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

Perhaps from a culinary point of view, I was most excited about traveling to the region of Emilia Romagna. Or more specifically to Bologna, Modena and Parma. Situated just 50 kilometers from each other, even tourists seldom visit these cities for anything apart from their gastronomic delights.

View of Bologna from Torre degli Asinelli

Bologna is renowned for it's ragu (known to the rest of the world as bolognese sauce) and tortellini; Modena for its balsamic vinegar; and Parma for its parmigiano reggiano and prosciutto di Parma. As a chef who's worked extensively with these products and recipes for years, this was a field trip to food heaven.

Given that I'd relied on hostels and sponsored accommodation until this point, I decided to try something different. Couchsurfing is an online platform that connects 'surfers' like myself who are looking for a couch to sleep on with locals who can spare one.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Tuscany: Serendipity on a Plate

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

The word 'Tuscan' evokes a sense of charm and rightfully so. It conjures up images of picturesque vineyards, rolling hillsides, rustic Italian farmhouses and exquisite architecture. My experiences in Tuscany however left me associating it with yet another word- serendipity.

Fate led me to Tasso, a very aesthetically designed hostel which captures the essence of Tuscany. The owner Romina is a renowned photographer, an experienced blues-soul singer and to my luck, a fantastic culinary guide. When I introduced myself as a chef, she insisted that I join her on a tour of the gastronomic opulence of Florence. She spent an entire morning feeding me through the main market and some fantastic bakeries and salumerias nearby.

I was adamant about visiting the wine region of Chianti but equally hesitant since it wasn't very easily accessible. Lorenzo who I met at the bar in Tasso suggested that I rent a Vespa-- Italy's favorite scooter-- and I concurred.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Capri: Breathtaking Redefined

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

Since I'd traveled all the way down to Naples, I decided to exploit one of the many day trip options from the city. I was spoilt for choice and had to turn down Pompeii, Herculaneum, Sorrento, Amalfi and Mount Vesuvius.

As great as my journey had been so far, it had been a lot to take in. I'd been away from home for nearly a month and a half and I needed a vacation from my vacation. Capri was just the perfect place.

Located just forty minutes away, Capri was a distillation of beauty unlike anything I've ever experienced. There aren't many such places where mountain and sea harmoniously merge to constitute one exquisite island.

Pebbled beachside near Marina Grande

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Naples: Peculiarity Breeds Intrigue

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

Forgetting the stereotypes about Naples--that it's unkempt, shady and crude-- was important. In reality, it was. However, once I was able to look beyond all that, muffle the noise and breathe in the local culture, I found it to be endearing, charming and almost addictive.

Perhaps no other city in all of mainland Italy is as peculiar as Naples. Several corners of the city are adorned with baroque and gothic architectural marvels, but the real charm lies in the narrow cobbled-stoned streets in the centre. The small, closely-set apartments colored in different shades of yellow, green and burgundy house the majority of Neapolitans.

It is here where grandmothers gossip amongst each other while teenagers zip by in scooters; where miniscule balconies double up as laundry lines and gardens, and homes literally open on to the street giving passersby a front row seat into life in a Napolitan household. This raw vigour is synonymous with Naples and Naples only. It resonates throughout the city; in its shops and restaurants, markets and piazzas

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Rome: What Makes a City Truly Great?

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

Though I've lived in over half a dozen cities including Mumbai and New York, I have always been baffled by this question. What makes a city truly great? Is it the fact that it facilitates a melting pot of cultures and people? Is it the luxury of convenience it lends? An efficient network of transportation perhaps? Or maybe the bounty of quality food and entertainment has something to do with it?

I finally found some answers in Rome, the first destination on my three month itinerary across Italy, France and Spain.


The magnificient Colosseum

Friday, September 6, 2013

'D' for Dublin... and Duality

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

Dreary. Drunken. Dangerous. Depressing. Dublin.

Some people consider Dublin to be a dirty kip of a place with drunkards and drug addicts, petty crime, a struggling economy and miserable weather year round. I must admit that I wasn't jumping at the prospect of visiting the city let alone spend nearly a week there. After all, Dubh Linn literally translates to 'black pool'!

Nevertheless, when my high school friend who is settled there insisted I visit and promised to change my mind about the city, I obliged.

Looking beyond the negatives that form Ireland's poor reputation however was not easy. I had to turn a blind eye to the class antagonism prevalent in the city and forget labels like skangers, tinkers and knackers; erase the sight of pregnant teenagers smoking right outside Rotunda Hospital; even hold my belongings close when I crossed over to the 'North side'. Dublin is also a very expensive city and public transportation is nothing short of a joke.

Lamb shanks, portobello risotto, sea bass in mustard beurre blanc, etc.

Whether the strong drinking culture emanates from a history of extreme poverty, shame (yes, look it up!), starvation or bad weather is irrelevant. On the night I cooked an elaborate, three-course meal for my hosts and their friends, there was enough alcohol consumed to get a small village drunk. The ease and speed with which these Dubliners switched from cocktails to wine to whiskeys and liqueurs was overwhelming even for someone who was brought up in the most 'drunken' state in India!

Between pub crawling through Temple Bar and tasting Irish whiskey at the Old Jameson Distillery, I managed to briefly step outside the city. Trips to Glendalough in the Dublin Mountains as well as the fishing town of Howth, both just an hour away, left me awestruck. Very few cities can boast of having not only a glorious seaside but also breathtakingly beautiful mountains both within arm's length.

En route to Glendalough, Dublin Mountains

Wicklow Mountains National Park, Glendalough

Beautifully sunny day at Howth

Meal at Le Bon Crubeen

Traditional Irish food, like British, predominantly focuses on wintery dishes like stews and braises. Meats especially pork and lamb and potatoes usually find its way into every household meal. Seafood is quite popular in the coastal areas.

Like most cuisines around the world, the past few decades have witnessed the emergence of a contemporary Irish cuisine based on traditional recipes being reinvented. The emphasis is on clear flavors, presentation and finesse. Restaurants like Chapter One, L'Ecrivain and Le Bon Crubeen in Dublin have made giant strides in this respect. Being an international city, it also has its fair share of ethnic cuisines like Chinese, Indian, Korean, Mexican, American, Italian and Middle-eastern.

Dublin is a quaint, beautiful city. With a host of museums, churches and historic houses to visit and pubs that come abuzz with live music every night, there is never a dull moment. Dubliners in general are some of the friendliest people in the world who will welcome you into their fold with a smile and a pint. Good food and drink are in abundance. 

So in the end, I did change my mind about the place. Of course, the fact that four out of the five days I was there were wonderfully sunny and warm may have had something to do with it.

Dependable. Defiant. Distinct. Dauntless. Dublin. 

Irish Lamb Stew
Serves 4
Difficulty: Easy
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 90 minutes

Irish Lamb Stew

This one-pot classic is easy and inexpensive to make and perfect when the temperature drops a bit. It is already a wholesome meal on its own but you can serve it with rice or crusty bread as well.


2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 kg stewing lamb, cut into large chunks
½ cup refined flour 
2 strips streaky bacon, diced
1 each onion, cut into large dice
2 tablespoons leeks, chopped
1 tablespoon garlic cloves, finely chopped
3-4 cups beef or chicken stock
3 each bay leaves
3 each thyme sprigs
1 cup baby carrots
1 cup potatoes, cut into large cubes
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
to taste salt
to taste black pepper

Preheat the oven to 180 C. 

Dry the lamb with paper towels and season generously with salt and pepper. Dust flour on the chunks and shake off the excess. Heat the oil in a large casserole or oven proof pot. When the oil is very hot, add the lamb to the pot making sure not to overcrowd it. Brown the lamb on all sides and remove it with a slotted spoon.

Add the bacon to the pot and allow to brown. Add the onion, leeks and garlic and sauté for a few minutes till it starts to brown. Add the browned lamb chunks, bay leaves and thyme sprigs and enough boiling stock just to cover the lamb. Season with salt and pepper.

Cover the pot and cook in the preheated oven for about half an hour. Remove the pot from the oven, give the stew a stir and add the carrots and potatoes.  Return the pot to the oven and cook for another hour till the lamb is tender. Taste and adjust the seasoning one last time and serve hot sprinkled with chopped parsley.

Alternatively, you can also cook this stew on the stovetop but make sure you keep it at a simmer as boiling it will toughen and dry out the meat.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Chef and His Dream

It was in the autumn of 2009 when I found out I hadn't won the Kopf Scholarship. Winning would have meant a fully paid six-week trip across France, Italy, and Spain with organized visits to wineries and meetings with chefs and local farmers. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I was devastated to have missed out on it. Nevertheless, I vowed to myself that very same day that I would make it a realization. 

Each of our lives constitutes certain events that we realize are life-changing only in retrospect.

At the age of thirteen, after enduring several years of misery in a school I felt offered me nothing substantial, I successfully persuaded my parents to transfer me. I'm glad I did because I would probably have remained a shy, introverted, dispassionate fellow otherwise.

In high school, when I decided to I wanted to become a chef, several people including some from within the restaurant industry advised me against it. They warned me about the long hours, the high levels of stress and the fact that I would be giving up any chance of a normal life. I remained persistent.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Birth of a Dish

As a professional chef, I don many hats during the daily course of my work. The speed at which I have to switch from being a grievance counselor to a grocery shopper or a guest relations personnel to accountant is akin to that of a chameleon. As creepy as that sounds, its true.

However, the role that most distinguishes me as a chef is that of a creator. To me, the true measure of a chef is his level of creativity. A chef who doesn't conceive new dishes is arguably not a chef in the truest sense of the word. It wasn't until I was assigned to my current role at the restaurant two years ago that I got the opportunity to do this. So I consider myself a tadpole in this regard.

It is however far fetched to think that even the best chefs develop completely new recipes. Most dishes are merely combinations of ingredients to which different techniques are applied--a plethora of permutations that are delicious and appeal to diners.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Power of Taste

Nearly every cook’s primary intent is to satiate others thereby satisfying his own desire to make them happy. In the process however, he must sacrifice the hunger to consume his own creation.

This is perhaps the biggest irony of cooking. That the cook seldom has the appetite to eat what he has just prepared. The more difficult, prolonged or meticulous the cooking, the lesser is the appetite. This is the cook’s curse of selfless selfishness.

Nevertheless, professional chefs need to believe in the power of tasting during the cooking process as often as is needed or is possible. Something as simple as a plate of pasta can taste completely different even when made by the same cook during the same night. The difference between a good dish and a great one could be just a pinch of salt. So it's important to taste, taste, and yes you guessed it, taste again.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Brave New Foods : Excerpts from my Culinary Workshop at Kala Ghoda Fest 2013

"How many of you are guilty of ordering the same dishes over and over again at the favorite restaurants that you frequent?"

This was the opening line at the culinary workshop I conducted as part of the Kala Ghoda Fest on 8th February this year. Out of a crowd of about 100 people, only a handful refrained from raising their hands as if to validate their status in society as true foodies. I wasn’t surprised. As a chef who stands behind the kitchen doors of a fine dining Mediterranean restaurant night in and night out, I am well aware that even with the sophisticated clientele that we get, an appetite for something new is a rarity.

Pan Seared Foie Gras with Homemade Brioche and Spiced Strawberry Compote 
So when the Kala Ghoda Fest organizers informed me that the central theme for this year is 'Appetite for Change', I decided immediately to use it as a platform to make my plea to the public at large—and with this blog post, to you as well.

Brave new foods.

Yes, that’s my plea. Brave in this context is a verb and not an adjective. By which I mean that I am not referring to the food being adventurous but making an appeal for customers to be willing to try something different.

The mantra I suggest for this exercise is--“I will always try something at least twice.”

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

All You Have to Lose is Your Waistline

If I had a rupee for every time I ordered hot chocolate at a café or restaurant and was served an awful cup of cocoa that was milky, flavorless and made with Cadbury's cocoa powder, I would probably have enough money to buy out Lindt or Valrhona by now.

Over the years, I have never understood why nobody makes good hot chocolate in India. One of my theories used to be that all hot chocolate serving establishments mirror the ideology that what people find most comforting is what we grew up with. I still distinctly remember the taste of steaming hot 'drinking chocolate' (courtesy Cadbury's) that's comforted me on many a rainy monsoon afternoon. And I'm thankful for that.