Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Birth of a Dish

This post was first published on October 17th 2015 in Mint Lounge's online portal,
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, 
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.