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.

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