It’s 11pm. For the last 9 hours I have understood almost nothing that has been said around me. I’m an American chef in a kitchen in Mumbai. I don’t speak Hindi or Marathi and I am beginning to understand just how the Mexican prep cook fresh from Oaxaxa might feel on his first night in Babbo, the New York City restaurant owned by the larger-than-life “Iron Chef” Mario Batali, where I worked for the last three years.
The proof of the paratha…
Tonight I’m working at Khane Khas, a Bandra establishment, as a guest of Hardeep Chadha, the chef and part-owner of the restaurant. I met Hardeep after wandering into his restaurant and enjoying a wonderful meal. We got talking and I told him I’m in Mumbai on a Fulbright Grant to learn about the cuisine of India—a vast and mind-boggling subject. But as a professional chef, I am also fascinated by how kitchens here work. Hardeep, gracious and friendly, invited me into his.
Exploring cuisines: Kazuyoshi Yamada at the tandoor.
Kitchens everywhere are subject to various stresses, usually in the form of absence, particularly of space and time. So they become bastions of ingenuity. This Mumbai kitchen is no exception. No space to put a cutting board, no knife to cut with? I watched chef Sokrum put an onion in his hand and slice it with the shaved-down blade of what used to be a hacksaw. Yes, a hacksaw: the teeth are shaved off, the edge sharpened, and the butt end is stuck into a handle-sized chunk of wood and bound tight. It is called a blade knife and in this case, when used on an onion, the honed blade heads directly towards the cook’s hand; the heel of his palm is used to stop the blade.
Cook by the book
This is not how they teach you to cut in cooking school. In fact, you could be summarily expelled from many kitchens—American and Indian—for doing something that even resembled this. But chef Sokrum had clearly done it many times before. Without flinching or cutting himself, he quickly produced a mountain of uniform onion rings that would make many a school-trained chef jealous. What isn’t absent in Mumbai kitchens is people—and that’s one of the starkest differences between the US and India. Kitchens are heavily staffed. At Khane Khas, for example, cooks leave to help with the harvest at home; sometimes, one-week vacations turn into one-month absences. So, Hardeep carries a large staff. But mostly it seems restaurants here support large staffs because they can. Labour is cheaper in India and useful in a kitchen where more hands can relieve the pressures of time. In the US, where labour is expensive, kitchens run on a skeletal staff, and sometimes less.
The fat’s in the fire
Whatever kitchen you are in, when the dinner rush begins, it is always nice to have an extra set of hands. Tonight, at Khane Khas, as the orders start to pile up, chef Sokrum appears on the sauté line, grabs a pan and begins to cook, hands moving fluidly among his ‘mise-en-place’, adding spices and herbs and aromatics to his pan as he slams it on and off the burner to control the heat. He is in a groove now, and dishes begin to appear in the window faster than waiters can serve them.
I’m over on the grill side, patting and rolling ‘roti’, and falling seriously behind. Narendra steps in and bread production immediately doubles. Chef Anand is manning the tandoor where, with the thinnest bit of cloth to protect his hand, he grabs the screaming-hot kebabs out of the well-stoked tandoor, replacing them immediately with fresh ones. Orders keep coming in and suddenly he runs out of room. He barks a command: the dough seal on the air vent at the bottom of the tandoor is broken, hot coals are removed and transferred by ‘tawa’ to the neighbouring ‘sigiri’ and the vent is quickly sealed again.
In no time, the ‘sigri’ is covered in skewers and the kitchen is starting to hum. Breads are being patted on to tandoor walls as fast as they can be rolled—it seems like one every second, but that cannot be possible, can it? The expediter is yelling out orders, and there is clamour from the waiters and the cooks in Hindi and Marathi and even some Punjabi. I can understand little of what is being said, but it is in the chaos of this moment, when the cooks are busiest and all the moving parts of this beautiful kitchen are in fast and violent motion, that everything I do not know falls away and for the first time all day I feel completely at home.
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