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 moong dal 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?
When he’s not scouring the local vegetable markets or traveling far and wide in search of new culinary experiences, Thomas Zacharias dons the clogs of Executive Chef at The Bombay Canteen.