W hy are there no iconic Indian chefs?
I like chefs. I like that they obsess about things such as plating and garnish; things that even the most ardent restaurant-goer is blissfully
ignorant about. I like that chefs are in the business of providing immediate gratification. They prepare the food and, if it is good, patrons are happy. It is a simple but straightforward equation.
Great chefs have several things in common. They care about details; they have an encyclopedic tongue that stores tastes and textures to be reused at will. They work long hours and curse a lot. And they are, at least in India, unsung heroes of the leisure business. Nobody knows who they are or what they are about. They toil in the kitchens with little acknowledgement. The Taj Group, thankfully, has started to change the scenario with its lush black-and- white ads featuring some of its best chefs: Ananda Solomon tossing a salmon; Hemant Oberoi jumping on a bed.
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Turning a chef into a personality is a double-edged sword. It allows the chef to be larger than the establishment he works for and gives him the courage to leave the fold. That is probably why most five-star hotels have not put their chefs on the centrefold or promoted them as stars. With a couple of exceptions, I don’t know of a single Indian chef who is a distinct brand. We have chefs who are cookbook celebrities—Sanjeev Kapoor is one. We have famous restaurateurs—Rahul Akerkar and A.D. Singh being the most successful examples. And we have chefs who create a line of products—Karen Anand, a columnist for Mint, is one. But ask me what these chefs and restaurateurs ‘stand’ for and I’d be hard-pressed to give an answer.
In contrast, Alice Waters, perhaps the pre-eminent diva of American cooking, stands for something. People hear her name and immediately know what to expect in her restaurant. They know that her commitment to local farmers and organic produce will remain year after year, even if her recipes and menus change. Similarly, Tom Colicchio, who created the Craft line of restaurants, stands for reducing ingredients to their most basic. His menu at Craft simply lists ingredients and ways of cooking them. Thomas Keller stands for long-drawn-out meals and perfectionist cooking, as his French Laundry attests. Jean-Georges does Thai-infused French food. And Ferran Adria stands for innovation and foam.
The other aspect of creating iconic chefs has to do with a vibrant food press (and I don’t mean a mixie or a blender). Objective third parties such as New York City’s Zagat Survey, or the Michelin Guide, or magazines such as Bon Appetit and Gourmet help a great deal in raising the culinary sensibilities of restaurant-goers. They define the parameters of ‘greatness’ and foster it. Even so…
In order to solve the mystery of why there are no iconic Indian chefs, I called a couple of chefs in my hometown, Bangalore, and asked them. “Being a chef is still not considered chic in India,” said Sandeep Kachroo, who helms Taj West End’s kitchens. Bangalore-based Kachroo is a man who experiments with foam, fries squash blossom flowers for the Sunday brunch buffet at his Mynt restaurant and dabbles in Lebanese, Italian and South Indian cuisine, which are about as different from one another as possible. In spite of his sophisticated culinary sensibility, he thinks it will be a while before an Indian chef even attempts to become an icon.
Abhijit Saha, the talented chef/ director at The Park, Bangalore, lucidly lists the criteria needed for a chef to become an icon. An iconic chef, says Saha, should have an in-depth knowledge of his country’s cuisine; should have trained under one or more iconic chefs; have international experience; be media savvy; write a cookbook or two; have a couple of signature fine-dining stand-alone restaurants; host a TV show. I would dare you to name a single Indian chef who fulfils all these criteria. But the fact that Saha has compiled such an ambitious list gives hope.
“Until recently, it was not financially viable to have a fine-dining signature restaurant outside the premises of a five-star hotel,” he says. The problem with working for a five-star hotel, of course, is that the hotel brand remains larger than the chef.
Becoming a brand requires commitment, time and effort. One could argue that Indian chefs lead hectically busy lives. They simply don’t have the time to think up esoteric philosophies of food. The best chefs here work within the constraints of a five-star kitchen and the broad clientele to which they cater. Their employers don’t allow them the luxury of experimenting with food. “As long as I cook tasty food that falls within the parameters of what our restaurant stands for, my boss is happy,” said one young chef who works at the Oberoi.
As it happens, this young man is very interested in ancient recipes of Indian soups. His dream is to open a healthy soup-and-salad place, an Indian version of a French bistro. The tragedy is that he cannot persuade his employer to fund his passion.
Yet, it is precisely this sort of benevolent employer who can mentor, guide and, yes, fund talented young chefs to take Indian restaurant cooking to the next level.
Shoba is waiting to encounter an iconic Indian chef. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org