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Is there something about the pandemic that makes one eat more, and crave incessant variety and excitement at the dinner table? I don’t know what the psychologists may have to say about that, but I know that in my Bengaluru household, not a day goes by when there is no exciting food package coming through the door—freshly cooked or baked or steamed or grilled by an inventive and enterprising home chef.

Sometimes the packages come with sweet little handwritten notes, like the ones my neighbour Arthi sends with her neat, foil-lined, eco-friendly boxes of hot food. At other times, weird requests are accommodated—another neighbour, Sowjanya, who bakes on what I think of as 'the healthy spectrum', said ‘on your head be it’ and, ignoring her every instinct, made me sinful butter-and-maida laden cupcakes because I was craving them.

Dinner last night was Arthi’s railway mutton curry; at tea we had an excellent mushroom quiche baked by Sowjanya, and dinner tomorrow is going to come from across town—from my friend Srobona’s new food venture Tinni Ginni; a spicy miso ramen for the adults and a wild mushroom tagliatelle for my pasta-loving daughter. We just finished the last of Leesona Lawrence’s Naga pork and chicken curries with fiery Raja mirchi, and in the fridge, there’s pandi curry from Curly Sue aka Radhica Muthappa, who runs her slightly older food venture with her husband Uttam (all the others started up during the pandemic).

Pandi curry, pulled pork and bacon jam from Curly Sue
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Pandi curry, pulled pork and bacon jam from Curly Sue

All this is, honestly, just what we had on the table in the past week. Over the past few months, there have been many other talented home chefs whose WhatsApp-ed menus have proved irresistible: Auntie Venus Menon’s appam and stew; Nepali-Tibetan kitchen Gokpo’s hot, cheesy ema datshi; and home-made pickles and sauces from many others. If I open Google Pay on my phone, the most recurring and common payments are those made to home chefs.

Do we ever cook at home? Yes, every day, but who can pass up this smorgasbord? Home chefs, just take all my money already.

Kerala-style prawn fry from Venus Menon's home kitchen Adukkala108
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Kerala-style prawn fry from Venus Menon's home kitchen Adukkala108

Even as we mourn the closure of favourite restaurants and pubs and wonder how the hospitality industry is ever going to get back on its feet, home chefs have kept us well-fed. “I would go to the extent of saying that home chefs have been the superstars of the pandemic," says Radhica Muthappa of Curly Sue. “Not only because the food is almost almost always on point, but because they are cooking for their own families and customers trust the food to be safe." She also points out that during the extended lockdown in April and May, when restaurants were closed, many home chefs went out of their ways to supply food to people who couldn’t cook at home. “Over Easter, almost 50 people reached out to us because they wanted some sort of celebration but were away from families and could not source typical Easter food."

For Leesona, food was a way to keeping her mother’s memory alive. “After she passed away last year, I tried to re-create what she used to make from my memories. I never learnt anything from her as I used to think cooking is not ‘cool’," says the former IT project manager who now runs a school in Kerala. Although she specialises in Kerala food, her interest in cooking has led her to also experiment with recipes from the North-east, and her Naga Chili Pork is a hit.

The enforced time-out of the pandemic has given many the impetus to finally realise the dream of cooking professionally, no matter how small the scale at which they start. “I have always LOVED feeding people food I cooked. It’s a very passionate thing for me," Arthi writes to me on WhatsApp. “It stems from the fact that my grandfather was a great lover of sharing food for joy and my great-grandmother was an AMAZING cook." Earlier this year, Arthi started building a small business from home, making artisanal sauces and slowly developing it into a brand. Along the way, she also started her home-cooking venture, Slice Slice Baby, with an eclectic menu of Asian and European dishes and bakes.

Babka by Slice Slice Baby
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Babka by Slice Slice Baby

The surprise element of home-chef menus—the sense that this is a real person making something because they feel like it or have the right ingredients or have finally perfected a dish—plays a big role in making us go back to them again and again. Keeping a lookout for your favourite dish to appear on their rotating menus is almost a sport. There’s a touch of whimsy and an undiluted warmth to the whole process that our commercially jaded, everything-on-demand palates must have been craving.

When Sowjanya posts ‘Today I am baking lemon tart, only 6 pieces available, anyone wants?" on our apartment WhatsApp group, who can resist saying “Me!"?

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