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Star chef Massimo Bottura.
Star chef Massimo Bottura.

For star chefs, pandemic pared away unnecessary flab

  • Covid-19 is the biggest threat to fine dining, say chefs

Put two Michelin-starred chefs on a stage, even a virtual one, with one of India’s most innovative chefs, and the conversation is likely to be full of spice.

“Jesus Christ," was Italian restaurateur and three-star Michelin chef Massimo Bottura’s reply to Delhi-based Ritu Dalmia’s question about a historical figure he’d like to cook for. “But he was starving," Dalmia exclaimed. “I know. That’s why I want to make the best piece of bread ever, break it, and share it with him," Bottura explained.

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At the 18th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Thursday, Dalmia was in conversation with Bottura and Gaggan Anand, a Michelin-starred, Bangkok-based chef. The trio discussed how they dealt with an unusual year, the relevance of restaurants today, and the way covid-19 changed their work and food.

For Anand, the lockdown was “a perfect break" since it gave everyone a chance to rediscover cooking.

“Cooking an egg seemed difficult in the modern world of workaholics. But over the last few months, people have been baking bread at home," he said, adding it has also made patrons more cognizant of the importance of chefs and the hard work they put in to prepare food day in and day out.

Anand believes this is an important realization in a country like India, where cooking as a profession ranks low down, way below doctors and engineers.

Last year, he shuttered his two-Michelin-star restaurant Gaggan after a dispute with his partners. As 2019 drew to a close, he opened Gaggan Anand in Bangkok, but was forced to close it temporarily within months due to the covid-induced lockdown.

“Covid-19 is the biggest threat to fine dining. Friends who graduated from hospitality college with me in India in the late 1990s are now jobless. I am lucky to be in Thailand where the effect of the pandemic has not been so severe," he said.

Anand’s main concern has been securing the future of his 65 employees.

Bottura, on the other hand, spent a great deal of time questioning the purpose of a restaurantin the 21st century. His home country, Italy, was one of the worst affected in Europe by the pandemic.

He runs Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, and a non-profit, Food For Soul, which feeds the hungry and prevents food wastage.

“What is a restaurant now? Is it a place to have a meal, or is it a place to learn and discover? Is it a place where cultures are shared? I always thought of my restaurant as a laboratory of ideas. A place to promote culture, connect to agriculture, learning and growth. These connections are important to us because they keep us linked to our communities and our world. It reminds us that a restaurant doesn’t exist just to serve a meal," he said.

When Bottura refers to culture, he doesn’t mean poetry and art but a space to understand life and human relationships with the natural world.

“It could be as simple as asking ‘where does food come from’ and ‘who cooks the food," he said. And it all begins at home, in the kitchen by cooking simple family meals, so that one understands and respects ingredients, he added.

When Dalmia asked what is the one ingredient he hates, he replied, “I don’t hate any ingredient. I hate arrogance."

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