In 1983 after I completed my training in Madras, I was offered a job in the Taj Group of Hotels as a commis in their new project in Bangalore. This was a dream come true for me.
I had always wanted to work for the Taj.
I had worked with the Taj Group previously as a trainee and a part-time cook but this was a full-time Job (with a capital ‘J’).
So, now that I was going full-time, there wasn’t going to be any more peeling onions or potatoes by the bagful. I was past that stage now. This was going to be a full-time job with responsibility!
When we reached Bangalore we were informed that the opening of the new hotel was postponed by about a year and that we were to go to Taj Palace in Delhi for specialization in different key areas of the kitchen.
Super!! That was fine by me. I had always wanted to specialize in handi cooking and making rotis in the tandoor.
This situation was perfect as I knew that the Taj Palace had Chef NP Singh looking after the restaurant, which was aptly named “Handi”, and that NP was a great teacher himself.
So, with great anticipation Deepak Rao, Annadurai and I reach Delhi and promptly report to the executive chef, Ruhaina Jayal, possibly the first female chef of a 5-star hotel at that time.
Chef Ruhaina then asks us to report to Mr Arvind Saraswat who was the corporate chef. Now, Chef Saraswat wasn’t just any other chef, he was the Big Chef. No, he was the Very Big Chef [upper case intended!]. For back then the Taj Bangalore was under his command, along with other hotels in Rajasthan and Madras.
Being under the ‘command’ of such a big chef made me nervous as this was not a part of the original script.
In the lines we’d learned in past performances, we usually just reported to the executive chef and that was the end of the matter. Not, however, any more. I mean, we were no longer apprentices and it was expected that we were to take up responsible positions on our return to Bangalore so we had to report to the Big Chef himself!!
We are summoned, one at a time, into Chef Saraswat’s office. In this office each of us is handed an envelope and asked to move on. “Yes Sir!!” we salute mentally as we’re drilled into action.
As we each open our envelopes we lean excitedly to see what the other is going to be doing.
Deepak gets to specialise in the “continental” kitchen.
Annadurai gets the handi kitchen and I. . . well, I do a double take in disbelief as I get to specialize in the “soup” section.
“What?!!” I think to myself and then say out loud. I’ve never heard anything like that before.
What in the world am I going to tell my Dad, my friends? . . . I am shattered. This wasn’t what I had expected at all!!
I want to quit, but then I calm myself and acknowledge that I don’t want to work for the Oberoi or the ITC or any number of other hotels that are just not in the same league!!
So, I decide to wage war against my inner feelings and I settle down with the idea of becoming the best chef de potage in the world (but I still can’t stop, literally and metaphorically, shaking my head from side to side thinking, “Bl…y h..l”!!).
And it’s right here, at the soup section folks, that I learn my first lesson in cooking and in life. And it’s quite a simple one: don’t have any expectations in life or you will be disappointed. Instead have hope and work damn’d hard for it.
So, I knuckle down and I start my specialization as a soup cook with Chef John.
Work starts at 6 a.m. every day, six days a week and it finishes at 3 p.m. every day.
Soups are made for the entire hotel, around 20-22 different kinds, and they are then delivered to each ‘satellite’ kitchen. I work my a.. off.
But I am not happy. I don’t belong here. Chef John, who is a master craftsman and also a mind reader, though he had no real qualifications to speak of, was a genuinely kind-hearted man for which you can’t gain any qualifications, it has to come from the heart.
“Son,” he says to me “you can always work in any kitchen after you have finished your shift here in the ‘soup kitchen’. You can work in the Indian kitchen, if you wish, or you can work in the garde manger.” As we all know, the garde manger is an unpopular starting point so what do I do?
Well, I opt for. . .
And it’s here that my specialization begins! I am all pumped up even though I start my day at 4.30 a.m. in the morning and finish by 9 p.m.
And guess what? Yes, I love this! I wanted to specialize in the handi and rotis but I am now getting trained in the soup and larder as well.
Which leads me to the second lesson of my cooking life (and life in general!): expect the unexpected!!
Now that my mind is unclouded and I am working hard and long in such a variety of jobs, I am learning a lot much sooner. One of the lessons I’m learning very fast is Chef John’s simple philosophy.
He believes that food cooked in, or with, water is bland and has no shelf life. Instead of water he likes to cook with a stock. He calls it Ganga jal, holy water, and he uses a different stock for every soup that is made in the kitchen. For example, he uses a mild fish stock for all the fish / shellfish soups. He uses a light chicken stock for all the Asian-style soups, and he uses a vegetable stock for all the shorbas.
Now all these stocks were out of this world!
He could be heard screaming in the kitchen, “Betae, Pan pakadne se pahle Chaku Chalaana seekho, Khaana banaane se pahle ‘stock’ banana seekho.” (Which means, “Son, learn to use the knife before you think of using the pan, and learn how to make a stock before you think of cooking a proper dish.”)
Which brings me to a third simple lesson in cooking (and in life): get the basics right before you think of playing the ‘big shots’!
It is here that I learn to make some simple but fragrant stocks, a practice followed to this day in my desi kitchen!!
This week I want to make a simple vegetable stock that will be used to make a simple vegetarian (or vegan) dish…
To make a vegetable stock, or vegetable Ganga jal you simply follow the instructions below. What could be easier?
1. 2 tablespoons moong dal or mung lentils
2. 2 tablespoons masoor dal or red lentils
3. 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
4. 2-3 bay leaves
5. 3-4 cloves with bud intact
6. 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
7. 1 small piece of ginger, roughly chopped
8. 1 small green chilli
9. fresh coriander stalks with roots intact, washed thoroughly
10. 6 lts of cold water
ingredients from left to right: mung lentils, red lentils, bay leaves, peppercorns, fresh ginger, green chilli, cloves, coriander seeds & fresh coriander stalks (centre)
Some simple, but important, points to remember when making a vegetable stock:
1. The stock should never be allowed ‘simmer’ or it will turn the stock ‘cloudy’.
2. Add the spices one at a time, as in our images. This small procedure allows the volatile oils in each spice impart its specific ‘character’ or flavour. Remember, cooking is like a building. You start with one layer and gradually add another on top, in stages!!
3. Add the herbs without crushing them too finely. This allows the flavors to come out gradually.
4. Skim off the scum from the surface at regular intervals. (A full-proof way to do this is to carefully tilt the pot to one side of the flame (heat). Tilting the pot one way means the scum on the surface of the pot will move to the opposite side, making it easier to skim off the surface! Try it, you’ll get the hang of it.)
5. Reduce the stock till the liquid has reduced by about a third, which should give you approximately 2 litres of pure Ganga jal.
Now for the dish.
Well, before we make the dish, tune in next week when we use this Ganga jal to make a simple, but totally flavoursome, vegetarian dish.
Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!