Between your Pierre Hermé and Marco Pierre White, your Gordon James Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck, India too is bubbling over with cooking legends who not only practise outstanding gastronomy, but also have turned themselves into megabrands (read: Vikas Khanna.) And while female chefs in India are equally responsible for some of the most celebrated and highly acclaimed restaurants, the spotlight just doesn’t shine on women the same way it does on male chefs. So let’s hear it for the badass ladies of the country’s best kitchens. From head chef to pastry chef, we chatted with four female culinary whizzes you should definitely know. – Anisha
Cracking the Code
A culinary expert, food consultant, food blogger, TV show host, and the author of a cookbook, Picky Eaters, Chef Rakhee Vaswani is as renowned for her sunny outlook as she is for her complex and elegant dishes. Despite a somewhat manic schedule, the culinary star found time to chat with us about cooking for her family, her multi cultural influences and her new project – Palate Culinary Academy.
Was it a conscious decision to become a chef, or did you fall into it?
I was always interested in food, but it wasn’t until I was around 11 that I realised I’m blessed with a strong palate. I knew I could competently go into the kitchen and cook something delectable with the help of my mum, aunts and neighbours. Though aware of my capabilities and passion at a young age, coming from a Sindhi background I had no formal training. But I always found solace in the kitchen, and picked up tricks and traits from home chefs.
I then met my husband, who is a connoisseur, and it is because of him that I discovered a whole new journey in food. He made sure I received formal training, which is how my journey began. I went from being a self-taught chef, to receiving a ‘Le Cordon Bleu’ certificate, and working with French chefs and invading kitchens globally. Even though I wasn’t working in the food industry, I was working towards it!
What is your philosophy on food and dining?
I have only one funda that has always worked for me and I’m sure it works for others whose work is appreciated: cook with love. If your main ingredient of love hasn’t been added to the food, if there is no passion and emotion involved while cooking, even the most exotic dish will not taste good. Also, presentation is one thing that lures people. Anything that is visually appealing to the human eye already tastes good according to the human brain!
What is it that makes Indian food stand apart from other world cuisines?
Our masalas, our simplicity in disguise, our ease with fusion, our trend-setting forte; and the biggest USP – the variety of flavours found in our dishes is globally loved and acknowledged.
Since you’ve pretty much accomplished all the food dreams an up-and-coming chef might have, what are your plans now?
The launch of Palate Culinary Academy in Bandra West was my dream-come-true moment. We are the first centre certified by the Confederation of Tourism and Hospitality (CTH) in India, which enables students to enrol in a UK-certified culinary diploma course. We are also the first-ever centre in India to provide a UK – certified vegetarian course to food enthusiasts. In addition, we offer a UK – certified patisserie diploma course. I also want to start a culinary college; hence we have tied up with the Thadomal Shahani School of Management.
What was the last thing you cooked that didn’t quite turn out as planned?
I have created a lot of accidental masterpieces that I’m proud of. Since fusion is my forté, it’s usually accidental or experimental. One of my favourites is the Mysore Pak fusion recipe I invented in my show, Rewind with Rakhee. I used Mysore Pak as the base for a cheesecake, and added ghee to bind the base instead of butter – it tastes fantastic.
Do you have any food-related superstitions?
I am very particular about not taking a knife from someone else’s hand.
Stepping up to the Plate
For Chef Shipra Khanna, interviews have become an endemic part of her life. In an ice-breaking session with You & I, Shimla’s celebrated chef talks about food and its spirit, her love for Indian cuisines, and how she finds it fun and energising to continue learning alongside her team.
What have you learned in the years you have been in the food industry?
I am still learning. I like to challenge myself and I believe that’s the only way you’re going to move forward and do better.
What is the most fun you have had as a chef?
Whether I am writing books, shooting, travelling or working in the restaurant, I make sure that my team and I have a great time, as work becomes more fun if we enjoy doing it! It’s energising. It makes it all worth it at the end of the day.
What misconceptions do people have about Indian cooking and how would you like to change that?
A lot of people internationally think that Indian food is very spicy and consists of only curries. To the contrary, Indian food is more than that. Which is why when I prepare a menu for the Indian or international set, I make sure to include dishes that display authentic Indian culture and tastes.
What influences do you think/hope you have had on Indian cuisine?
Our cuisine is very vast. Since my recipes are influenced by a multicultural background, and have been loved and admired since MasterChef India, you will see many fusion dishes that have international influences in my restaurant, Darzi Bar in Connaught Place, Delhi. There is a lot to learn and offer, and I would like to think I’ve got a few more people into their kitchens at home.
What’s your methodology for crafting a new dish for your tasting menu?
I have a simple rule, it has to be original in taste, and presented beautifully on the plate.
If you had to pick one, what would be your last supper?
If I had to have my last supper, I think it would have to be a loaf of bread and a bottle of red wine.
The one culinary trend you wish would die a slow and painful death?
Culinary trends can die a natural death and not a painful one. It’s only painful for people to try a trend that’s potentially dead before it starts.
After a hectic night in the kitchen, what’s your favourite post-shift snack and drink?
There are so many, but nothing beats bread and butter.
They say there’s no better way to tease one’s senses but with a carefully curated wine and food pairing. That’s why we absolutely love The Bar Stock Exchange in Mumbai. The culinary team there, led by Executive Chef Kshama Prabhu, can effortlessly whip up dishes along with drinks that are consistently pleasing. We chatted with Kshama – who previously worked at The Boxwood Cafe, Gordon Ramsay’s multi-Michelin-starred restaurant – to find out what inspires her creations.
Describe your style of cooking?
My style of cooking is contemporary. I believe in using old techniques and blending them together to create new window dishes.
Do you have any particular childhood memories that reflect your love for food as a chef?
The fact that my mother is an excellent cook and my grandfather was into catering was my greatest support. I remember during Ganesh Chaturthi, I used to linger around the kitchen to learn all the authentic dishes that used to be prepared only on festive occasions.
What are the best and worst things about being a chef?
The best thing is that you can only be a chef if you are passionate enough and enjoy the adrenaline rush you get in the kitchen. The downside is that there are many compromises one needs to make. We can’t spend much time with our loved ones and enjoy festivals. But when you see a guest walking away knowing they have had excellent food and that we have met all of their expectations, it’s truly worth it.
When preparing a tasting menu, how do you modify your culinary techniques to establish a better wine-food relationship?
With any menu, it’s important to have a balance in flavours. So when we are pairing, what happens is there is a lot of trial and error! We tweak, taste, and tone the dish to suit the accompaniments. You have to make a dish based on the quality of the wine notes.
Is there one piece of equipment in the home kitchen that people should invest good money in?
I believe people should definitely invest in a good microwave oven.
How do you choose whether to use local ingredients or imported ones?
I generally prefer using local ingredients, but depending on the product availability, demand and season, we decide whether to use imported.
As a chef, what would you say are the most overrated ingredients?
Kale and quinoa.
What’s your favourite childhood dish?
My grandmother used to make amazing idiyappam, coconut milk and jaggery dip.
Three ingredients you can’t live without?
Garlic, mushrooms, and butter.
One celebrity whom you’d love to cook dinner for. And what would it be?
Sachin Tendulkar. He’s a big foodie and I would love to cook hyper-local food with seafood for him.
The Sweet Life
Pooja Dhingra owes a lot to cupcakes and macarons. At Le 15 Patisserie, her first patisserie, she sells hundreds and thousands of orders a year – and brings new life to the neighbourhood. Now, five patisseries and cafés later, Pooja’s work is synonymous with Mumbai’s culinary renaissance, presenting a vibrant and vast community throughout her region and beyond. We caught up with the celebrity pastry chef on how she became a chef, and how her upbringing seeps its way into every dish she crafts.
How did you decide to become a pastry chef?
My earliest baking memory is of making brownies with my aunt when I was six years old. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and joined law school, and that lasted for about two weeks. I realised that law wasn’t for me and I moved to Switzerland to study hospitality management at Cesar Ritz Colleges.
What is it about your upbringing that resonates most strongly with you?
I grew up in a family that is obsessed with food. My father owned a Mexican restaurant when I was growing up, and I spent all my summer holidays at the restaurant. My mother is a home baker, and watching her bake rubbed off on me. My family never let me give up. From listening to my crazy and impossible ideas, to actually help me fulfil them, they have been my biggest inspiration.
In such a male-dominated industry, how can more women be encouraged to enter the profession?
Every industry is difficult and has its own challenges. Follow your gut, work hard and don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot achieve. The young market and large market have plenty of room for innovation and new ideas.
Is anything you learned at Le Cordon Bleu particularly applicable to your menu now?
A lot of things. Starting with the basics of baking, like always keeping things at room temperature and making sure the oven is on the right temperature. All these have helped me directly and indirectly.
What’s your methodology for crafting a new dessert for your tasting menu?
I take inspiration from travel. A trip to New York led to our Cheesecake Special menu. When I came back from Japan, we made everything matcha in the kitchen – cookies, macarons, cakes…everything!
Do you have a favourite food memory?
I was in culinary school in Paris when I tried my first macaron and it was love at first bite. I knew then that I would move back to India and try to make them.
Name three things always in your fridge at home.
Eggs, chocolate, and butter – to make a delicious and super quick chocolate fondant!
Do you have a guilty pleasure in food, and if so what is it?
Everyone loves to cheat once in a while. I love making molten chocolate cake. It takes about five minutes to make, seven minutes to bake and is always a crowd pleaser.
What has pastry taught you about yourself?
Patience, passion, and the determination to follow my dreams and work hard to achieve them.