Friday, December 3, 2010

License to Cook?

Since we are in a food zone, let me draw your attention to this article (courtesy The Knife).

Olive Bar & Kitchen in Bandra was never one of my favorite places to eat out in Mumbai inspite of it being the place to be seen at or its proximity to my house. I much preferred its neighbor, Out of the Blue, with its laid-back ambience, mouth-watering pastas, baked cheesecakes and live music on Sunday afternoons.

I've been watching a number of food based shows of late, and I've developed a strong admiration for Western chefs. Their cooking techniques are so evolved, their knowledge of flavors that will and won't work together so strong, and they can conjure up dishes that Indian chefs would probably not even have heard of!

But that's because developed countries have a much more evolved food scene as compared to India. Chefs are valued, celebrated even. There are proper culinary schools to train them in the techniques as well as the art of cooking, followed by an internship under a professional chef.

Reading this article kind of shocked me and was also painful at some level because it confirms what I suspected about Indian restaurants but hoped would be untrue - that the cooks working in restaurant kitchens in India are untrained. In fact, they can't be called chefs at all.

This article talks about how these cooks do not undergo any formal training in cooking. They are barely taught about food. Their training consists merely of showing them pictures of various dishes and leaving them to learn on their own, often by watching the head chef at work.

The proof of such shoddy training lies in the gruel that we are served at most restaurants in India, including fine-dining ones. Oily, over-spiced Indian food, Chinese dishes that are dunked in sauces, pastas floating in cheese. Any Western chef worth his salt will scrunch up his nose at such monstrosities, forget serving them to his customers.

The background of Indian chefs is equally to blame for the quality of food they dish out. Spices dominate the food cooked in Indian homes and vegetables are cooked till they become almost gloopy. The oven is the most under-utilized gadget in Indian kitchens. This is how the cooks grow up watching their mothers/grandmothers cook, and since no one bothers to train them otherwise, this becomes their general notion of food.

Watch a Western chef at his job and you'll learn to appreciate the beauty of food. They let the ingredients do the talking. Spices and seasoning are used just for flavor. And texture, which they get from using different kinds of side ingredients apart from the core one, is as important as flavor. They cook the vegetables only upto a point that it's tender enough to eat so it retains most of its flavor. Poaching, oven-roasting and grilling are also widely used techniques to cook meat to enhance its flavor. Not everything is fried or cooked directly on the flame.

My other pet peeve at restaurants is being served food that's made with ready-to-use sauces & marinades available in the market. I would like a chef to make his sauces & marinades from scratch because a) all the ingredients that go into Italian/Asian/Mexican sauces are available in India now, and b) if I wanted to eat something made with ready-to-use sauces, I could have cooked it at home! People don't pay for shortcuts at restaurants.

But then, it is our inherent tendency as a people to take short-cuts and dupe customers. An Indian businessman will try to cheat his customers to make a quick buck whenever he can find an opportunity. Restaurants are no exception.

Maybe I need to stop watching food-based shows? They're going to ruin my eating out experiences for life! I will never find any restaurant good enough :(

Photographs Courtesy:


The knife said...

I had gone to a 5 Star. Invited to a Mediterranean recipe class. They were openly espousing the use of ready made cous cous, sauces and said they did so too

In fact this is why I have been tripping over these sub Rs 150 meals at Fort and old Colaba. Indian food at its best, cooked in honest kitchens, the crowds and shared tables testimony to how good the food is. The last few months have been an Indian food epiphany for me.

And didn't fall sick a single day so far

esotericbalderdash said...

I agree with every word in this article !

As someone who loves to cook, i've often noticed that Indians don't have a very high regard for people whose favourite pastime is cooking and then eating :P or for that matter even people who are or aspire to be chefs. Funnily they do not even understand the difference between a cook and a chef.

We like to believe that anyone who has worked in the kitchen of a restaurant is a chef! no wonder we think akshay kumar is one !

Moonshine said...

I agree about the "chefs" not being recognised.. i think to date, we find it difficult to think of it as a profession!!!!!

mêlée said...

I dont mind the spice and oil and the general flavor of Indian food. But i guess Indian food is best when homecooked...but its sad story in restaurants! I have found worms and cockroaches in 5 star places, mostly in chinese/thai food :D

Scarlett said...

@The Knife - I can understand the use of ready made sauces/mixes if the ingredients are really exotic & aren't available in India. These days most ingredients used in global cuisine are easily available in major cities. It's such a shame when restaurants take short cuts.

@esotericbalderdash - Your Akshay Kumar comment was priceless! LOL :)

Yes, for a nation that's obsessed with food, it's about time we started appreciating chefs!

@Moonshine - I think chefs have started coming into their own now. Like there's this ex-chef of Oh Calcutta who quit and has started his own venture - continental food with an Indian/Bengali twist, and he's doing really well I believe.

@Melee - My problem with Indian food at restaurants is that they believe a dish becomes really good by ODing on oil & spices. And to a certain extent customers are to blame for this. We won't patronize restaurants that serve home-like/healthy Indian food.

And are you sure the worms/cockroaches in your Chinese/Thai food were there accidentally? :P