The pioneering chef begins the interview with, “My name is Ananda Solomon. I was born in Poona (Pune).” He doesn’t need an introduction, but he is methodical, meticulous and generous—just like his approach to cooking—while answering questions. The 62-year-old hails from Kasaragod in Kerala and grew up in Pune in an army family. A career in a professional kitchen happened ‘by default’ when he ran out of college options after completing school in Pune. The principal of the school suggested Dadar Catering College, later renamed as Institute of Hotel Management Catering Technology & Applied Nutrition in Mumbai. It was the mid seventies and Solomon had never known anyone who wore towering chef hats. “I had only seen that in movies. It felt quite fancy,” he says.
In an interview with Lounge, the chef who has a penchant for a quick joke, talks about his childhood food memories, recalls how he created three iconic restaurants, Trattoria, Thai Pavilion and Konkan Cafe in Mumbai and shares a comforting recipe of Malabar mutton stew.
Tell us about the food from your childhood.
My mother was a prolific cook and she made every dish from scratch. My father was in the army and we grew up in the cantonment area in Pune. He bought a mixie from the army shop, but it was like a showpiece in the kitchen, for we never used it. Ours was a typical South Indian family, and my father was finicky about the quality of hand-ground masalas and dosa-idli batter. We were four brothers and two sisters, and every night, we would help my mother prepare the flour for the batter in a stone grinder. Most of the ingredients, like coconut, spices and coffee, were sourced from my native place in Kerala. I love my coffee even today, although I have to control my caffeine intake now.
What sparked your interest in cooking?
It was by default. People from my native place in Kerala believed those who worked in hotels had eloped from home after a nasty fight with their families. They were probably rogues (laughs). Anyway, I joined Dadar Catering College in the mid seventies and it was completely different. Men wore tall fancy chef hats and went about their jobs. In the first year of catering college, when I wasn’t quite clear whether to be a restaurant manager or join the kitchen team, I went to work in a five-star restaurant as an intern to wait tables. On one occasion, I witnessed the manager of the restaurant being pulled up by a guest in extremely abusive language. The manager kept apologising, but the guest didn’t stop. I thought, if a situation like that happened twice a day, one would end up in a psychiatric hospital. I felt being a restaurant manager wasn’t my thing, and it’s better to be in the kitchen.
What happened after that?
I finished college in 1978 and joined the kitchen at Oberoi’s. From there, I went to France to learn French cooking and stayed for six months. After that, I rejoined the Oberoi’s and worked at their French restaurant, Supper Club. In the seventies, I had no base in Mumbai and living as a paying guest became unaffordable. For better monetary prospects, I left the Oberoi’s and went to the middle east. By mid-eighties, I returned to India, bought a house in Pune and joined the Taj group in 1989. They sent me to Fort Aguada in Goa for about a year where I learnt Goan food. Till then, as a chef trained in classical French cooking, making Indian food was alien to me. The hotel hired local women, who weren’t professional chefs, but they worked in the kitchen and taught us how to make Goan food. The managing director was Ajit Kelkar who charted the culinary journey for the Taj Group. Under his leadership we had Trattoria, Thai Pavilion and The Konkan Cafe, all iconic restaurants today. He was a guru along with greats like Camellia Panjabi and the late Jagat Verma. At the Taj, I researched Italian food for about two-and-a-half years. They sent me to Italy and then to a famous pizza centre in Manhattan. My learnings from those places were brought to Trattoria with ingredients imported from Italy. I used to visit Thailand quite often and learnt cooking from locals there which eventually went into creating Thai Pavilion. We must have tested close to 3200 dishes before zeroing in on 38 that are now on the menu there. For Konkan Cafe, I travelled the west coast of India in the nineties. Those days, the Konkan railway was being built and I struck up a friendship with the man in-charge of the railways. The tracks were not even properly laid, and we travelled on trailers to small towns in the Konkan belt. A lot of the food at Konkan Cafe also reflects the food I ate at home. For a long time, the base of the fish curry was prepared by my mother and it was brought from home in a taxi. Although I knew the recipe in detail, I couldn’t replicate it. For recipes, while the ingredients and measures are important, what matters is the soul.
When you opened the restaurants Thai Pavilion and Trattoria in the nineties, were people exposed to those cuisines?
Although the cuisine was foreign, my first menu had dishes with flavours that were familiar to the Indian palate. We didn’t modify or Indianise the food. For instance, there was coconut, peanut and ginger which are key to Thai food and tomatoes and garlic which are integral to Italian cooking, and all these ingredients are known to Indians. We just had to explain to the guest how to eat the food. We told them Thai Pavilion was not a Chinese restaurant, and we used to display all the herbs. There are only two things in food, either you like it or hate it, and once you start eating, it grows on you. People lapped up Tom Yum and Som Tum, and we still have those on the menu.
Then you moved on?
Five years ago, I resigned from the Taj Group. I had some back issues and needed to fix them. I lived in Thailand for one year and spent the following year in Vietnam. Then I got the opportunity to open a standalone restaurant, Thai Naam in Mumbai which is close to the airport. Now, I just want to be a little away from the hustle and lead a cool life by focusing on just one restaurant.
Ananda Solomon's recipe of Malabar mutton stew
This dish reminds me of my childhood. The aromas from my mother’s kitchen are still strong in my mind. I used to watch as she cooked this flavourful delicacy in the summer as a special family feast, when our loved ones got together.
I recreated this dish at The Konkan Cafe which is India's first coastal food restaurant in a five-star hotel. It is delicious with the meat on the bone and will leave you craving for more. Best eaten with steaming hot appams.
120 ml coconut oil
25 gms ginger julliennes
30 gms sliced green chilli
250 gms sliced onion
5 gms curry leaves
2 gms clove
2 gms cinnamon
2 gms cardamom
2 gms peppercorn
2 bay leaves
250 gms potato cubes
2.5 litres thin coconut milk
1.5 thick coconut milk
Salt to taste
1 kg boneless pieces of mutton
Heat oil, add cloves, cinnamon, cardamon, bay leaves, peppercorn, onion, green chilli, curry leaves and saute.
Add the boiled potatoes, mutton, thin coconut milk (2.5 litres)and bring to boil. Add salt to taste and remove from the fire.
At the time of dish out, add the thick milk (1/2 litre). Bring to one boil, check for seasoning and serve.
Best eaten with appam or Idiappam.
NOTE: Boneless pieces of mutton are to be boiled before adding in to the stew to avoid discolouration of the stew.
Inheritance of flavours is a series of interviews with chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality experts and professionals about food memories and tastes of home.