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The chef who quit engineering to chase his dreams

Chef Uddipan Chakravarthy reminisces about his mother’s no-waste recipes and tasting food from the far corners of India which set him on a quest to eat well

Chef Uddipan Chakravarthy. 
Chef Uddipan Chakravarthy. 

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Koi lauta de mujhe bachchpan ke din (someone bring back my childhood),” says chef Uddipan Chakravarthy while fondly recalling how his father would visit the local market every morning to bring home fresh vegetables, fruits and fish. And, his mother would put together meals with several dishes. Even today, he prefers colour and variety on his plate: “Curd rice and pickle don’t work for me.”

Chakravarthy is the director of culinary operations at President, Mumbai - IHCL SeleQtions, and oversees the menus at Thai Pavilion, Trattoria, The Konkan Cafe, HerbHouse, Wink and Qmin Shop. “Cooking is a stress buster. During weekly offs, I cook for friends, families or house parties. It feels nice.”

The 46-year-old inherited an abiding joy for cooking by observing his mother and grandmother in the kitchen who would dish out regional Bengali fare. In an interview with Lounge, he wears a soft smile while talking about his mother’s no-waste recipes and travelling to the far corners of India due to his father’s transferable job. Edited excerpts:

What did your father do?
My father was in the education field and he had postings with the army as well as the bank. He retired as Regional Director of Central education. With him, we travelled to Assam, Nagaland, Madhya Pradesh and more. Because of his job, I got exposed to a wide variety of food in school and through neighbours.

What are your memories of food from that time?
I remember winter afternoons in Assam, when women in the neighbourhood would meet with bags of wool and chat about food while knitting away. They would exchange recipes and dabbas. One of the aunties would share a tenga (tangy) fish curry with the local puthia maas (a type of barb fish), and its taste still lingers in my mind. In 1983, we were in Mokukchung in Nagaland. During twilight children would gather under street lights to collect small insects for food. One evening, I carried an Amul tin to keep my stash of insects and ate them. When I returned home and told my mother, she gave me a good thrashing (chuckles). I still have friends in Assam and I go trekking to Arunachal Pradesh to not lose that connect with the North-east.

What do you remember of your mother’s food?
My mother and grandmother cooked for fun which explains why we had such a wide diversity of dishes at home. The best thing about my mother was that she would never throw away anything. For example, she would keep aside the stem of the cauliflower after cooking the florets. Next day, should roast the stem and make a bharta-style dish. Ridge gourd peels would be turned into lip-puckering chutneys. And, even fish bones would be pressure cooked, softened and transformed into an amazing dry dish. She would use a lot greens which were not sold in the market but were available locally, like pumpkin creepers. During Makar Sankranti and Lakshmi puja, there were various kinds of pithas like doodh puli and paatishapta. Talking about them is making my mouth water.

Did you always want to be a chef?
After school, I followed my brother’s footsteps and joined the Regional Engineering College in Roorkee. Although I did well in my studies, I wasn’t enjoying it at all. In the first year, a few students were selected to attend a seminar at the the Oberoi in Salt Lake, Kolkata. This was the early nineties, and it was my first time at a five-star. I chatted with someone at the hotel, and realised that something new happens everyday. They also hosted film stars and cricketers. All of that was quite appealing, and I shared this with my brother who was an engineer by then. You know the cliche about the grass being greener on the other side? My brother thought anything else as a career was better than engineering at that time, and encouraged me to join the hospitality industry. When I discontinued college abruptly and returned home, my mother was in tears. Everybody in my family was a doctor or engineer, and I wanted to be a cook. Finally, she came around, I breezed through entrance exams and joined the hospitality college, Indian Institute of Advanced Management in Kolkata.

How and when did you start working with the Taj Group?
It was 2000. I was at The Park and the legendary chef Arvind Saraswat from the Taj Group saw me in the hotel's kitchen. He asked me to come for a few trials. I did 12 trials over several weeks before bagging the job. With the Taj group, I stayed in Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. You could say, transferable jobs are in my fate. I have been in Mumbai for six years—the longest in one city.

Chef Chakravarthy's shares two recipes with thankuni patta (centella) from his childhood  

Thankuni pata bata (Bengali centella chutney)
A bunch of thankuni pata
2 green chillies
1 clove garlic, optional
A pinch of sugar
Salt to taste
2 tsp mustard oil
One-fourth tsp kalonji seeds

Clean the leaves. Grind them with garlic and chilies in mortar pestle to make a smooth paste. Heat mustard oil and add kalonji seeds. Pour the oil on the paste. Mix well. Add salt and sugar, as per taste. Serve with hot rice

Thankuni pata bora (Bengali centella fritters)
A bunch of thankuni pata,  chopped
2 green chillies, chopped
1 clove garlic, optional
1 onion, chopped
A cup of masoor dal paste (soaked for an hour and blitzed to form a smooth paste)
One-fourth tsp fennel seeds
Oil for frying

Mix all the ingredients and make a medium consistency batter, good enough to form morsels. Heat oil and deep fry on medium heat. When they turn golden brown, scoop them out of the oil and ensure the excess oil is drained. Serve with tamarind or sweet tomato chutney, or tomato ketchup.

Inheritance of flavours is a series of interviews with chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality experts and professionals about food memories and tastes of home.

Also read | The chef who changed fine dining, one restaurant at a time

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