"Show me the peas,” she said. I took a fistful and held them in front of the iPad. Chef Shilarna Vaze, Chinu to her army of Instagram followers, peered at them. “Put them in water and bring it to a rolling boil. Then put the peas straight into ice water,” she continued. I was confused as this wasn’t part of the pea usal recipe that we were making, but I did as instructed. “See! How green they look now,” Chinu said. I couldn’t stop myself from blurting though, “We are doing all this just to make the peas look green?” She furrowed her brow and said, “Obviously. Otherwise you might as well serve a rice plate to your guests.”
When I decided that I would learn to cook as one of the 12 activities during my year-long sabbatical, I spent some time deliberating over the choice of guru. Several of my friends are fantastic cooks and any of them could have taught me how to rustle up a good meal but I wanted to learn from a trained chef; not just cooking but the aesthetic aspect of it as well. The pea-blanching made me realize that unlike the “substance over form” axiom that is drilled into us chartered accountants, this month was going to be about “substance and form”.
Growing up, I was a quantity-focused eater. My mother was not fond of cooking but she managed to put enough on the table. Red garlic chutney, mango pickle and tomato ketchup were omnipresent in our kitchen and if you didn’t like a dish, you accessorized it. I am not an adventurous eater either, preferring to go to known restaurants where I can order without looking at the menu. For the first 25 years of my life, and that included a couple of years in a hostel, I never really thought much about food. Your body needs oxygen, so you breathe; your body also needs food, so you eat. That was all there was to it.
All that changed when I had my first sit-down dinner experience in New York. I was fascinated by the elaborate menu, coordinated wait staff, the garnish and plating. I wasn’t eating just a risotto but a well-assembled dish of which risotto was one part. I couldn’t pronounce the names of half the things I ate that night but the meal was memorable. I carried the printed menu back with me and looked up all the ingredients. To be sure, this didn’t happen to me at the Louvre; my first brush with fine art. I was out of the museum in less than 30 minutes and felt no urge to look up the differences between the painting styles of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
While I continued to remain utilitarian about my food choices, I started relishing and looking forward to gourmet dining experiences, and once cooking went on the list of my sabbatical to-dos, I decided I would learn from a gourmet chef. In our first interaction, I told Chinu and her Swiss husband, chef Christophe Perrin, that I wanted my month-long culinary journey to culminate in a sit-down dinner for friends that would have Maharashtrian cuisine at its heart. They asked me to write down my favourite food memories. The list ranged from the thick varan that is served at Maharashtrian weddings to ceviche that I grew addicted to during my stay in South America. The eventual menu for the sit-down dinner blended Maharashtrian food and some of my global favourites into fusion dishes like kasa kaay swey.
In my sabbatical journey thus far, I have been fortunate to find exceptional teachers. Chris and Chinu worked hard to put together a comprehensive curriculum for the month. Despite the fact that my biggest culinary achievement till then had been anda bhurji, they pulled no punches. We started with a butchery class where I had to fillet a 5kg whole red snapper. Outside of the Taraporewala aquarium in Mumbai, I had never come this close to a fish and this one was staring back at me from the kitchen platform. Egged on by the chefs, I not only managed to fillet it but also roasted a full chicken in the same class. It hit me that day that I had been yanked out of kindergarten and put into a postgraduate course.
Over the next four weeks, we cooked thrice a week for 3 hours each and I spent an almost equal amount of time prepping for the class. On off days, I would practise the dishes I had been taught. I shopped for most of the ingredients myself and by the end of the month had become quite friendly with the folks at our neighbourhood supermarket. I know the aisle-wise layout of the place now and can pick up thyme or oregano without having to squint at the small white sticker on the plastic packaging.
The shopping and prepping takes time but the real thing is much harder and my respect for people who cook has gone up multifold. At the end of each class, I would rush out of the kitchen and plonk on the sofa, craving a cup of tea. I think of myself as reasonably fit, yet my legs would hurt from hours of standing or my back would be sore from bending on the cutting board. On top of it, there was the forced sauna of standing next to a wok of boiling oil. I don’t think even Nigella Lawson can look like Nigella Lawson if she is frying batata vada in a sticky Mumbai kitchen.
People sometimes ask what my takeaways from the sabbatical thus far have been. I cringe at the word “takeaway” and don’t really know how to answer the question. All I know is that I am making new memories and rekindling old ones and that’s enough for me. My cooking month also produced a rich haul. I am chuffed about the fact that Chris complimented me on my hollandaise. I remember the earful I got from the missus for keeping a hot kadhai (wok) on her plastic chopping board and creating a lunar crater in it. Chris and Chinu’s three-year-old daughter, Zanu, used to make guest appearance in our Zoom classes and her mirth when she saw me make a boo-boo with the pasta dough still rings in my ears. I kept the harusame noodles in the freezer along with the water because nowhere did the recipe say “drain the water”. Chinu will not let me live it down. I used my mother’s traditional coconut grater, called vili in Marathi, and it transported me back to my childhood. We ordered a grindstone and I took an instant liking to it. A mixer cannot replicate the aroma that wafts out with every roll of the pestle as you grind the garlic chutney.
I learnt new skills too, like using the pasta machine, and was lucky to see and learn from the master himself. Chris made his first pasta at the age of 8 and watching him do it, I thought this must be what Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi means by being in a “flow state”; an activity that engrosses you so deeply that you lose sense of time.
For the final sit-down dinner, we decided to invite only 12 people (with all precautions in place), and in making the guest list, I had to field several hate messages. Chris and Chinu’s team can easily cater to a 100-people sit-down dinner but I was the bottleneck, for I wanted to be involved with everything; from making the chicken stock to putting the kokum air on top of the palate cleanser. All through the evening, my heart was racing as I imagined all that could go wrong.
I need not have worried, I had a brilliant team with me. I don’t know if all chefs feel it but the exhilaration I felt as the wait staff picked up the dessert bowls from the plating table, is unforgettable. I high-fived the entire team and thought of throwing my chef’s cap in the air, graduation-style, but desisted. Maybe I should have.
Swanand Kelkar works in the asset management industry and is currently on a one-year sabbatical. This is the fifth in a 12-part series tracking his experiments during the year.
FIRST PUBLISHED17.10.2020 | 11:32 AM IST