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‘Change but do not lose originality’



Much before superchefs stole the TRPs on TV, chef Rakesh Sethi gathered a following for himself with Mirch Masala on Star Plus, where he made regional cuisine look easy enough to prepare at home. An award-winning culinary professional, Sethi has been around for more than three decades. He shares back-to-the-basics formula with Chahak Mittal

Does a chef’s gender affect the taste of the food in any way? How do you think a man’s cooking is different from that of a woman’s?

Like any other field of artistic expression, there is no difference when it comes to skill. All of us have grown up loving our mothers’ food, so that has got a lot to say about women’s skills in the kitchen. Perhaps male chefs handle the  cooking process a bit differently with a robust use of flavours and spices. Their skills in cooking are more for bulk and commercial set-ups. But women probably understand soul and comfort food better. It is all about opportunity and women chefs are now making it to the frontlines gradually.

Personally, I never faced any gender-specific stereotypes in my career but in my early days, cooking was not a very popular profession when everyone wanted to be an engineer or a doctor. It was only in the 1980s after the Asian Games in New Delhi that we saw many new hotels opening up for this event and the industry started  booming. Our status got elevated. Today a chef is a celebrity and the face of a hotel or a restaurant.

How do you think your cooking has evolved since the time you started?

Cooking has evolved manifold since I started three decades ago. The trend back then was very classical and within the set parameters of that particular cuisine. The sourcing of raw material was not easy and ingredients were not easily accessible other than the Indian one. The recipes and information were only available through few high-priced cookbooks or from the senior chefs in the trade. Masters of trade would not share their knowledge and skills so easily and recipes were kept secret and well-guarded. The were a very happening period and we saw a major shift in trends and guests expectations.

Then came the age of experimentation. Nouvelle and creative dishes began appearing on the menu. With many expatriate chefs flying into India, East meets West-based fusion dishes came into existence as we opened up to various cooking styles and presentations. Then the internet created a knowledge society so diverse that it had an impact on the food and beverage industry. As did global Indian travellers  who played a vital role in demanding gastronomic tweaks.

As accessibility of ingredients was no more a challenge, with knowledge and information available on a click of a button on the internet, today’s modern, new-age, talented chefs are creating some new dishes with use of global ingredients, contemporary presentation and modern serving styles, taking the guest experience to a different high altogether with progressive Indian cuisine, presentation and serving styles.

What is your signature dish and how did you come up with such an experiment?

Though I have created many signature creations, hence to name any one is not fair but the one which was most popular is “Cooker Da Kukkad.” The dish is a North Indian speciality, made and served in the same vessel (pressure cooker) and is very popular with our guests for its taste, unique service style and presentation.

What is it that could be the greatest cause of failure in a chef’s dish?

There could be many reasons for a failure in a chef’s dish. Not understanding the characteristics and the right use of an ingredient can be very fatal for a chef while making a dish, especially a fusion creation. Quality of an ingredient, improper tools and equipment, temperature, time, storage, cooking process, chef’s attention, state of mind and skill of the chef himself can make or break a dish.

Do you think Indian cuisine will ever be able to become a world favourite the way Japanese has ?

I feel Indian cuisine is already getting there as we feature on menu cards of global restaurants in many countries. For one, people have gone beyond the “curry” cliche. Nouvelle Indian restaurants have grown manifold in other countries. Our chefs are gathering Michelin stars too.

As the population grows and yields get squeezed, a growing number of farmers is switching to practices that conserve resources and crops that have pick-up value. What do you have to say about the native crops that we have stopped growing?

I always say, “Our future is in our past.” We should not let our crops and grain heritage go extinct. In the process, our food, ingredients and recipes are getting lost too. We should work collectively to not only bring them back but make them relevant, usable and invest them with our signatures. I am in touch with people who are working to bring our lost grains back to their glory.

Given that we have already seen fusion, molecular and slow food movements, what are the new frontiers of the food revolution?

I do not call them as movements, rather consider them as trends and phases that our food culture is going through. They are not permanent, new trends will take their place and this evolution shall keep happening. As the customers are now well-travelled and well-informed, their expectations are also ever-changing. They need what they need and many hotels and restaurants are responding. But in the end classicism and authenticity never die. I see traditional food making a comeback once the obsession with Asian flavours levels out.

“A picture on the phone cannot possibly capture its flavours.” In the age of social media, do you thinkthere is an injustice against chefs whose work is judged on visual appeal before the taste?

With so many competing public fora around us, each is trying to present food its way. With trends shifting from reading a newspaper to viewing blogs and articles on social media, bloggers are the new critics. But no matter what the platform, the insight has to be genuine. Only a true connoisseur and a food critic, who may have taken up blogging, can judge you correctly. Having said that, I also feel that it is the chef’s choice whom he/she wishes to invite for food-tasting and making judgements of our cooking skills and dishes.

What is your take on rescuing regional cuisine?

India has such a rich food heritage and it is mostly the result of regional complexity of flavours, ingredients and textures. During regional food promotions, I always use local ingredients, recipes and even involve local chefs. Some of these are also being featured in our buffet menu.

Do you think food should be considered as an art form?

A true chef is an artist who puts all his heart and soul into his/her cooking to see a satisfying smile on the face of the one who relished his/her created food.

What is the biggest issue that you stand for and support as a chef?

I stand for respect for all cuisines and encourage every chef to stick to the basics. Traditional recipes cooked and served in authentic manner is what is important. Change as per time and let food evolve but don’t let its originality get lost.

What is the one secret that you’d like to share about your favourite recipes?

Cook with all your heart and passion.

What is your greatest source of inspiration?

My greatest source of inspiration is my family and my team, their whole-hearted involvement and contribution.

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