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Features

Spicing up the business of food: Bengaluru’s master mentors are raising an army of professional chefs

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Kitchen is the gurukul — and celebrity chefs the master mentors — to a rising army of professional chefs, who get transformed from being helping hands to frontrunners in the business of food, further spicing up Bengaluru’s disruptive F&B ecosystem.

When one is indulging in small plates of pork rib pastrami tacos and chicken mole enchiladas at a resto-bar in Bengaluru, it is not easy to digest the fact that it has been curated by someone without a culinary school qualification and was a former part-time dishwasher in the US. This is the true story of Varun Pereira, 37, executive chef at Sly Granny.

Pereira worked under three master chefs in Bengaluru — Caperberry’s Abhijit Saha, Windmill Craftworks’ Mandaar Sukhtankar and Olive chain’s Manu Chandra — after returning to the city in 2006. The 18-year culinary journey, marked with innumerable tray tests, feel of flavours and rigorous in-kitchen innovation, took him from being a trainee to higher ranks of demi chef de partie, sous chef to the commanding position now. “It was a live class with Manu Chandra. He would make me read and research and encourage me to innovate. The right mentoring shaped my career path,” says Pereira. He has another story, of his junior who grew up the ranks from being a dishwasher at The Olive Beach to heading the kitchen at Biere Garten.

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There are more mentorship stories from restaurants and bars on MG Road. Saurabh Arora, 38, city chef for Smoke House Deli and Social Chain, trained under master chef Abhijit Saha for a decade before coming into his own. From training at a fine-dine Italian restaurant in a five-star hotel to working at Saha’s own Spanish eatery, Arora did not leave the celebrity chef ’s shadow for a long time.

“It is easy to make quick career jumps in the thriving F&B industry, but investing time to learn and grow under a master chef is the key. Attention to small detail, plating, new ingredients and techniques over years help build a strong foundation, which help us innovate once we are on our own,” says Arora.

Commercial kitchens with celebrity chefs are culinary schools that are dishing out an army of professional chefs to fuel Bengaluru’s dynamic F&B ecosystem. The IT city is one of the top three food hubs of India, and top chefs are playing a part in transforming back-end helping hands into frontrunners in the food business. “Each kitchen is a stepping stone where you have to learn and unlearn constantly. It’s an experimental lab that helps you find your ground,” says Tanmoy Savardekar, who, too, trained under Chandra and moved on to become a chef-consultant.

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Moving on sometimes leaves a pinch of bitterness, as protégés learn tricks of the trade and leave for recognition and better prospects. While both Pereira and Arora say there is no love or respect lost while in the game for fame, one cannot deny the competition (read rivalries) due to poaching and a high attrition.

Manpower scarcity and poaching are the biggest challenges, Big Brewski Brewing Company’s partner-owner Pravesh Pandey admits. He estimates Bengaluru has over 2 lakh employees in the restaurant space and attrition rates are the highest, between 35% and 50%.

Celebrity chef Abhijit Saha, who has been in the industry for 28 years, says, “Kitchen is a dynamic space where the mood can go from creative platform to a war zone, from jumps of joy over awards to disappointments over customer complaints. No two days are the same, which teaches us the art of letting go.”

Beyond all this “the idea is to create new generation of chefs to serve future customers,” he says.

In his 27-year career, Ramasamy Selvaraju, executive chef at Taj Yeshwanthpur, has lost count of — and forgotten the names of — his protégés. He, however, fondly remembers a 19-year-old student from a catering college who went on to find a job at a Michelin star restaurant in USA and later in Australia. “Whenever he is in town, he meets me at home and we have a cook-out,” says Selvaraju.

Agreeing with Saha, he says, “Food is a basic necessity. It needs to be constantly innovated to keep palates excited. It is our responsibility to mentor chefs right, to ensure the future generations keep getting great food.”

Counting about 22 protégés, chef-restaurateur Manu Chandra of The Fatty Bao, Toast & Tonic and Monkey Bar, says, “I have been an incubator and proud to have a posse of chefs who are well-known in the city. Initially, I felt a sense of betrayal but that is a selfish thought. I have matured and realised people need to move on and we need to let go.”

Chandra recalls an incident when all his bartenders walked out and he had to take on the role for three weeks with a helper.

“Celebrity chef status is what everyone wants. The hit rate, however, is just 1%. So, I train my juniors no-holds barred. There are no secret recipes. Innovation is the only driver.” Some of Chandra’s protégés include The Permit Room’s head chef Kavan Kuttappa and Brikoven’s Anirudh Nopany.

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Being mentored by celebrity chefs in India or globally over three-month workshops called Stage is a definite brownie point on resumes. However, restaurateurs like Riyaaz Amlani of Social and Smoke House Deli chain say it is not enough.

“I am impressed by such a profile. It shows that the candidate has a curious mind and respects food. But F&B is an evolving industry. Perfecting techniques of chefs is not adequate. I will hire a chef who has a voice of his own and comes up with a definite philosophy to help further my brand of kitchens,” says Amlani.

Meanwhile, customers are not complaining as rivalries and one-upmanship is leaving newer tastes in their mouths. Foodie and entrepreneur Nirmala Balakrishnan says, “Chefs are constantly arriving, evolving and bringing new styles to the table. Young chefs put a spin on the classics. Juggling between old favourites and new joints is difficult to keep up with, but we get to eat great food and we are the ones deciding that too.”

Calling it the circle of life, culinary expert Aslam Gafoor says, “Indian kitchens are both clinical and emotional. This cycle should continue so that youngsters create signature experiences and keep the ecosystem buzzing.”

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