Were you ever mesmerized by the food art that restaurants create for that eye pleasing gastronomy delight? Well, that’s exactly what fascinated Uddipan Chakravarthy, a Kolkata-born lad, to pursue this line of culinary allure, unaware of the hurdles that lay behind the scene.Twenty three years down the line, Chef Uddipan understands the unending learning curve that this profession demands, and this Executive Chef of Taj Vivanta at Yashwanthpur in Bangalore, despite his myriads of experience across top hotel brands, doesn’t shy away from any new learning opportunity that may come from any level. He is a firm believer of authenticity and innovation, and is known for his uncompromising stance on providing honest food to his customers.
“Food is a perception,” Chef Uddipan says, “everyone is right and everyone is wrong.” It is this candid nature that’s easily noticed when one talks to him. In a jovial chat with TravelRasoi, Chef Uddipan relates his learnings and beliefs that help him create long lasting memories through comfort food.
What made you become a Chef?
Being a Chef wasn’t a childhood dream; rather, after my 12th, I had joined engineering. Engineering wasn’t my forte and during those days, the visits to different restaurants along with my father were the highlights of my days. I used to be fascinated by the presentation of the food and would often end up discussing the career metrics with the hotel staff and the chefs. Till then I wasn’t aware of the hard work that goes behind the beautiful display. But I took the road and was the first in my family to get into a culinary career. It was a challenge but I loved every bit of it.
Initially I saw it as a glamorous job, but as I began my work, I saw the real hardship that goes behind to make it look effortless. Also, when I joined, it wasn’t a very lucrative opportunity, due to the lack of visibility, but as the industry matured, so did the role of a chef. Today, I stand much contended with my decision and the work as a whole. It wasn’t my childhood dream, but it’s definitely something that I love doing.
Tell us about yourself, how is your current experience in Bangalore?
I am from Kolkata, but my dad being in a transferable job, I have had my fair share of travel. In fact, this is my 14th city. I came to Bangalore five years back from Mumbai. The first thing I noticed is the difference in lifestyle. While Mumbai is a very busy and professional city, Bangalore maintains its own pace. Vivanta by Taj in Yeswanthpur is the largest Vivanta property of Taj, so to set it up by fulfilling the high expectations from it was a challenge. Also, being far from the main city meant that the product has to be a bang on for people to travel that extra mile to savor our offerings. Taj does not believe in too many promotions, instead it believes in the strength of the word of mouth. So, we had to ensure that we provide the best product and services and continue to retain the quality. We took up and successfully maintained the authentic approach. In fact, we have come to a point where people come to the hotel to learn certain best practices. Despite the challenges, we have come out fairly successful, and today, Vivanta of Yeswanthpur is recognized as one of the best Vivanta”s in the group. It has been a good year for us.
When you say “Authenticity”, how do you achieve that?
By authentic, I mean that the right ingredient has to be there. For instance, if you eat Butter Chicken in London,the taste will be different from the butter chicken we have in India. The reason behind is that the tomatoes in London are a bit sweeter, while in India it’s got a tanginess. The onions we find there are white and sweet, while onions in India have a pungent taste. So, it brings in a different taste in the paste that goes on to make the gravy. Similarly, tomatoes of Italy are better suited for pastas than their Indian counterparts. So, to maintain the authenticity of each dish, we make sure that we are using the ingredient from the right place. Even for hummus, or instance, we import the humble chickpea from Turkey. This helps us to create and maintain the original taste of each dish we prepare.
Also I believe in maintaining a balance in the presentation and the quality of the food. For instance, I will not spend time in presentation to such an extent that the food gets cold or the look and feel of the dish is blurred. If I cook daal makhni, I will keep the dish as it should be and instead will put in some innovation in something that can accompany the daal makhni. Thus, while I have maintained the authentic taste of the daal makhni, there is a wow factor complementing it.
What’s your take on innovation?
Well as you move around, you observe and try to incorporate it within your own style. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It isn’t viable to innovate new dishes on a daily basis, rather as we introduce new dishes it stays for three to four months, so in that period, we need to figure what is it that we can do for the next phase. However, at the same time we have to be in touch with our innovative streak to ensure that we are not out of touch with our own abilities. For instance, we have a buffet in the coffee shop every day, so I ask my chefs to bring in something new to the table. It need not be a new dish or even a complete change of presentation, rather a change in the way a dish is presented or a change in the accompaniments of a dish brings in freshness to the set up. It also becomes a learning factor while the guests enjoy the novelty. This push to deliver on the daily menu is important to keep their thought process running.
We also need to teach the vendors about the best practices to get the most of it. We take training sessions for the vendors so that they too develop. It is important to make them understand the criticality of hygiene and procuring standards. For instance, what is the optimum temperature for an ingredient in which it has to be kept during its course of shipping, or how and with what to wash the ingredients, among others. By developing the vendors, it seems like a contribution back to the society.
Tell us about your journey as a Chef.
I have almost 23 years of experience. I started with Park Delhi, and then I moved to Hyderabad for a short stint. After that I left for Mumbai, where I had spent 10 years, and now I am here in Bangalore for almost five years. I have worked with Chef Ananda Solomon, Chef Satish Arora and Chef Hemant Oberoi, and was lucky to travel around learning new ingredients and tastes. However, the important thing is that you cannot learn everything within a short period of time. You have to give yourself some years to get a good grip on the cooking approach and find your own style. As you spend twenty years in the industry, you realize there’s so much to learn. The learning never stops and it can come from any level, even from a trainee. It’s not just about producing something; it’s about producing the best food consistently without any gap in the quality.
Also, to be a chef you need to understand the culture, the people and their mind set. In today’s scenario, a chef may seem like a glamorous position, but there’s a lot of pressure on him to deliver the best in quality or providing the best hygiene or motivating the staff. In fact, we are so driven by hygiene that the back areas are shinier than the front areas. Even the innovation has to be subtle so that people do not lose the comfort. We may try new dishes once or twice, but the majority of the times, we would like to stick to our comfort food. Thus, it’s important to bring freshness to the concept without overdoing it. I also believe in honesty and accountability. For instance, if a particular dish isn’t good enough, I will never serve it to the guest. Rather I would inform them of the issue and recommend something that will go well with their tastes and preferences.
You are from Kolkata – a city that’s known for its unique food culture, so tell us how Kolkata inspires you.
I have my family in the city, so whenever I visit, I love the different food the streets of Kolkata has to offer. It inspires you to think how to merge that fresh, rustic flavor with factors, such as health and hygiene. It’s interesting to try out ways to replicate the same tastes in a five-star level.
What would be the first dish you have cooked?
I remember making omelets at home. My mother would ask me to make omelet and I would happily do so. For a European chef, the first test is to make a perfect omelet, which would be light, crescent shaped, and fluffy. Of course, my early days’ omelets were never fluffy rather they were flat and sometimes even burnt. But now with experience, I have become good at it.
How is the Bangalore food culture? What difference does it make to the five-star hotel trends?
A critical challenge that we see in today’s Bangalore food market is that the restaurants are bringing in different cuisines and tweaking the food to match the local tastes. Thus, a city resident would love the food served at these places, while the food we produce takes into consideration the authentic taste as we have mostly international guests. Thus, it is difficult to make people understand why sometimes the food doesn’t suit the local palate.
Also, the pricing too is a factor that becomes a bit hard to explain. The reason behind it is that for a five-star way of cooking, we have a procuring department that brings in the selective ingredients and there’s a lot of effort that goes behind creating a dish from the scratch. However, the same dish may be prepared using ready-made pastes and masalas in a normal restaurant set up, thus bringing down their cost of dishes. For instance, for a thai curry, while a normal restaurant may open a ready-made jar of Thai curry paste to make the dish, while for us, we need to make the paste from raw ingredients. This takes a lot of effort, which shows up in a five-star’s menu price, which will be higher than a normal restaurant’s. It becomes difficult to explain guests of these differences in approach.
There are good restaurants too, who maintain the hygiene, and work according to a theme. They set up everything within a small area and run it efficiently. This becomes a learning ground for big restaurants. Thus, there are positives and negatives to the evolving food market.
What is your opinion on fusion food?
I believe, till some level fusion is fine to wow the guest, but it cannot go for long. For instance, cuisines like Indian and Chinese have been researched and have a very long ancestry. So to fuse the ingredients of two or three dishes may not make much sense. Of course, to some extent it is needed but not necessarily for the long run. At the end, authenticity is important. In a buffet, for instance, I may do a 30% fusion, and the rest of the 70% I leave it as a comfort food. There has to be a perfect marriage of appearance that catches your eye yet you enjoy the comfort of the taste.
What kind of cuisines do you prefer? What would be your favorite ghar ka khana?
Well I prefer all good food, Indian, Chinese Thai, I fact anything that tastes good, I like it. At home, I can have Ghee with hot rice, or Hot daal and rice with potato fries any time, they are my favorite comfort food.
You have been in the industry for quite some time, would you like to give a message to the aspiring chefs?
I think it’s an interesting job that you have to do it for your own. You have to be on your feet, thinking on what can be done next. You need to be honest with your guests and with everyone around, without which you cannot survive in this industry. Also, keep cooking hygienically. And the most important, cooksimple and cook happily.
Oven Baked Salmon (Served at Azure)
Ingredients (for one)
salmon – 180 gm
asparagus -2 no
olive oil – 15 ml
salt – 2 gm
crushed pepper -2 gm
caper berry – 1 no
Kalamata olives – 1 no
Sundried tomato -1 no
Orange wedges – 1 no
Pommes hassle back(potato)-90 gm
season salmon with salt pepper olive oil ,pan sear & bake for 6 mints in the oven@180c
saute asparagus, sundried tomato ,Kalamata olive, caper berry
pan sear orange wedge
for the pommes hassle back cut the potato very thinly without cutting the base all the way par boil the potato drizzle with salt & pepper bake in the oven @180c along with the fish once cooked take it out top with a quenelle of hollandaise
garnish salmon with a sprig of fennel
Chapli kebab (Served at Paranda)
|1. Mix all ingredients together.|
|2. With the end of your palm rub it hard so it mixes well|
|3.Divide the dough in equal numbers, let say 50 gms dumpling|
|4.Slice tomatoes in roundels keep aside|
|5. Heat a griddle, grease it|
|6. Cook the patty on one side.|
|7. Place the slice tomatoes, at the top of the patty|
|8. Turn it so the other side gets cooked and tomato slice sticks to the kebab|
|9. Ensure not to keep the patty turning now and than. Each side should get cooked only once.|
|9. Do not overcook. Ensure its just done to retain the softness|
|10. Serve with coriander or mint chutney and onion rings.|
– EB / Anjali Sethi Joshi