CHENNAI: What do Aditya Bal, a self-taught cook, and author, The Chakh Le India: Cookbook, Ashutosh Nerlekar, an executive chef at The Park, and Vicky Ratnani, a celebrity chef have in common? Love for food. In Aditya’s case, it started when he dabbled in acting; for Ashutosh, it was a ‘light bulb’ moment during his second year of hotel management. For Vicky, his Sindhi upbringing in Mumbai exposed him to diverse cuisines since childhood. The trio recently judged the Superchef 2018 Cooking Competition held at The Park. Excerpts follow:
Describe your food journey.
Aditya: I wanted to become an actor and had already done a couple of Bollywood movies when the food bug bit me in 2007-2008. I always had a knack for producing good food. What started as a hobby, soon became an all-consuming passion. But I didn’t have the time to pursue a professional degree…so I started working in a few kitchens in Goa. This is precisely why I cannot be called a ‘chef’…it is such a corporate word. Two years back, I started my own cloud kitchen/catering business in New Delhi, but that shut down becasue of demonetisation. And now I am starting a new business in Kolkata.
Ashutosh: I knew I wanted to be in the food and beverage industry and enrolled in a hotel management course in my hometown Pune. But I hadn’t quite figured out what I exactly wanted to do and later realised that I should be a chef. And since then, food has taken me across the world — I have worked in places like Santalusia and Curacao, and now I am in Chennai. I haven’t got a chance to return to Pune yet.
Vicky: We Sindhis love our food. I grew up in a building which had people from diverse communities, so that helped me develop an affinity for food. I knew I wanted a career in it and after completing my hotel management degree, I went abroad and primarily worked in cruise ship kitchens like Cunard and then came back to India after 16 years to work on creating some crazy recipes at Aurus and Nido, which even featured in the top 10 restaurants of the country once, for their modern, ‘tasting table’ menu.
What cuisine do you specialise in?
Aditya: Classic Mughlai…Kebab, korma and the works.
Ashutosh: European…what you call ‘Continental cuisine’
Vicky: Modern European, progressive (molecular gastronomy) cuisine
Any dish that you have been trying to master, but can’t quite hit the bull’s eye yet?
Aditya: Indian breads, hands down! Making naans or parathas is something that I haven’t able to do perfectly just yet.
Ashutosh: A lot of things actually. Sometimes getting the smallest detail wrong can alter the entire dish. Cuisine-wise I have to say the hardest is Italian; the kinds of pasta especially.
Vicky: I don’t think I haven’t been able to master anything.
What is your favourite ingredient to work with?
Aditya: Cold-pressed olive oil and also dry red chillies. Olive oil, according to me, is so multifaceted with the flavour it imparts…it’s just great! Dry red chillies give you that much-needed heat in dishes, which can be altered according to
Ashutosh: Garlic always gets my attention. And apart from that, avocados…especially Haas avocados. But you don’t get good-quality avocadoes in India!
Vicky: Fresh fish and green vegetables. There is nothing better than these.
Any food faux pas moment in the kitchen?
Aditya: In December 2010 while working in a restaurant in Goa, an oven almost blew up in my face. My colleague was cleaning an unused continental-range oven and suddenly there was a boom! Thankfully, the injuries weren’t grave.
Ashutosh: Once when I was working abroad, the waiter took the wrong dish to the guest’s table. I ran behind him, but couldn’t catch up and the dishes were already served. However, I awkwardly told the guests that they have received the wrong order. I cringe thinking about it even today.
Vicky: There are no such incidents that I remember.
Any special food memories?
Aditya: Being a Kashmiri Pandit, I remember the local cheese made from sheep’s milk (kilari) that we used to buy from the market every day before my family fled Kashmir in 1989. I also remember going to weddings in Kashmir and eating all that fine food.
Ashutosh: When I was living in Bengaluru, I used to frequent the ISKCON temple. And I haven’t tasted anything like the ‘prasadam’ and tamarind rice served there.
Vicky: A few days back I visited Amritsar, where at the dilapidated inns, I was able to taste some awesome fried onions that had a stuffing, and gobi and black pepper kulchas. They were heavenly!
Your comfort food?
Aditya: Dal chawal with pickles
Ashutosh: Being a Maharashtrian, I love dal made with salt, turmeric and asafoetida, topped with a dollop of ghee and some lemon juice.
Vicky: Sindhi kadhi and rice.
What are the food trends to watch out for this year?
Aditya: I think people are going back to basics. There has been a surge in concept-based and ‘different’ food but I think, eventually, people get tired of it. They will look forward to authentic flavours now.
Ashutosh: Organic food with more emphasis on low fat. Also, dishes made with activated charcoal.
Vicky: Clean eating, instant greens, Latin food, regional Indian food will dominate this year.