BENGALURU: When celebrity chef Ranveer Brar first announced to his family that he wanted to be a chef: “It was like lighting a matchstick in a room full of hay.” His was a family of zamindars and Brar was expected to be a doctor, engineer or a fauji, he writes in his recently released book Come into to My Kitchen.
But the streets of Lucknow had won him over, particularly the Bawarchi Tola where lived the chefs of maharajahs. Stories of food drifted from its length and corners, he writes, of “birds flying out of a poori when the nawab cracked it open, or cooks who fooled the nawab into thinking that the garlic slivers in his kheer were actually almonds” and his favourite “one where the cook won a jagir (land) for creating a dessert” with lamb.
At 17, intent on becoming a chef, Brar went straight to kebab vendor Munir Ahmed to apprentice with him. “He is no more,” says Brar, through an email interview. “His house was in the bylanes behind a now-closed theatre Odeon.” With Ahmed, Brar was employed to haul coals to dry. He had to carry it up three floor leave it out to dry and bring it back down. “I did that for eight months and I loved it,” says the chef who has run signature restaurants in Goa, Delhi and Boston, and hosted popular food shows on different TV channels.
His stint at the kebab stall proved to his parents that he “could bear the burden” of his choice. Munir Ustad also offered lessons in philosophy. “There was a time when I was extremely frustrated at the monotony of what I was doing,” he says. He went to the Ustaad and his answer was to “trust food”.
At the joint, for six months, he was promoted to stirring a (traditional) soup and grinding masalas. He never knew what went into the soup or in what proportion the masalas were mixed. Cooking and its secrets were privileges that had to be earned.
But, at his first job, he was also introduced to the Unani system of medicine and its Tahseer. Like Ayurveda, Tahseer is “about effects of various ingredients and elements on our body”. He says: “These effects are borne from an innate nature of the ingredient itself which dictates how our body reacts to it.”
Brar opened his first restaurant, which specialised in seafood, in Goa. He learnt of cooking and selecting the best fish from the fisherfolk there. “The most memorable lesson was given by a fisherman in Vengurla,” says Brar. Fresh fish, the fisherman said, needs little more than salt and lemon juice. “That has been my criterion of selecting fish for my dishes since then,” says Brar.
At 25, he was the youngest executive chef in India, and at the height of his success he left for Boston to open a Franco-Asian restaurant BanQ. Despite being the toast of the town, with its tea-smoked quail and short-rib rogan josh, the restaurant shut down under the economic recession of the 2008. This is where he learnt to fail and find confidence. “I had confidence in my relationship with food that this would just be a bump,” he says. Like Muneer Ustaad had said, years before Boston, Brar learnt to trust food once again.
Come into My Kitchen is roughly divided into three sections-- his early years; the function of taste, flavour, texture and appearance; and recipes.
In the second section, while writing on the appreciation of food, he writes that polite manners many times take the joy out of what you eat. Tea needs to be slurped, for example, and Indian food is perfect when eaten with hands. “Customs are driven by restrictions and food is unrestrained expression,” says Brar.
In the section ‘Textures’, he writes that Indians do not care for this much. Despite our preference for crispy plain dosas or thicker set dosas, he says, we pick our food for taste. Ranveer’s book is a 184-page romance that invites us to be part of it with historical nuggets, personal stories and recipes.