If you visit ITC Sheraton Park, it is likely that you will spot an elderly maami in the lobby. Her 59 years is perhaps not as old as the ancient coffee maker for show beside her. But standing behind her every day snack stall, Rathnam S G, or simply amma as she is fondly called by all the chefs at the hotel, has become something of a tradition herself.
Synonymous with her freshly brewed South Indian filter coffee and must-try keerai vadai – the stall's title Still Being Made Here is rather apt. Especially because amma's technique is not nearly as easy to replicate as it looks, one sous nearby claims. So after a tumbler of the coffee that has made her famous among guests in the last year and a bite into her subtly flavoured kozhukattai, we go over to say hello and... nandri. She smiles and then responds much to one's surprise: "You can talk to me in English. I am an MA Economics graduate."
Rathnam continues proudly, "I was working as secretary to a CMD in the State government for 35 years." But after retirement and a couple of months to ponder, she decided to switch over to a childhood hobby of hers – cooking. But how does it feel to be sharing kitchen space in the midst of five-star qualified men in white uniform? "I have no worries," she states candidly. Being the eldest of her sisters, when Rathnam was a girl, she got her first experiences at the stove younger than most. She adds a moment later, "You know, I started making dal and rice in the kitchen at the age of five?" In fact, making it a practice of grinding her own rice powder and masalas, she has had the occasional chef come over to take a lesson or two from her!
As for the menu of what snack is to be prepared each day, it turns out that none of the white hats in the kitchen get a say. "I decide my own menu," she tells us. "Whatever I feel like making that day... there is nothing fixed."
But if you arrive before 11am, do make a request for her special cashew pakoda. This reporter guarantees you won't regret it. "It's Dhoni's favourite," Rathnam reveals. Apparently watching cricket is her second love, so much so that she even records matches so that she can stay home on a Sunday and watch them, minus the kitchen rush. One has to wonder though, working at a five-star hotel – has she ever indulged in the variety available, beyond her own cooking... pasta, pizza, a burger perhaps? "No, no..." she says with a shy smile now, "Not all that. I like my idlis and sometimes the bisibelabath at Dakshin (the Sheraton's South Indian kitchen)."
The biggest irony? Despite guests raving about her coffee, she's never tried it herself. Rathnam, it turns out is a fitness junkie! "Just tea and fruit juice for me," she beams over the counter.
(One tumbler of filter kaapi and the snack of the day is priced at Rs 250 plus tax)