Separated by cultures. United by kitchens. That’s the story of expat chefs working in India, making the country their second abode. Alien to the place, language and its culture, they have made food a unifying language of self expression. Some have come in recently, while others have been here for years. There are still a select few, who fell so much in love with India, that they never went back.
Chef Veena Arora, Chef de Cuisine, The Spice Route at The Imperial New Delhi is one of them. She was born and brought up in Phathalung in south Thailand. Her father was in the Indian National Army and posted in Burma (now Myanmar) during World War II. Marriage brought her to India in 1980 and she adjusted herself so well here that she never felt the need to go back. “Over the years, the winds of change have brought me to self actualization and has made me reach where I am today. I am very content being part of an Indian kitchen set up,” says Veena.
The title of Best Lady Chef by Ministry of Tourism in India, for her outstanding achievement and contribution to the promotion of tourism in the country in 2012, has been one of the many pleasant highlights, the country has offered her. She remembers the time when she had stepped on the Indian kitchen floor for the first time as a Thai consultant at the Silk Orchid, Holiday Inn (now Lalit), when she wasn’t met with the kind of warmth she usually receives new team members with. Being a women didn’t help either. “The industry was male dominated and still is. Language was a barrier.In the passing years, I started conversing and comprehending Hindi well, which helped,” she says.
Language wasn’t too much of a problem for Liu Wen, Chinese Chef at the Shanghai Club, Welcom Hotel Dwarka, who came to Delhi from Beijing, China, a few years back. The large population of expat community here made living in this foreign land less of an ordeal and more of a discovery. “I made a lot of Chinese friends and went out exploring the city. The love that people in Delhi have for our food, is a reflection of our close ties. I relish the food here too,” says Wen who loves a well done double egg, double chicken kathi roll from any of the kathi carts. For a good laugh to complement a great meal, he turns on some of the daily soaps on Indian television.
His counterpart in the kitchen, Sushi Master Chef Venecio Cadavida loves kathis too, but not more than butter chicken. Cadavida, who would have been an Army officer had he not been a chef, says he loves the fast-paced, religious and cultural centre that is Delhi. The first half of his day is spent on the Internet, video chatting with his children in the Philippines. Later he likes to visit different parts of Delhi or watch an Indian movie. “Coming from the Philippines, I feel the culture here is very similar to my hometown,” he says.
Working at The Ritz-Carlton, Bangalore, Dim Sum Chef, David Chan Kah Kwok finds himself amid a lot of differences in the city he calls home (Malaysia) and the city he has made home (Bangalore). “Unlike Bangalore, which is pleasant all year, Malaysia is hot and humid. People, religions, culture and food in the two cities are different too,” he says.
Kwok says he expects his co-workers to be as serious and determined as him, whether they are Indian chefs or expats. “We all share a cordial relationship. All kinds of negativity is kept outside of the kitchen,” he says.
Christophe Gillino, Executive Chef at The Leela Palace New Delhi has not only stayed away from negativity, he has made it a point to indulge in humour every now and then. He jokes a lot, watches humour on television and loves the company of people who enjoy a good laugh. The man who makes him laugh the most is the French president. Besides humour, music soothes his senses. “I had to make a hard choice between being a professional chef or being a professional musician, 25 years ago. I think I made the right choice in being what I am today,” he says.
An expat chef, Gillino says, brings diversity to the menus, knowledge about the various food products and equips staff with new culinary techniques. “Working across the globe brings to us the additional experience of dealing with a cross-culture work force and hence gives us an edge to lead and understand them better,” he says.
As important as leadership, according to Executive Chef Grzegorz Odolak from Park Hyatt Chennai, is the need to follow one’s bliss. A chef, he says must be a happy person to put out good food. To be happy, every chef must give priority to his interests. “I am a big fan of the Barcelona soccer team and I love playing soccer. Even though as a chef it’s difficult to find the time, I do manage to play when possible.”
Even though Chennai is quite unlike Sulejowek, a small city situated near Warsaw, Poland, from where he comes, Odolak has made it a home away from home.
Wearing two huge hats of responsibility, Chef Jerome Cousin, a French national, whose a chef and partner at the Rara Avis properties in Delhi and Goa, says his quest for discovery took him deep into his own subconscious. Born in Vesoul in the north east part of France, his hometown is a small city with a population of just 25,000. Everybody knows everybody, unlike the over-populated city he works in today. “I still like being in India as I can extend my talent to a larger audience,” he says, adding, how it becomes difficult to work with Indian chefs at times. “They are not ready to learn from others and think they know best. Some don’t even want to make friends with foreign chefs and would like that we don’t share their space and position.”
With two distinct personalities—one soft and kind and the other strict and stern, chef Cousin likes dedication, precision and perfection, in everything he touches. If you can’t keep up with that, you’re outside his kitchens.
Chef Ananchai Suttison is a Japanese chef at Zen, a restaurant at The Park hotel, Kolkata. He, unlike chef Cousin, couldn’t argue his way out of an untoward incident when once, while working at a Sushi counter, in a hotel he rolled the sushi the wrong way and a chef slapped him hard in front of the guests.
“Japanese food is scientific in execution. You must get it right the first time and over the years, I have become as particular as the chefs who trained me,” he says.
Suttison who was born in Sri Saket, a cooks village in Eastern Thailand, took up his first job with Akamon Restaurant in Bangkok Golf Club as a helper. For one year, all he did was cleaning and chopping. “Luckily one day, they required a stand-by kitchen helper and I jumped at the prospect,” he says.
At The Park Kolkata, he doesn’t miss home too much. It is this city that recognised his talent. “It gives me immense pleasure to whip up authentic food for my guests. I feel so much at home here that I just start juggling my spades and shakers,” he says, looking down at a deep scar on his hand. He got that when he was learning to cook and it stays with him as a reminder of the hard times that lead the way to better ones.