Sunday, November 15, 1998
By Taru Bahl
ROYALTY has always been indulgent to food. Every state palace had its share of Indian and western chefs, kitchen assistants and food tasters. Masala experts, based on the days menu used to grind different masala pastes, be it for chicken, fish, mutton, snipe or partridge. Food tasters not only ensured the authenticity and flavour of the dish but also checked for poison, given the high level of intrigues at that time.
All documentation whether it is through paintings, murals, literature, poetry or scrolls reflects the rulers fond preference for cuisine and food presentation. It was supposed to reflect the mood, weather, occasion and ambience of the time. Celebrations, change of season and even mourning had a food culture all their own. Today, the food industry is an organised sector and food pampering no longer the preserve of the rich and the famous. The chef is a far more visible figure.
Till a few years ago, it was only the five star hotels which used to organise specialised cuisine festivals for the few food buffs who (thanks to international travel) were interested in foreign cuisine.
Now, with specialty restaurants, world renowned hotel chains, high quality catering services in not just the metros but also smaller towns, one is in the midst of a virtual food revolution. A good chef who has both qualification and experience to back him, finds himself deluged with job offers. Any food junkie will confirm that it is not the location or the interiors which determine the drawing power of an eatery, but the food and its service.
The chef therefore is the prized catch of any business related to food, making his high skill vocation highly remunerative too.
What does it take to be a sought-after chef? The first thing, of course, is a passion for everything related to food. Unfortunately in India exclusive training in cuisine and food is not available, barring an odd institute here and there. Usually one goes through one of the hotel management or food craft institutes and follows this up with a job in the kitchen of any hotel/restaurant.
Here, you pick up the rudiments of the trade, hone your skills and taste buds. Only once you have gained a fair level of expertise, you can combine creativity and innovation in your trademark recipes.
While there is no stopping you from learning on the job, giving a full-time course a by your leave, most employers look for a cooking school diploma/degree as an essential credential. A professional course gives you an overview. If you apprentice on-the-job under another chef, chances are he wont share his trade secrets with you. Why did a sauce break down or why did the cake fall, could be dilemmas you are left to sort out for yourself.
In a good cooking school, cooking is treated both as an art and a science. Idea being to create a student who has an educated palate and a thorough grounding in the principles and techniques of fine cooking. This comes by fostering an intellectual and aesthetic sensibility that transcends recipes and formulae.
It prepares you for a wide variety of career paths in the modern culinary community which could be in the kitchens of the finest restaurants worldwide, in the highly specialised fields of food writing (Jiggs Kalra, Roopa Gulati), food consultancy (Karen Anand), catering, publishing (coffee table books), cookery books (Tarla Dalal) producing, researching and anchoring television shows (Khana Khazana, the Restaurant and Rasoi shows) and personality based food shows on international channels (Madhur Jaffrey on BBC).
By joining a well-equipped institute you get acquainted with basic cooking techniques; gain insights into culinary secrets of different regions and countries; are in a position to assess industry standards; polish your art of presentation; understand the mechanics of sanitation and safety; go through the basics on personal management development; career development (time/training management); book keeping and, restaurant accounting; sales, loss prevention; marketing and palate development.
Along with planning menus you learn about logistics too weights, measures, capacities, temperatures, kitchen equipment and gadgetry. Overseas schools lay a great emphasis on palate development. This includes tastings of things like olive oils, cheeses, spices intended to demonstrate first-hand that good food is more than a reflection of individual preferences. Palate development is a lifelong pursuit. The finest chefs are adept at tasting critically. While a training school gives you requisite exposure and academic knowledge, it is only time and experience which give you confidence and mastery.
The Culinary Institute of America is perhaps the only residential college in the world devoted entirely to culinary education where more than 2,500 students pass out every year. It offers associate degree programmes in culinary art, baking and pastry arts and continuing education courses for food service professionals. It has 36 fully equipped kitchens and four public restaurants.
Then you have Cordon Bleu schools in Europe. In Indian there is Goas academy of Culinary Education.
The biggest irony about the food business is that the top positions are dominated by men, the biggest restaurants are owned and franchised by men and this when food and kitchen are supposed to be the domain of women! Women all over the world are acknowledged to be good in specialty areas like salads, desserts, puddings, cakes and other bakery items. Their creativity, colour combination and presentation skills bring a welcome freshness.
Another reason why women job-seekers deliberately opt out of the kitchen rigmarole is because they perceive it to be the most unglamorous part of hoteliering. Work conditions are strenuous and there is a gender bias which works against the weak hearted "fair sex".
Many women give up when they find themselves not moving beyond the chopping, grinding, cleaning "deck-hand" stage. Usually after the first year or two, you are given the choice of specialising. It could be another four to five years before you can satisfactorilymaster the taste, flavour, texture and appearance of your chosen dishes/cuisine and are given a free hand to experiment and do things your way.
Food consultant Karen Anands career graph reads like a dream. Armed with a singular passion for food (no degrees, mind you) she started with catering, going on to join Mumbais Khyber as a food consultant. She travelled extensively, took a peek in the best hotel kitchens and learnt as much as she could on-the-job. Today she is a consultant with Dominoes (India), The Park (Delhi), Khyber and Old World Hospitality. She does different things at different places. She trains chefs, gives them exclusive recipes, food ideas, develops menus, helps them source ingredients, trains fresh catering students, adds value to hotel research and developments cells and is into developing a line of low calorie Indian food for a London chain.
According to Karen
"You must be prepared to go beyond the prescribed
syllabus. Depending on your clients/employers
needs, equip yourself with information and knowledge
which should be on your finger tips. If you are
consulting, dont shy away from quoting high fees,
but make sure you give good value for money, any exposure
abroad should be grabbed and finally let your conviction
and love for food show in all your food creations and
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