Has cooking, which was once the mundane drudgery of the homemaker, come a long way to become a sophisticated art supported by advancing modern technology in the twenty first century? The answer is interestingly and crisply given by seasoned chef Sudhir Pai whose three decades of experience and global exposure makes him an authority and a guru for those who have aspirations of achieving a position of recognition in the hotel industry.
We are meeting him in the spacious and serene coffee shop of Holiday Inn, Saki Naka, Mumbai, a short distance from the Chatrapati Shivaji International airport on a weekday at the start of yet another hectic day for him as the man at the helm of the hotel's hi-tech kitchen.
The soft spoken, unassuming chef unhesitatingly plunges into the interview without wasting time.
As we begin at the beginning, he chuckles and tells us unabashedly that his interest in cooking was stirred at an early age when his mother and grandmother prepared goodies for the festivals the family celebrated together. He was curious like any child at that age to know how the delicacies laid out on those occasions and when guests came home to dinner or lunch were conjured up by the ladies so smartly. He accompanied them to the market when they went out to buy the fish or the meat and the ingredients and observed how they made their choices so carefully and expertly.
“You know those days a boy was either expected to choose a career in engineering or medicine or the government services. Nobody ever expected an adolescent undergrad to say he would like to explore a career in cooking. The word chef was nowhere in the common vocabulary. It was infra dig to even suggest that one would like to go for a career in the hotel industry as an expert cook. However I told my parents that I would like to enroll in the Bombay Catering College as the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, Mumbai, was then known. They were broadminded enough to let me follow my pursuit”, Pai remembers cheerfully.
“We never dined at five star hotels, so my parents did not know what that world was like. I myself did not know what a chef's position was like till I went for the mandatory training at the Taj during the course at the catering Institute. It was such a revelation”.
Chef Pai emerged from the institute with his dreams of making it in a professional world which was just beginning to find its place among the respectable and lucrative professions of the modern world. His summer internship at the Taj sharpened his ambition to make his own mark in the calling he had chosen for himself. He was too young then to realize that he had indeed done the right thing. He had chosen a career to which he was adapted by nature and liking and that by itself was a key to success. He knew that years of hard work lay ahead but it hardly scared him because his love for the work he had chosen would itself take care of the hard work.
At the Taj he found out for himself that his forte would be in the kitchen. “I observed with wonder and awe how the chefs created recipes and skillfully presented and served their creations and earned admiration. In the service department you needed a different kind of ability. You had to speak with confidence and present yourself smartly. That was not my plus point. I was fascinated by the creativity that went into the chef's work and I made up my mind categorically”.
Chef Pai then consciously chose to specialize in the Kitchen rather than in the Service segment and the challenge before him was to make the best of the skill he had chosen to acquire. “It was during my short exposure at the Taj that I saw how a lot of creativity goes into a chef's work. I witnessed how imaginatively the recipes were executed and presented and how a chef dominated the kitchen with the sheer magic of his skill. I also did a training stint at the Ambassador Flight Kitchen, the pioneer in flight catering, and at the ITC. At the college we did a lot of theory and we also got to understand the nuances of cooking both for bulk cooking and limited cooking but the training at the hotels mentioned literally opened my eyes. I knew now that my aptitude was in the area of cooking and not service”, admits Pai.
Pai's first job was at the Hotel Sands, a relatively small hotel at Juhu in Mumbai. He looks back at the experience again with a sense of gratitude because it was the hands on experience at Sands that further sealed his decision to take become a chef.
“You must note that it was not easy for anyone to categorically choose a career in that period. Today you can glean every information you want on internet and there are celebrated chefs and cooking shows on television to give you motivation. I am talking about the pre Sanjeev Kapoor years”, he laughs and goes on to tell us that both he and Sanjeev Kapoor passed out in 1984---Kapoor passed out from Pusa institute Delhi and Pai passed out from Mumbai.
He picked up the finer points of the art from “on the spot exposure”, his own understanding and common sense. Pai elucidates it thus: “When a housewife cooks at home for her guests she is in no position to adhere to the rule that food must be served fresh, hot and attractively. Very rarely you come across a lady who will cook fresh food for her guests because she is the hostess who has the responsibility of conversing with her guests and making them feel welcome and at home as well. So she usually keeps the food ready. She may tend to forget an item in her hurry to serve the food after warming it up. She may not even create a menu that will suit the taste of her guests because she will be focused on making a good impression by preparing what she knows best and what she excels in.
“In our profession as chefs we cannot do that. We have to ensure that the guest gets freshly cooked, hot food made to his taste and comfort level. I enjoy interacting with guests in the hotel to find out what he or she likes to eat . The choice and likes change from individual to individual depending on age, cultural background etc. If a mother is fussy about what her child eats she will be the happiest guest if I find out what her child likes and I give her just that on a plate at the table or in her room. I have conversations with guests and I try to discern what they enjoy. It is a revelation I use to please him during his stay in the hotel. Sometimes a guest tells me about a dish he enjoyed at a restaurant in some other hotel in some other city and I can sense his yearning to savor it again. I quietly try to replicate it and approximate the aroma and taste and I present it before him as a surprise. His happiness becomes my reward”.
Pai makes no mistake when he describes the demands of his occupation as a mix of management skill, creativity, technical expertise, engineering knowledge, IT savvy, worldly wisdom and love for the job. He smiles when he says that ideally a chef should possess all these attributes to be successful and sought after today in a competitive world.
“I would say that a lot of understanding goes into the taste that is given to the food that is beautifully served. When you cook a vegetable for twenty persons and when you cook the same vegetable for 1000 persons the recipe itself changes and along with it the taste also goes through an inevitable change. If you try to cook bhendi for 1000 people the way you would cook it for twenty it will become sticky and disastrous. The recipe has to change and the taste too will change but the chef's skill is to see that the change in taste is minimized. That is the secret of the difference in taste between home cooked food and restaurant food. An expert chef will ensure that the difference is camouflaged by the creation of a brilliant recipe”, Pai reveals.
In a restaurant most diners like an open kitchen where they can watch the cooks toss and whip and fry and grill the food because they enjoy being part of the whole process of creation and presentation. Those restaurants which have the open kitchen service have to meet the challenge of not only making the experience delightful for the diners but also safe for the visitors. As Pai rightly points out the chef's responsibility does not end anymore in the realm of the kitchen. The chef today is expected to take several calls.
He reveals that a chef today has to ensure that expenses are cut wisely because no hotel can afford losses arising from poor management of resources. For instance, when a certain technology is brought in it is mandatory for the chef to have a thorough understanding of its use and maintenance. More than anything else the chef has to know what course of action to take if it fails. Ideally the choice of the technology should be made in consultation with the chef if he is knowledgeable and well acquainted with its strengths and shortcomings. Very often when a new installation fails the shocks come when parts have to be replaced and that involves huge unforeseen expenses. It is always better to prevent such costly breakdowns than go all out to mend the failure. To prevent the mishap the chef should have a complete understanding of the technology and he should instruct and train the hands down the line to use the equipments with care and skill. Induction cooking for instance is not new but it has undergone rapid advancement in its merits and usefulness. An informed and experienced chef will ensure that optimum care is taken in its use to achieve optimum result. An entire line of modern technology is now available for chefs to select from. They involve huge expenses in their installation, use and maintenance. It takes a technologically educated chef to make good use of it.
“I make it a point to participate in exhibitions and attend workshops related to technology because my profession demands constant updating and refinement of knowledge and information. I insist that everybody down the line in any place I work in shows the same enthusiasm to assimilate knowledge and experience”, he says.
To housewives who are kitchen proud and have a flair for trying out new recipes that require the use of modern cooking infrastructure he gives the same advice. “Plan your kitchen according to your comfort level and requirement. And be savvy about the devices and installations in your kitchen in order to keep them for a long time in good shape”, he advises.