Jerson Fernandes, a popular face in Mumbai's newspapers for his food articles, core committee member of Western Indian Culinary Association and a HACCP certified Chef, is currently working as Executive Chef at the Hotel Sea Princes, Mumbai. Jerson has established himself as a critically acclaimed chef and received numerous awards and accolades. He was awarded the youngest most talented Chef de Cuisine in the Middle East for his work at Marriott in the year 2012, The most Creative budding Chef of India award in 2014 and the Youngest best Executive chef award in 2016. In an exclusive interview with Better Kitchen, Jerson takes readers on his culinary journey. Excerpts.
Tell us about your background and how you have come to the hotel industry, especially into your chosen line of cooking?
I was always fascinated by food right from the early days. When kids of my age were glued to the television sets watching cartoons and other kids channels, I was into the various recipe shows telecast then. At a very early age, I started working as a casual waiter in some of the top clubs and restaurants of Mumbai to earn some pocket money. My focus was actually in the kitchen, I spoke to chefs and secretly wrote down their recipes watching at them cook and came home and tried the same. I failed more than I succeeded. However, deep down my heart, I knew this was my passion and this was soon going to be my profession. I then joined a cruise line as a dish washer, came back did my B.Sc. in hotel and hospitality administration from IHM-Hyderabad and got selected as one of India's first Kitchen management trainees for Accor (Novotel Hyderabad). It was no looking back since then.
Where you have done your training?
I did my internship at the Taj Lands End, Mumbai. Apart from this, I also worked for my college restaurant kitchen (Chefs court) which used to be open for the masses after college hours. This helped me hone my skills and took me a long way. I believe it doesn't really matter where you train, what matters is how you train and how much efforts you put in. Almost all kitchens would teach you the same, its very imperative to realize and understand in which direction you want to go.
Coming to the kitchen side of the hotel industry, how did you plan and visualize it?
Very few people actually know that, I started as a dishwasher even before I entered college. I always knew food was my first love and I wanted to make a career out of it. Working on the cruise actually helped me in a big way. It opened the windows of exploring the world of gastronomy through my job. Even though, I was in the dish washing area, my focus was always on the line cooks and I knew I would get there soon.
I was very clear I wanted to be a chef, I worked hard and I believe I achieved quite a lot at a very early age working for some of the top brands like Accor, Marriott, and Taj. I was awarded the youngest best Chef de cuisine in UAE by Marriott. I was awarded the youngest most talented Executive chef in 2016 and the most creative chef award in 2015 to name a few.
With regard to kitchen planning, in most of the cases it is done by architects and designers in consultation with Chefs. But from your experience, you talk about accessibility. Please comment on that.
Yes, that's right! Architects and designers are an integral part of kitchen designing and execution. But, most importantly, it's the chefs brainchild. The chef decides the kitchen layout and flow. He then shares and puts forth his ideas and execution plan to the designers and architects who together work towards this and give the chef what he desires. At the end of the day, it's the chef whose going to be working in the kitchen, so he might as well get what he desires, the architect and designers play the role of an amplifier here where they simply enhance the ideas and suggestions of the chef and turn it into reality.
How do you rate the food which is going to be cooked in the kitchen and served at the table. How much weightage do you to give to both cooking and serving?
I strongly feel- cooking and serving are two sides of the same coin. It is imperative for the cooking to be of the highest quality, likewise the service to be great. If the cooking is great, and service lacks class, it ruins the entire experience. Similarly, if you provide your guest A class service and your food lacks taste and quality, it would leave a sour impression on the diners mind, maybe you would loose your diner for ever. Its equally important for me to ensure both are top class and hence they deserve equal weightage.
When you are cooking the food, when the guest is of old age, can you suggest something more suitable to his palate?
Oh yes, its very important to know a little bit about your guest before cooking. I love visiting tables and recommending the apt stuff to all my guest. It gives me a broader picture as to what the guest is expecting from your meal. In the case of an old or elderly guest, I would suggest a dish which would be less oily, less spicy, not too hard and soft to chew on. A mashed masala khichdi or a risotto would be great in this case.
When you are talking about 10 guests or a thousand guests, the preparation is going to be different. In that case what is your preference for the cookware and the cooking pots?
The smaller the cooking quantity, the smaller would be the pots and pans. Using smaller pots and pans gives the chef a better control over the heat and hence cooking becomes easy thereby helping in getting the desired textures and flavors. Similarly, for bulk cooking there are bigger utensils and pots used like the lagans, kadhais, brat pan, tilting pans, steaming ovens and even your latest conventional ovens which help you cook food in bulk faster with minimum manpower. I feel, it’s very important to know what vessel/cookware to use when and for what cooking method as it goes a long way with respect to the desired final product.
What about the technology. Like when you are talking about gas, or the induction are you going to use the same thing or it is going to be different?
Depends on the location and the situation to be very honest. If it's a live cooking where there are fire restrictions, I would always prefer an induction, also an induction looks neater and more presentable for cooking live in front of guests. The gas however, can be used wherever there are no fire restrictions as it gives us a better control over heat. Both, have their own pros and cons and have to be used wisely.
Tell us about the Green Practices you follow in your kitchen.
Caring for the environment is of prime importance. We as chefs do our every bit to ensure the environment is safe guarded by following a few practices such as garbage segregation, minimum use of plastic in the kitchen for storage, calculative cooking to avoid wastage and lastly saving our natural resources like water and electricity. Using a water purification system and recycling water which is later used in the gardens and conserving electricity by being responsible while using our electrical appliance's in the kitchen.
How do you rate the importance of fuel while in the kitchen. What are the hazards of using different fuels?
We use CNG or piped gas as its commonly known. You wouldn't find a single cylinder in our hotel as a best practice measure followed here. CNG is eco friendly, user friendly and easy to monitor and control. Wherever we cannot use gas, we use induction cookers. It is very important as a chef to use fuel sparingly and understand its importance. Hazards of using different fuels could be many ranging from decreasing the effective running of a machine to permanently damaging it.
With more and more technologies coming up, do you think cooking is going to be more advanced?
Oh yes! No doubt about that. With technology advancing and machines replacing man, we are entering an era which is going to be dominated by technology and machines. Cooking, is surely going to be more advanced with technology advancing. Better and more efficient cooking equipments and tools, instant cooking methods and techniques, better technology in cooking equipments will all pave the way to an advanced world of gastronomy.
Now the concept of cooking kitchen and serving kitchen has become a vogue. How do you differentiate the appliances and the technology in these kitchens?
A cooking kitchen primarily will have all advanced cooking equipments and tools required for cooking right from a salamander to a cooking range to a chiller for storage. This kitchen is mainly a kitchen where all your mise en place and cooking would be done. A serving kitchen on the other hand is where you would have minimum cooking or rather just finishing and plating happening. This is a kitchen where you would give the food its finishing touches before its picked up for service. The equipments and tools required here would be lesser and more precise like a micro oven, blow torch, etc.
Do you have a Disaster Plan in place in case of an emergency.
As they say, disaster strikes without warnings and it is imperative to have a plan in place at all given times. We do have several plans and dedicated teams for different types of emergencies be it, medical, fire or a natural emergency like lightning or floods.
Earlier you people were saying that Chefs don't disclose their recipes. Now a days with an open kitchen everybody is seeing what you are mixing. So how do you think the Chefs can keep their recipe a secret?
I believe in sharing my knowledge as it helps me grow and learn. Sharing recipes will only make you a better chef as it brings out the best in you. In today's world with live and open kitchens coming up, there is very little scope for such recipes being a secret. However, even if a recipe is shared, it is not easy to execute it at the first attempt as it takes a lot of time to master several techniques and methods of cooking in most of the recipes. When it comes to keeping recipes a secret, I don't think there is any such recipe which is a secret in today's world. If you have the knowledge and experience you can decode any recipe with time and practice.
Have you ever got any ideas or inspiration from your guests?
Oh yes! A lot of guests today love food and are good cooks. While visiting tables for feedback, I interact with guests who share their ideas, cooking techniques and their knowledge on various ingredients and places visited in search of good food. Every guest has a story to tell and every day is a new learning curve for me. To share an example, I learnt the technique of hand tossing a pizza form a few Italian guests who regularly patronize us at the hotel. Likewise, health conscious guests share their experiences on the new healthy food ingredients and trends which I put to use in my kitchens.
What is the message you are going to give to our readers, as a Chef, about the kitchen. How people can plan their kitchen. Whether it's a domestic kitchen or a commercial kitchen. What points they can keep in mind while designing it, etc.?
Well, a few useful tips as follows:
1) Understand and figure out the need of the kitchen before you design it.
2) Nothing comes free, plan and freeze on a budget to execute the plan effectively.
3) Make sure you have the best exhaust, fresh air and drainage systems incorporated in your plan for a kitchen to last longer in good shape.
4) Make sure your kitchen is eco friendly and adheres to all the environmental policies.
5) Do not overspend on unwanted equipments, start small and go big if required.
6) Always have an emergency plan/door/ way out of your kitchen.
Tell us briefly about your concept of an Ideal Commercial Kitchen.
Well a commercial kitchen should have an effective exhaust/ fresh air and drainage system, it should be energy efficient and have an egronomical kitchen design. It should meet all health, fire, and safety food standards and should be easily to maintain and spaced out effectively. All best practices of the kitchen should be easy to be followed and facilitated in all commercial kitchens.
Any message you want to give to our readers about the kitchen. How can they make their dream kitchen?
Certainly! Any kitchen or rather every kitchen is a dream kitchen if its maintained and taken care of well. You need to connect with your kitchen, treat it like the most important part of your home/establishment. Remember- your food speaks a lot about the kitchen it comes from. Feel proud to step into your kitchen and don the cooking apron… the rest will automatically follow!