As a small town boy from Ajmer in Rajasthan, never in his wildest dreams did Ashish Bhasin think that his fondness for cooking up his own meals during school camping trips would one day lead to a full-fledged career as a chef. Yet, here he is, cooking up culinary masterpieces one after another as the Executive Chef of Trident, Bandra Kurla, Mumbai. Ekta Bhargava had the pleasure of speaking to this effervescent chef and were given an overview of his beautiful journey to success.
Tell us about your early years…
I participated in various kinds of activities during my school days. I was particularly fond of scouting. We went for many camping trips and would have to make our own food on a chullah. The cooking bit of the trip always left me fascinated, but never once did I think that it would become my profession. In fact, at that point in time, I was sure I would join the Defense Forces. In 1994, as my most of my friends were gearing up for hotel management entrance exams, my inquisitive mind too would wonder if I had an aptitude for working in hotels. This thought led me to sit for the exam. To mine and everybody else's surprise, I cleared the exam and decided to go for the course. On the very first day of college I stood in the middle of the kitchen telling myself that this was the place for me.
Give us a glimpse into your professional journey…
I started my career with Taj Group of hotels and worked there for 2.5 years. My journey with The Oberoi Group started from The Oberoi, New Delhi. In 2006, I got the opportunity to take independent charge of the kitchen at Trident Udaipur. Next, I moved to The Oberoi Rajvilas and was the first Indian to be made an Executive Chef. From there, I got an international posting for 2 years in Egypt on the Red Sea at The Oberoi, Sahl Hasheesh. Luck has always been on my side and I have had the opportunity to work with some of the best people in the industry.
What's your strategy in the kitchen?
I don't just cook food, I play with the ingredients. I interact with the spices and feel their aroma & taste.
To you, how important is the design and aesthetic of the kitchen you head?
It's paramount! I like to be very involved in the kitchen planning process even though most of it is done by the architects. Since every inch of space counts, the smallest of aspects are taken into consideration, right from planning whether the door would open from the left or right to determining how the service team will reach the pass. Kitchen operations need to look and feel seamless. The architecture of the kitchen is also influenced by the type of cuisine that will be cooked in it. This is the reason why a senior chef is always involved in the planning process.
As a chef, how difficult is it to cater to different taste buds?
It's easy if you keep an open mind and are willing to customize the food experience for the customer. In hotels, we host people belonging to different nationalities who have varied food preferences. When I'm cooking food for them I try to keep in mind their likes and dislikes. In fact, we are also infants friendly and ensure that babies are given a nutritious & delicious meal after consulting their parents. This is my 18th year in the industry and I have a fair idea now about the kind of food people like. Every day I learn new facts while interacting with guests. Gaining an insight into their preferences enhances my learning process and is extremely enriching. Whether it's a 300 calorie meal or a sugar free desert, I love to have an option for everyone.
What's your kitchen mantra?
I believe that cooking and serving go hand in hand. You can't choose one over the other. Good food served horribly or horrible food served nicely is recipe for disaster. To be successful, everything has to be perfect, from start to end. And in cooking, that “start” means ingredients. If the ingredients are fresh & wholesome, you can easily make it to a person's heart by way of their stomach. That's the philosophy of my food and the mantra in my kitchen.
In a time when induction cooking is the latest trend, are you aboard the bandwagon?
Using induction equipment depends on what I am making. I feel induction is safer than gas and is a revolution in flame-less cooking. I also like how you can control the temperature very easily, and since the heat is spread out well, the chances of food getting burnt are slim.
We hear that you're also a big fan of slow cooking…
Yes, I am a big fan of slow cooking. I feel the technique gives most respect to each and every ingredient being used. On high flame cooking, the chances of the food getting overcooked or staying undercooked are a lot higher. You only have a second or two to take a call on the fate of the dish. But in slow cooking, you can see the colors change, the aromas build and the flavours develop. Vegetables and meats have aromas and juices that come out more beautifully on the slow flame. Overall, food made with this technique has depth that is unparalleled.
People are getting crazier for Chinese, why?
Your question is a very thought-provoking one!
When it comes to Chinese cuisine, in my opinion it is extremely diverse. It is derived from 4 major schools based on their geographical locations - North, South, East & West.
Northern school – The world famous Peking Duck dish hails from this region. It embraces the culinary style of Beijing, Hunan and Shandong provinces. Grains replace rice as the staple food. Due to the extreme cold, fresh vegetables are not available, so locals use a lot of preserved food.
Southern school – Cantonese food is the best known in the west because of its use of plenty of hoisin and soya sauce. The food is also slightly raw in order to preserve its texture and colour. The area is known as the Rice Bowl Of China because rice is the staple food there.
Eastern school – Cooking here features the culinary styles of Zhejiang, Fujian, Jianxi and Shanghai. This region has the most fertile land, so one can find lots of fruits and vegetables. Fresh seafood is also available in abundance.
Western school – This includes the Sichuan and Hunan regions, and predominantly uses ingredients like chilies, Sichuan peppercorn, ginger, onion and garlic. Dishes from this region have a great balance of many flavours.
We also have various versions of Chinese food that took birth in India. An example of one of such dish is Manchurian. This dish, unfortunately, has never crossed the Indian border and been to Manchuria – a region in North-East China. We call it an Indo-Chinese cuisine. This cuisine is one which is very close to the Indian palate as it playfully blends spicy, chatpata & masaledar flavours and is yet very different.
What other cuisine do you think is making its way into the Indian market?
Today's generation is well-travelled and likes to experiment a lot when it comes food and beverage. In 2004, our company was the first to sweep people off their feet with authentic sushi. I remember, there were very few takers for this unique cuisine, so much so, that even I was skeptical about consuming it. However, over the years, the number of Sushi lovers has grown exponentially and it has become one of the most popular cuisines in our country.
Do you practice Go Green?
There are lots of green practices that we follow at Trident, Bandra Kurla.
We practice segregation of dry, wet & chemical garbage separately as a result of which we are able to process wet garbage and make our own manure.
Secondly, we have our own Sewage Treatment Plant at the hotel as a result of which we are able to conserve water.
Thirdly, we make us of LED bulbs which are energy efficient and long-lasting an LED bulb can cut energy consumption over 80% as compared to conventional light bulbs.
Over and above this, the team is trained with regard to equipment handling and knowledge of appliances to prioritize the approach towards saving energy.
How is technology changing the face of commercial kitchens?
Science and technology are playing a very important role in commercial kitchens of today. With the advent of newer and more sophisticated technology making its way into kitchens, we are able to do a lot more in lesser time. We have freezers and chillers that can freeze food in minutes and tools that can chop food in seconds!
However, machines can only expedite the process of cooking; they don't have a brain of their own nor can they innovate and create a delectable masterpiece for the taste buds.
Is it true that most chefs prefer to keep their recipes a secret?
I speak for myself and I am always happy to share my recipes! It's a myth that you will lose your value as a chef if you share your best recipes. I believe that the more I share, the more I grow as a chef. Also, if people could become chefs by merely knowing great recipes, then there are numerous books available in the market to help them. In fact, if it was that easy, I too would have become an Executive Chef straight out of college and not after spending 10 years in the industry. What I am trying to emphasize on is that the fact that “recipes” alone don't make or break a chef. They are just frameworks and cannot determine that the final product will be perfect.
What would you say, is your biggest achievement in life?
In the span of my career, I have done many things to the best of my ability. But my greatest achievement is my family. I am the proud father of two children; one is 12 and the other, 7. The thing that matters the most to me in life, is to be a good father to them and a loving husband to my wife. I try to spend as much quality time with my family as I can, even if that means not having a social life. On my days off from work, I love to cook for my little ones and wife and give them as much happiness as I can.
How do you maintain a proper work life balance?
A chef's job requires a lot of time, but I have a lovely and efficient team which helps making work a smooth endeavour. Even in my busy schedule, I always make sure I am available to witness important moments in the life of my children. From attending their annual day functions, to being a supporting parent and encouraging them to pursue their passions. I like to motivate them in every way possible. I dote on my kids and am instantly relieved of the entire day's stress the minute they run over to me and hug me when I get home!
Apart from the above, I am passionate about photography and Scuba Diving and both these activities are a great stress reliever for me!
If you had to give a special message for the readers, what would it be? Food is the best thing that has happened to mankind. Enjoy food, but respect it.
Always remember, numerous people go to bed without a meal every day. So eat to your heart's delight, but never waste an iota of this precious resource. Another thing worth keeping in mind is that food is a very simple thing, don't complicate it. Respect ingredients and cook from your heart.