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Suhas Padil

What does it take to be a chef in India??

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I have a few questions,

1. Why aren't there as many people, who take up this profession as their first choice?? And Not because they lacked choices.


2. Why don't chefs look beyond the popular dishes?? Why don't they create their own dishes taking inspiration from the rich Indian culinary heritage?? I don't mean, tweak the daal makhani, I mean make a daal makhani without daal!!


3. In future, will India see some chefs coming from village background, cooking their local cuisine with a touch of innovation and make India, a culinary destination, that it deserves to be!? I don't just mean molecular gastronomy(currently with which the world is stuck with).


Here is a story, that may be relevant, When Ferran Adria was a aspiring young chef, he proposed to a girl and her mother didn't approve of her marrying a chef!! Later, he goes on to be the most respected chef in the whole damn world!


Here is my point of view on the subject:

1.It takes a lot of courage to take up the profession of being a chef, and that too in India, it is not a lucrative deal!

Considering the fact that, you have to work in a high stress environment, that too on weekends and holidays, for a pay that is too slim, I don't blame them for this being their alternative option. To many chefs working in economical restaurants, its mainly a source of income.


2. The owners of the restaurant give very little space for the chef to innovate something!! The sad part is, in many restaurant, the chef's innovation is that one special dish going by the name of the restaurant.


My knowledge about this subject is nill, so I ask you, what do you see in the future?? How will Indian Chefs fare? And more importantly, is Indian culinary treasure going to get a taste of innovation?

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I think there are many layers in the answer to this question.

Here are a few things that come to my mind. Please bear in mind, this is only my opinion and others may beg to differ.

Food industry isn't a high paying job. The country doesn't have minimum wages set, no clear labor laws.

Most Indians (guilty myself) automatically think medicine or engineering. And that's also because of the upbringing, most parents want their kids to get a high paying job. Why? Because of the conservative society we live in. Parents need their kids to make it big and fast, so they can advertise their kid's accomplishments, to get a good alliance for marriage. In India, the profession isn't well respected and a social stigma is attached to it. They give terms like baawarchi, etc. Not easy to change general mindset.

There is a lack of creative freedom: Creativity comes when you have peace of mind. Not when you are in a mad rush to earn big, get married and have kids, and continue the same cycle for generations. The country's overall economic health also plays a part in having that peace of mind.

As for making India a culinary destination, that comes from a well established system. Many tourists dread coming to India because of food safety. Health code laws need to enforced. Proper health inspections should be conducted and grade certificates need to be issued. If it hasn't passed a health inspection, the restaurant should be closed down. If it doesn't have a health inspection certificate, there should be a notice on the restaurant - this is how it works in developed countries. Is this possible in India? I don't see that happening. I see two reasons for it: people currently in the industry come from poor economic backgrounds, so we are naturally sympathetic towards them. Nobody would have the heart to close a struggling man's business down. Then of course, we have corruption. Bribe the health officials and everything goes as usual. How many of us suffer from the delhi belly on a daily basis? I have got food poisoning from eating at the Leela palace. Indians like us are used to getting food poisoning regularly, we get better and move on.

Of course, this is a general view. There will be exceptions.

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      By some of the questions you have posed, you have overtaken me in my incipient plans to voice very similar lamentations on this platform. I hope more people will answer, but that possibility seems remote.


     Specifically giving my take on your points


     Q1) All over the world, the profession of being a chef will not be uppermost in aspirant's minds because historically it has not been associated with automatic esteem and high salaries. The situation has changed now but not by a huge margin. Yes in India, top khansamas were appreciated but a top courtier would supercede them. Those chefs who want to challenge this will have to be like Joel Robuchon and Jean Georges Vongerichten both of whom are not only top chefs but also successful businessmen by being owners of money-making restaurants in different continents.  Or you can be like Eric Ripert - top chef for just 1 restaurant but with many and respectable TV appearances. In India, Hemant Oberoi comes somewhat close to the model of these chef-businessmen. Sanjeev Kapoor has no doubt made a lot of money and is well-known in India, but I don't see a dazzling restaurant in his CV. He seems to have perfected the middlebrow path.


    Q2) Please go to Pink Poppadum in your city. '?do=embed' frameborder='0' data-embedContent>>  There is a lot of tweaking going on in culinary modern India , rest assured. Cf. Varq, Masala Library, Indian Accent. More will appear with time. 


    Q3) Chef from villages coming to the city and cooking their local dishes with an innovative touch, as you say, will happen more in the upcoming times in India. What they need will be a further tectonic shift in the Indian market.


But this has to be balanced against the fact that many top chefs in Bangalore (S.H seconds this) bemoan that many patrons are still shy to try out avant garde cuisine. Stand-alone restaurants in this category seem particularly vulnerable in most cities of India.


  But for my money, the change to catapult India onto the world stage will come not from chefs, but from an enthusiastic and stylish purveyor who can relentlessly broadcast our potential - for example a TV presenter who can at once reach a large audience, celebrate an ambitious restaurant , remind us more about the difference between mediocrity and greatness , point out what is a good direction , and what is a bad direction, and bring luminaries from around the culinary world to Indian top spots to generate more publicity.


At the moment , there is no one like this. We need someone with the genius of Anthony Bourdain to bring throbbing life to cuisine promotion in India, and bring the culture of frank critique to separate the chaff from the gold. One TV show , of Rocky and Mayur on NDTV is a good one, but it is aimed mainly at humble establishments so it will not be that great game-changer that Indian Culinary Advertisement needs. I would have given a shot at a TV program aimed at promoting India's best in high-wire cuisine (with my USP being presentation of material, rather than hard-core cuisine knowledge which I will leave to Suresh Hinduja) but it will be a while before I cross waters and get down to such things. Others are most welcome to do what I want do.


A1) Being a talented chef in India does not always mean small money. There are many good chefs across India who have worked long and hard to now make Rs.1 Lakh per month at least. Moreover, junior chefs all over the world, not just in India, have miserably small salaries - that is the nature of the business.


A2) You're right about owners shackling chefs - happens often in our 5 star hotels also. The answer is a chef who expands his mind and gumption to own his own restaurant - takes time and guts but who told us that life is always easy?


You ask about the future. IMHO, Indian Chefs will be big players on the world stage. Gaggan Anands will start staying back in India.


Ancy Alexander - Good points there, but I disagree with you that food hygiene scares off many gastro-tourists to India. If these folks care to look carefully (and I'm sure many of them are doing so already)  - they will find scores of comfortable elegant and hygienic restaurants where they can sample the country's best. Check out Andy Hayler's 16/20 (very high rating) review of Indian Accent http://www.andyhayler.com/restaurant/Indian-accent


@Suresh Hinduja - Your opinion please (after the Wazwan orgy is done with)

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I tend to agree with Ancy about Tourists concerns over Food Hygiene in India.Usually applies to first time tourists.

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I think its a job taken up by many because of the lack of dignity of job in India. However times are changing... India's restaurant Industry is growing and peoples mindsets are changing, in fact more people are following their dreams than ever before. Very recently my friend visited to the website aheadoftime and she could make her dreams of becoming a chef true.

Edited by Geek Dirsub

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