One of the most intriguing things about the plate of food in front of you is the story of its creator and how it came to be. Not just the mechanical measurements of each ingredient. Not just the precise cooking times as per the recipe. Not even the way each individual ingredient came together to make something more than the sum of its elements. It is the Chef, his myriad experiences at home, on the streets, in kitchens, at marketplaces in near and far countries, tasting hundreds of recipes, stirring hundreds of pots, and serving hundreds of perfectly-laid out dishes on the pass. That’s what comes together on your plate, adding that indefinable flavor – the ‘UMAMI’, if you will!
That’s the reason I seek out the Chef whenever possible while dining out. And despite all the madness they have to wade through in the kitchen, constantly under the pump to deliver the best food in the fastest possible time, amazingly enough, they STILL have time to come and talk to you, and share a piece of themselves with you.
A few days ago, I had the privilege of meeting up with a whole glitterati of Chefs. It was the Culinary & Bar Art Festival at J W Marriott Pune, where all aspects of food and beverage were being celebrated as a form of art in all their exciting, colourful and flavouful diversity, in each of the 8 food outlets in the hotel, with Chefs flown in from across the country and around the world adding pizzazz to the proceedings.
At the plush Alto Vino, the fact that the handsome Italian Chef Samuel Zucca hails from a little island off the North Eastern coast of Italy would perhaps not be significant, were it not for the burst of flavours that he weaned out of the Lobster Tail and the hearty honesty of the Olive Gnocchi and the Pork Belly that reflected his fond memories of growing up in a farmhouse family of chefs. And the fact that, even after 3 decades of working at Michelin star restaurants and grooming countless amazing Chefs around the world, he too nurtures a food dream (of owning a worldwide chain of Gelaterias), is well, stuff that dreams are made of! Apparently, his name (Zucca is Pumpkin in Italian) had nothing to do with the fact that his best selling gelato flavor is Spiced Pumpkin 😉
It was a revelation of a different kind at Shakahari that evening. Petite but tough Chef Pensiri, a specialist of Thai, Korean and Chinese cuisines, served up a storm of Asian dishes, with the complex tang and spice intact, but amazingly no Fish Sauce or Shrimp Paste, as everything was completely vegetarian! ‘It’s difficult, but not impossible’, said the Chef with a mysterious smile, revealing a few chef-y tricks before introducing us to Chef Abdul Haleem – a quiet, weathered genius of Awadhi food from Lucknow.
Chef Haleem’s magic was on display at the ongoing Kashmiri Food Festival, where he and his team of Kashmiri Pundit chefs had put up a sumptuous, authentic vegetarian Kashmiri meal, the highlights of which were the mind-blowing Green Apple Curry, the spicy veg Shammi Kebabs and the lip-smacking Badam Shofta dessert. Thanks to Chef Haleem’s quiet words of wisdom, I now have the secret to making the creamiest and tastiest Nadru Yakhni, a Kashmiri specialty I have experimented and fallen in love with this winter.
The next Culinary experience was of the liquid kind, with a mad, glad bar tender Zbigniew Zapert, mixing, firing, flaring, tossing, scraping and sliding behind an open, roof-top bar, and coming up with cocktails as complex and intense as his name! A whiz at Johnny Walker, and a pro at mixology, Zibi, as he likes to be known to friends and fans, will make you love things you didn’t think were remotely likable! Dangerous? Yes! Fun? Hell, Yes! This selfie was taken BEFORE the drinks, so go figure… 😉
The cocktails at Paasha would not have stopped sliding down the frozen bar if it was not for Lebanese Chef Chadi Terro and his fare of smoky, exotic, succulent kebabs that made you feel like you were in a palace in Abu Dhabi. Little wonder that his flavours have wowed many a Sheikh in the Middle East and is a staple at most royal ‘daawats’.
Finally it was time for a wrap with the Sunday Brunch, fondly called Brunner since the massive open-air Farm to Table spread covers every aspect of your food needs and cravings, and spills indulgently beyond.
But this was no ordinary brunch! Any brunch that has a luscious and dark Char Grilled Pork, a robust and flavourful Seafood Cioppino, and creamy home-made ice-cream plonked precariously high on crunchy fresh waffles as dessert, is anything but ordinary. And that’s exactly what Director of F & B, Ajmal Salim, was aiming to achieve, he shared, as he pulled up a chair to our table and told us the many stories, mostly happy, a few painful, and some downright funny, that went into the making of this ambitious, one-of-a-kind festival that joyously celebrated not just the art of food, but also the artists who fill our senses with the colours, textures and flavours of food.
Next year promises to be even bigger and better, with many more life stories, anecdotes and experiences adding that ethereal, elevating Umami experience to your plate… and palate! See you there?