Food and story telling are intrinsically connected. Stories have the power to elevate simple, humble dishes to something exciting, magnificent, even awe-inspiring. Food in any story can set your imaginations on fire, get your taste buds tingling and your tummy rumbling. Remember those delicious Enid Blyton picnics, or Hemingway‘s tantalising oysters?
For me, stories are often what make the food. As an extremely difficult kid raising hell in the household at every meal, the only thing that would make me settle down and eat was a dinner plate decorated with 8 perfect little mounds of mashed up food, and an intriguing story to go along with each one of those mouthfuls. The faces before me and the hands feeding me would change a lot – everyone in the family, and even the neighbours took turns at this monstrous chore! – as would the stories woven around those 8 morsels, depending on the limitless, or sometimes lack of, imagination of the feeder! But the ritual remained the same, as did the little morsels, for many months and years. And then boarding school happened and things changed overnight…
So, ever since my early childhood, I have been actively seek out the intrigue that breathes life into little morsels of food – the story behind the dish, the story that makes the dish. And out of the many food stories I have been fortunate enough to experience, perhaps the most immersive one happened in a small fine-dining restaurant, Da Ciccio, perched on a cliff edge high above the bluest of blue Mediterranean Sea, just off the picturesque little town of Amalfi in southern Italy. Our curly-haired waiter passionately described (in an adorable Italian-accented English) how each of the fresh produce used in our meal that night was sourced from orchards, farmers and fishermen within a 10 km radius! He had then gone on to describe each dish in exquisite detail, right from the sourcing of the large, yellow lemons for the Limoncello, to the sealing of the paper bag around the Clam and Seafood Spaghetti, to the almost exact spot where the day’s Sea Bream was caught! So temptingly delicious was his description of the food on the leather-bound menu, so detailed his knowledge of local produce and so vivid his imagination and story-telling abilities that we gulped down drool several times, and caved in to all his recommendations, just so he could scurry off and get us all that fascinating food quickly! That, my friends, is a special kind of art!
This art of story telling was what was most fascinating at last week’s unique Cook Off at the J W Marriott kitchens. Thirty talented and reputed Executive Chefs from Marriott properties across the country, converged at the Juhu Marriott for an interesting 3-day workshop, got divided into small groups, each group with a food blogger/home chef as team member. Each team had to ideate, shop, plan, prep, cook and plate up a Three-course meal from locally-sourced, fresh ingredients, and present it with an interesting, cohesive story binding the whole meal together.
To say that it was an unbelievably amazing experience would be an understatement! It was exciting because one got to cook at a live kitchen of one of the premier 5-star hotels of the country, with experienced chefs who are at the top of their game. It was an adventure because we were each given a limited budget for shopping and a specified time by which to complete the whole task in. It was fun because of the many high-energy activities packed into just two-hours allotted for the task. From rushing off with Chef Satej from Lucknow in an auto rickshaw, to haggling with the fish sellers and coconuts vendors at the local market, to creative sparring with Chef Raheel from Bangalore and Chef Mahesh from Kochi on plating and story ideas, to prepping and cooking in a fully-equipped professional kitchen, to the final, grand plating and presentation of the meal to Asia Pacific Culinary Director, Toine Hoeksel and other judges, one could write a whole bestselling thriller on the twists and turns and intrigues and comedies of the 2 hours, ending in a brilliant climax… the story telling session. The food bloggers from each team breathed new meaning into the dishes before them. There were personal experiences of a dish on a family vacation, a childhood memory of a favourite ingredient, a unique festival that ‘worships’ sons-in-law with specially cooked meals (Jamai Shashthi), and the surprising etymology of a dish name.
But why story telling? Today, most of us are looking to elevate our dining experience with that something extra. A restaurant themed on Forrest Gump makes you relive moments of the film, the idiosyncrasies of its endearing characters and its iconic dialogues as you crunch down some Bubba Gump Shrimp.
Table-side cooking of a steak gives you a certain sense of ownership of that medium-rare sirloin you are about to eat. Various aspects of molecular gastronomy turn you and your food into interactive characters as in a play, dramatised by the element of surprise in the food, and the spectacle of smoke and foam. But the power of good story-telling is such that it can create a mind theatre and elevate your dining experience with very little effort. Stories, fables, folklores and myths abound everywhere, especially in a country like ours with the truly engrossing Ramayana and Mahabharata mythologies to draw from… remember the story of Shabari and the berries? Then there are Panchatantra and Birbal comic books, folklores handed down by grandmas, popular village ditties that your khansama or cook hums in the kitchen, boat stories by local fish-sellers… even hair-raising tales by motor-mouth barbers! A good ear, a keen awareness and respect for local ingredients, food habits and customs, a little bit of creative imagination and an unstoppable passion for food are all the ammunition one needs to tell a story, with verbal cues and a themed plating.
I may have a notorious history with food and story-telling, but I am sure I am not alone in picking a meal with a good story over an elaborate spread of the best dishes. Mind I am not looking for a rambling narrative that goes on and on while your food gets cold in front of you. Just a neat little story with heart, a moment before you pick up your fork…
(Thank you Chef Himanshu Taneja for curating and organising such a wonderful experience 🙂 )