ORDER A GOOD CHEER
The secret is out. One of my friends, Chef Rasheed Abdulkhader who often surprised us with his mastery in culinary flairs is soon to retire after few decades with the Taj Group of Hotels, one of the top hospitality groups in India, where he had worked up the ladder to become one of the top Executive Chefs of this Group.
Over the years, Chef Rasheed’s passion and dedication had gotten him to a position where he could deal with the meals of the prominent and reputed guests from different parts of the world – the sheer brilliance of his culinary delights thus earning him the adulation of many. Each of his dishes stood up for itself for its excellence, freshness, taste and simplicity. The culinary menu of many of our own parties were overseen by him and it will be sad to see this shining personality with a never-fading smile take an exit due to “getting on in years.”
Now first things first. In the olden days, the chef (then locally known as “Kokki” or cook) didn’t triumph in popularity or acquired the kind of glamour they have today. Back then, a thought about that leader of the kitchen rarely crossed one’s mind when you dined in a hotel. Like the cook in an upscale restaurant or in a smaller establishment like a toddy shop, you are only aware they are there.
In the context of my childhood, they made their personal appearance in your life whenever they were hired to cook for occasions such as a marriage in your house when, following the religious ceremony, a wholesome feast (vivahasadya) of time-honoured family recipes (generally unaltered over the years) were reproduced authentically (keeping the taste firmly on the original version), and served inside the house or in a fabricated marquee (pandal) within the residential compound, enhancing the intensely close-knit personal atmosphere.
It was an occasion when all the near and dear ones were invited with true open-handedness. And, no doubt,they might all come and attend the feast to celebrate the occasion.
The cook turns up some days earlier to list the items to be procured for his work and his work will commence mostly by the morning of the previous day of the wedding since there would be dinner to be served on the eve of the wedding day. The cooking will continue overnight in a temporary outdoor cook-house till the lunch is served following the wedding ceremony.
Besides couple of his assistants/washers-up, help in the shapes of scores of relatives and neighbours turns up to assist in the progress of the cook’s work and other arrangements. Many would fondly recall the smell of burning wood hanging in the air or hear the sound from the bubbling pans.
In those times, the caterers with table-ready food service and event managers and pretentious food were unheard of. Relatives and friends had time for manual help and there were collective participation in arrangements: the pandal was erected with sturdy bamboo poles roofed with tarpaulin and decorated with white-painted bamboo trellis panels fencing all around it. Paper decorations adorn the white cloth covering the ceiling.
The hired trestle tables dressed with plain white cloth (without drape or box-pleat or petticoat) were arranged on the ground covered with tarpaulin. The cooking pots and pans, serving dishes, china, cutlery, moveable water-tank, chairs and even petro-max for artificial emergency lighting were hired.
Besides ensuring that cultural traditions survive, thoughtful planning by the elders eliminated potential faults. It was a time when family and friends conscripted as servers of food. There was a personal touch everywhere. Everyone participated – ate, drank and later, merrily went away.
The cook was generously paid and sent away happily and that was the last time you saw him until another occasion turns up when he is needed or you may see him working at another function. Those were simple and affordable, and joyous occasions. Time passed.
Then came the time when the pomp and middle-persons took over such ceremonies and put a high price tag to everything – well before the specialised food shops appeared throughout the length of the State. Soon common Italian words like Spaghetti Pomodoro, tiramisu, etc were no longer a novelty locally. The haute cuisine is here!
Cookery books have come a long way from “The Forme of Cury” (Form of Cooking), the earliest surviving mediaeval cookery guide written by the Chef Maister Cokes (Chief Master Cooks) of young King Richard II of England (Richard of Bordeaux, 6 January 1367 – c. 14 February 1400) in about 1390. Apart from the masses of books and DVDs on cookery, with the advent of TV channels, radio and web shows, movies, foodie bloggers, culinary schools, etc, food and cooking has become two of the most common subjects around, especially on the web – rapidly commercialised and glamourised.
Concurrently, it also brings about a healthy breeding ground not only for the qualified and dedicated chefs, but also, truth be told, for persons with the slightest inclination in cooking or scant knowledge in qualities of the cooking ingredients or dietary criteria, to gallop their way to recognition on the back of knowledge acquired from cookery books or shows or experience gained through apprenticeship as kitchen assistants or diploma in culinary education in tutorials.
My paternal grandmother Anna never used a recipe in all her life but the heady aroma from her kitchen could lure a fully fed child back to the dining table. I often try my hand in the cooking department – but mind you, not as a hobby cook who ventures into the home kitchen to tackle culinary talents in the mid-afternoon of a Sunday.
The upshot of a popular chef is that apart from gaining wealth and fame, their perks could include opportunities to bring out cookery books/DVDs or conduct personal cookery classes/workshops, etc.
The hostess of a TV cookery show once commented, ‘My Domestic chores? I am all behind like a cow’s tail. Where would I find time to cook when my daily schedule is tightly fitted around films lined up for shooting and other public appearances to be made? How do I keep up with it all day?’ The show is just a piece of cake for her. Owing to her profession, she is unfazed by the lights, camera and cables.
It is implied that she just needs to turn up in the TV Studio for the shooting of the Cookery episode, gets beautifully attired (in most cases chef’s uniform is avoided), decked with gold ornaments, hair let loose rather than tucked under a Chef’s cap or headscarf. The emphasis is on glamour.
Good cookery shows do not just happen. Unlike most of today’s presenters who try to put in 100% data of their own for each episode, some amateur celebrity presenters in “cooking partnership” with the studios just follow the script guidelines for the Cookery episode, researched and provided to them by the TV Studio writers for study and possible input. These writers often think visually. They push for the big goal: the show must be exciting and full of drama to hold the audience and entice potential sponsors.
At the studio, where the presenter is already well acquainted with the many cookware and other aids at hand, he/she just needs to make a mental run-through of the episode, make mental notes for the occasional change of pace if the script calls for it before the final shooting which would be suitably edited later. As the shoot progresses, it would likely trigger impulsive, spur-of-the-moment ideas in the presenter to suit the characterisation being projected. They needn’t be afraid to try something new. After all, it is said that amateurs built the ark. If you enjoy yourself, so will others. That’s the long and short of it.
Being cheerful and unflustered from the curtain-raiser down to the end of the presentation, they are programmed to come across as culinary specialists, inspired by a deep love of home life, and smitten with the nostalgia of home-cooked cuisine of their childhood. If there is a guest for the show, their pleasing disposition is highlighted through chats with him/her who, in most cases, would be another popular personality who himself gets a shot to showcase himself with a song or dance or other gimmickry – all part of the ingredients of the cookery show.
Currently, there are some truly amazing cookery programmes dominating the airwaves. To watch the shows of learned and talented chefs, including Michelin Star Chefs, Nutritionists, Hotel Management professionals, wellness experts, expressing valid ideas and tips for healthy and tasty food is always a pleasure and benefits us to learn and discover aspects of cookery, new recipes or smarten up the known ones.
In fact, we watch the German show “Lafer! Lichter! Lecker!” hosted by Chef Johann Lafer and Horst Lichter. At other times, we enjoy MasterChef Australia, a reputed show co-hosted by Chefs Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, and food critic Matt Preston where the emphasis, besides good cooking, is on drama and competitiveness within a limited time.
Our intense travel has brought us in contact with many top chef de cuisines in different countries. They have ensured that our appetites are in safe hands. Their skill and enthusiasm in their respective specialties are quite amazing.
Some of them also possess that special gift of “blessed hand” known locally as “Kaipunyam”. Chef Stefan Trepp of Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Bangkok and Chef Joseph of Grand Hotel, Cochin are the owners of such brilliance. Chef Ken Murphy, Chef Nicolas Bourel, ……. it is impossible to name here all of them known to us. Of course, I do not leave out Carina’s skill in German cooking.
Traditional cuisine of different countries has grown through little change over the years. In Kerala, keeping in line with the massive promotion of tourism, there is a renaissance of traditional dishes. The set-up of the recipes and the vocabulary of cooking sessions remain almost unchanged down to that most commonly and frequently used word in cookery: “….a little bit of …….”
However, with the growing popular interest in good food, cooking is a process of evolution – subject to amalgamation of spices with different ingredients; mixing of flavours and culture like Chinese/Italian, Indian/Thai, etc.
Imagination is the highest kite that can fly. Like Chef Rasheed whose thirst for knowledge and willingness to experiment with new ideas had driven him forward, a dedicated chef knows that his/her profession also calls for a very imaginative level of creativity and do-ability.
During a dinner party we attended in Milan, the guests stayed longer than the proper time. The hostess, a French aristocrat known for her elegance and imagination where hospitality is concerned, was not at all disconcerted. She had a huge dish of Spaghetti Bolognese ready, specially prepared earlier envisaging such a circumstance. When everyone cheered her for her surprise dish, she happily let out her plans for her next party. “Now let me tell you about that other dish I am going to cook next time. What about Saltimbocca?” There you go! I was nailed. Everyone is entitled to hope. Until next time. Jo
Picture above: Rose of Melon with Capocollo, a speciality of Trattoria Ristorante Il Porcospino, at Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini in Florence, Italy. Owned by our dear friends, Il Porcospino is worth visiting for its fine cuisine.
Many thanks to friends Ms. Suparat Phumrattanaprapin, Ms. Clarissa Lo Cascio and Chef Rasheed Abdulkhader for their hands on support to illustrate this article with their pictures.
(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)