The start of 2011 was a reminder that I must bow down to the Indian palate
SERVER “Chef, Table 57 is calling you!”
ME “Who is it?”
SERVER “That bearded gentleman who comes with the gourmet club. He says the chef will create something for me, off the menu.”
ME “Fine, give me five, I’ll be there.”
So I head to the table, as always in my jeans and T-shirt, unsure why I have been summoned. For the record, I’m not a great one to be hovering around during dinner service. Stunning as the restaurant I run is, my comfort zone is amid the white incandescent lighting and clanging of pans in the kitchen. The odd person who knows me and who I know, I do chat to, but PR clearly skipped my culinary genes.
I’m greeted by a large table of mostly elderly, mostly unfamiliar people with “Happy New Year” and introduced as a “celebrity chef”. “Masterchef” buzzes around the table; from a huddle of women, I hear, “eligible bachelor, three restaurants”. One of the women is a member of one of Bengaluru’s gourmet-only clubs and has been a frequent victim of my experimentations.
Seated next to her is an old Sikh gentleman who booms out his request with an absolutely straight face: “Son, I hear you run one of the best continental restaurants here, make me a good lobster thermidor.” My heart is about to skip a beat when the delicate salwar kameez-clad lady seated opposite him, says, “And I would like a nice boneless chicken stroganoff.”
By now, the heart has skipped a beat, and I’ve broken out in a sweat, mumbling and fumbling sincere apologies at not having either of those dishes on the menu. (I’m too embarrassed to admit I barely know how to make them.) “But Bunny, you said it’s continental, yaar,” I hear someone say. I’m about to launch into one of my sermons on bastardised versions of archaic and outmoded western cuisine, but check myself in time. Instead, I suggest options from the menu. It works, but only to an extent. One person at the table tells me brusquely that subtlety in food is not his thing, so “pile on the spices and chilli”.
I head back into the kitchen and tell the sous chef to “Indianise it” (read: spice it up more than the recipe demands). The plates all come back clean, save one where the chicken tagine was too “Indian” for the gentleman’s taste buds.
It’s a battle that every chef worth his salt in this country fights daily. The start of 2011 was a rude reminder that notwithstanding the pathbreaking decade that preceded it — especially in terms of restaurant concepts and ideas — one will still need to bow down to what we call the Indian palate. I can at best speculate if replacing parsley with coriander will do the trick, but conjecture is all it is. Jalapeno and chilli flakes are still the king of condiments in most ‘continental’ kitchens with butter, cream and cheese a close second; if you’re running a restaurant without pasta and pizza, you’re brave. If you feel that a tasting portion of an outstanding dessert is ample, you’re simply misguided. Evolution, more than anything else, takes its own sweet time.
What I do foresee — and the only reason that I stick on in the business — is that tastes will continue to grow, if ever so marginally, along with appreciation of the fact that the fruitiness of olive oil and the earthiness of sea salt will make a perfectly fresh fish as outstanding as the chillies and masalas did in the yesteryear. Clearly, each day is not like this one, and I often bask in the glory of having successfully peddled our wares without a single modification on good nights, but such nights are rare indeed and I anxiously await many of those for this coming year. Here’s to hope, and to hope for hope. Bon appétit.
Chandra is Executive Chef of Olive Beach, Bengaluru, and Olive Bar & Kitchen, Mumbai
THIS TIME around, the New Year doesn’t seem to have happened. It’s an odd state of affairs because it wasn’t always like this. Of all the festival days, New Year’s is the one that I remember from my childhood for being special, my favourite — and not just for the carnivalesque spectacle of drunk uncles and the ritual of the Saturday Night Live soundtrack. I remember it always as a freshness in the air, and the trembling as, year by year, the world revealed its taboos to me: a gentle early morning light on something hidden. Then I got older, became an atheist; one by one, all the other festival days, freighted with embarrassment and obligation, fell away. Only New Year’s, that apparently secular feast, was still left to be charged with superstition and longing. I say longing, and certainly this was almost painfully sexual for the years and years of being single, or nearly single, or soon to be single, wondering if it would ever improve. On New Year’s eve, you threw yourself among strangers, joined crowds, scanned them restlessly for the one who would come, yearned for a kiss, not just at any time but at the exact auspicious second that would prove that things could change. By daylight, this would wear off and you’d know the longing beneath the longing: to start from zero, make yourself over, obliterate the past, and, later, increasingly, to — in Lydia Davis’ words — “see yourself as nothing” or at least “to be a little less”.
This wasn’t just me; it was the desire of billions for the new, the blank. Throughout the 1990s, it was an obsessive collective counting up to the zero, an apocalyptic fantasy, and, moreover, it seemed certain that as we approached, all of humanity was poised to step to that same delirious count, one planet under the Gregorian — and then something else happened, multiple calendars refreshed themselves, days of turning and reinvention proliferated, the old ones mixed and matched with those newly invented by the State or by corporate business bureaus to encourage citizenship or shopping. Time was stretched or sped up, chopped up, dissipated until not even days were left, not even hours, or anything else, until time itself moved pure, unseen and uncounted, wide, languorous, apparently still. Where was even the nostalgia for starting anew there?
Or that’s how it sort of seems to me, I admit. The turn of the year felt hollow. “‘English’ New Year’s is not important to anyone in India anymore,” my mother insists. “And anyway, it only ever made a difference to the upper-class.” She could be right, although I’m remembering crowds of boys on a beach, years ago, me among them. What we had all longed for that night was much more than just another party. Then it is perhaps only me, I think, something to do with age.“Older men… differ on that day from their juniors,” says Proust, by the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, “not because people have ceased to give them presents, but because they themselves have ceased to believe in the New Year.” The thought is oddly comforting. I think of my baby daughter, her black tophead of hair, tight and knotty from the womb, which was the first thing I ever saw of her six months ago. For me, the New Year has somehow gone missing; for her, the world itself is too new for a New Year to matter; in that limbo, we meet.
Narayanan’s first book of poems was Universal Beach. He is co-editor of the online magazine Almost Island
I DON’T SPECIFICALLY regard 31 December as a day of reflection. For me, it’s just another day. If you look at the big picture, it’s just one day less left to live. This New Year’s eve, I was sitting in my hotel room in Chennai, eating a hearty meal of garlic chicken and chicken spring rolls after playing in a concert at my mentor TV Gopalkrishanan sir’s (TVG) festival. I had another concert in Bengaluru the next day and slept off even before midnight.
New Year has never forced me to look back and think about my achievements and failures. How can a day make a difference? I reflect if I give a bad concert, because then I have to put my act together. I reflect when I listen to a great singer, because I’m stunned by their talent. A good book, a great film or an interesting conversation also help me think, but not a Day, like New Year or a birthday or whatever. It’s been my habit since I was young. I have slept through New Year’s eves for 25 years now! Even my family never celebrated the coming of the New Year. It could also do with the fact that I don’t like being amidst a crowd. I do not like coming to Chennai during the music season, but couldn’t refuse TVG, who was the one to urge me to sing in public, giving a definite direction to my life.
As far as resolutions go, I think they can be made every day. I have made many that I have kept and many that I have broken. Instead of just New Year’s, I sit down every night and take stock of my day. Even though 31 December is not a big day in my book, I once heard a story that warmed my heart. I am very fond of tennis, and my favourite player is Iranian Mansour Bahrami, who plays with John McEnroe and the likes in the senior circuits these days. He escaped from Iran to pursue tennis, and started his career at 30! One 31st December night, he was travelling through Paris, and was stuck in traffic. Next to him, there was a woman driver stuck as well. So he told the lady at midnight, that since it was New Year’s, he’d kiss her. She agreed. They kept in touch and then eventually got married. If every New Year’s was like that, then it truly would be worth it.
Varma is a Carnatic classical musician