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Cooks use their hands but chefs use their hands and their heads

Few things make me laugh as hard as chefs who regard themselves as artists.

Oh okay, I exaggerate. There are funnier things: barmen who want to be called mixologists; sommeliers who tell you they can recommend “12 really great Indian wines” and hairdressers who discuss their “artistic development”.

 

But we digress. Back to chefs and art. Cooking so clearly fits the traditional definition of craft that it is hard to see why we need to look any further. A craftsman imposes form on substances. A man who takes planks of wood and creates a table is a craftsman. A tailor who cuts up pieces of cloth to make a suit is a craftsman.

 

   And, a chef who takes vegetables, meat and fish, and turns them into dishes we eat is a craftsman. A man who makes tables or a guy who stitches your suit does not become an artist because the table is magnificent or the suit is perfect. There is no suit, no table and no dish anywhere in the world that is the equivalent of say, the Mona Lisa. There is no chef who has had artistic achievements in the league of say, Mozart or Michelangelo. Craftsmanship is worthy, but it’s not the same as art.

 

   It’s not hard to identify first-rate culinary craft. A good cook is simply a person who is good with his or her hands and can always turn out amazing food. In kitchens they call this “the hand”.

 

   Actually it’s a sort of sixth sense. A good cook will know exactly how long to knead the roti dough; he or she will know exactly when to stop sweating the onion and will be able to judge the exact point at which the fish risks being over-cooked.

 

   Some people are born good cooks. Many more train so that they can learn how to do it. The difference between a good cook and an ordinary one is easy enough to tell. Give two cooks the same recipe and the same ingredients in the same kitchen. You will be surprised by how one of them will consistently turn out better dishes because he or she has “the hand” or the training.

 

   The difference between a chef and a cook is more complex. There are obvious management differences (a chef is in charge of a kitchen full of cooks) but the key factor, I reckon, is imagination. In cuisines such as our own, there isn’t always room for much freedom.

 

   French cuisine is a collection of cooking techniques and a few building-block recipes (master sauces, etc.). A chef is judged by what he does with these techniques. Indian food, on the other hand, is a collection of fairly complete recipes. The room for imagination is more limited.

 

   Despite that, Indian chefs have constantly re-imagined our food – the masala dosa, chicken tikka, pav bhaji and so many other popular dishes are not made to centuries-old recipes. They were either created (or, as in the case of the restaurant dosa) significantly tweaked.

 

   Modern Indian cuisine, at its most successful, takes the flavours and techniques of Indian cuisine, updates them and tries to create something that is different and yet, not entirely unfamiliar.

 

   To succeed you don’t need to be an artist. You need philosophy more than you need art. The early modern Indian chefs went wrong because they had plating where they should have had philosophy.

 

   Many of the famous London Indian restaurants have had zero impact on the development of Indian cuisine because the chefs had no philosophy other than a desire to adopt Western-style presentation to please Western customers.

 

   But the handful of London chefs who did have a philosophy have taken our cuisine further. Way before anyone had heard of Ferran Adria, Vineet Bhatia was playing with style and form. Why couldn’t the butter chicken gravy become an ice cream? Why couldn’t our khichris get the respect and attention accorded to risottos?

 

   Cyrus Todiwala looked at game and at first-class ingredients (the choicest lamb, the best pork, etc.) and wondered how he could incorporate them into Indian cuisine without overpowering their unique flavours with too much spicing. And of course, there were other visionary chefs in London, many of whom I have already written about.

 

"It would have been easy for Garima to recreate Noma in Bangkok or to trade on Gaggan’s global fame. Instead, she has based Gaa around her own philosophy."

   Modern Indian cuisine only really took off commercially within our shores with Manish Mehrotra and Indian Accent. Manish’s food worked because he had a philosophy. His mission was to go beyond restaurant cuisine and focus on nostalgia. Could he use modern techniques to recreate the daulat ki chaat he liked on the streets of old Delhi? Could the sitaphal cream at Mumbai’s Haji Ali be turned into a full-fledged dessert? How could he preserve the memory of those drunken nights in the hostel when all they could afford was Old Monk rum?

 

   It is philosophy that drives the greatest Indian chef in the world: Gaggan Anand. I can say that unequivocally having just tried his latest menu. I have been going to Gaggan’s restaurant since 2010, when it first opened. But never ever has he cooked food of this quality.

 

   The key to Gaggan’s development as a chef is the evolution of his philosophy. When I first ate at his restaurant he was still thrilled by the El Bulli tricks. There were foams, spherifications, edible paper packets etc. The food was terrific but it had nothing like the depth it has today.

 

   Then, over the years, Gaggan moved away from the molecular tricks while mastering the complex scientific techniques. The next big shift came when he fell in love with Japan. Suddenly, his cuisine became more minimalist. It was not that he learnt new ways of cooking or discovered new dishes. The changes were in his head: the way he looked at food kept evolving.

 

   There are many, many standout dishes on Gaggan’s new menu, but two struck me as being especially significant. The first was charcoal, his much-copied famous dark dish. It started life as a tribute to the Calcutta fish chop. But since then, he has changed the filling four times. The current version, with its silky white asparagus filling, may be the best yet. I don’t know of any other great chef who will take as many chances with his signature dish.

 

   The second is his cold ‘curry’ of scallops. Fed up of the curry powder-chilli-garam masala image of Indian cuisine, Gaggan has created a brilliant new curry using cold Hokkaido scallops and a curry-leaves sauce. It is full of Indian flavours. And yet, the techniques are startlingly different (as is the serving temperature).

 

   The most Japanese thing about his food though is the waves of flavour. In great Japanese food, new flavours emerge as the dish stays in your mouth. (Rather as they would with a great wine.)

 

   So it is with Gaggan’s new menu. New tastes and flavours emerge from a single bite and they swirl around in your mouth, astonishing your palate.

 

   Gaggan and his partner, Rajesh Kewalramani, also own Gaa, a new restaurant opposite Gaggan. The chef is Garima Arora, who cooked at Gaggan till recently and was the first Indian to have risen up the kitchen ranks at Noma.

 

   At Noma Australia last year, its chef-owner, Rene Redzepi, had told me to watch out for Garima. It was her brains, he respected the most, he said. She is a very cerebral chef.

 

   He could have added: and a very brave chef too. It would have been easy for Garima to recreate Noma in Bangkok or to trade on Gaggan’s global fame. Instead, she has based Gaa around her own philosophy. She has scoured Thailand looking for fresh ingredients (no imports on the menu) and has created dishes that bring out the flavours of these ingredients.

 

   One of my favourite dishes consisted of stalks of young corn served with a corn emulsion. A fresh water Thai crayfish came perched on a khakra. Local gobhi was paired with delicious fresh crab and served with a potato mochi, a Japanese phulka, which is neither truly Japanese nor Indian. A spare rib came with pomegranate seeds and the best dish was a loaf of freshly-baked golden bread stuffed with lightly-spiced keema.

 

   I was impressed by Garima’s willingness to dispense with the current no-carbs orthodoxy. Her savoury menu ended with the upmarket keema pav and there were plenty of carbs. She had also channelled her inner Punjabi into producing a variety of homemade dairy products of which the standout was the white makhanshe served with the keema pav.

 

   It is not Noma food. It is not Gaggan’s food. It is not even Indian food, really. It is a chef who has lived all over the world, looking at the ingredients in her neighbourhood and creating a cuisine around them.

 

   That’s what tells the good chefs apart from the journeymen: they have the imagination to construct a philosophy that guides their food.

 

   Cooks use their hands. Chefs use their hands and their heads. And at the top level, brains count for more than skill.

 

 

CommentsComments

  • Ajai Mittal 30 Jun 2017

    Wonderful article. I used to buy HT only for your article in Brunch on Sunday. Now read it online. Next time you come to Mumbai try Boteco in BKC

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