Turning tables on farm to home: Meet chefs Auroni Mukherjee and Thomas Zacharias

Chefs Auroni Mookerjee and Thomas Zacharias believe in the power of food pop-ups involving sustainable cooking and the day’s produce

author_img Shrestha Saha Published :  25th September 2022 10:45 PM   |   Published :   |  25th September 2022 10:45 PM
Chefs Auroni Mukherjee and Thomas Zacharias

Chefs Auroni Mukherjee and Thomas Zacharias

No Bengali event worthy of its doi mach is true joy without fish. That too, fish, typically marinated in a spicy shorshe (mustard) and posto (poppy) mix, and wrapped and steamed inside a banana leaf.

Famously known as patoori, the fish of choice would almost always be beckti or the elusive and pricey hilsa. With the abundance of freshwater fish that blesses the eastern coastline, superchefs Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen aka TBC fame and Auroni Mookerjee of Sienna Cafe & Store in Hindustan Park, Kolkata, decided there is more to fish than these two Bengali favourites.

Believers in eating local, eating seasonal all in a sustainable manner, they recently joined forces to recreate the patoori with parshe (mullet) and topshe (mango fish). They hosted a potluck evening on September 8 on all things chhoto maach (small fish) in food-obsessed Kolkota and invited home chefs, food bloggers, researchers and culinary students who brought their family’s favourite fish, cooked in a unique style, to the table.

There was kachki (Ganges river sprat), a tiny fish cooked to a crisp and mixed with flavourful potato mash; bacha, a river water catfish without scales and cooked in oil; and the grumpy-looking and extremely delicate bele fish cooked in tel jhaal, and bok maachher rosha.

“From the rivers, ponds, lakes to the sea, an abundance of fish have found their way into Bengali households–– catfish, mullets, eels, shellfish, mudskippers, molluscs and carps.

Each family or community has its own favourite way of cooking these. Our efforts are to revive such singular dishes that many in the current generation are unaware of,” says Zacharias.

Understanding the availability of indigenous ingredients and curating a meal that would pique enough social media interest takes much food for thought. “Even the way the menu is written has an impact. A dish with ‘aubergine in its name would sell while baingan might not,” says Mookerjee. Zacharias’s fear, however, isn’t that the audience doesn’t favour local produce; he is worried about the unwillingness
of restaurants to curate unique menus.

“Dishes served across restaurants are homogenous because there is a rush to follow popular trends,” he laments.

Having parted ways with The Bombay Canteen’s kitchen in December 2020, Zacharias wants his new, independent venture Locavore to become a platform that unites communities, producers and individuals through food. “People in urban India are determining food trends, although most of them are oblivious to where their food is coming from. An average city person has never visited a farm.

We’re used to 10-minute deliveries,” says the chef, who wants to bridge this divide through culinary and travel experiences, while highlighting food producers who deserve the limelight. At TBC, Zacharias introduced over 160 types of indigenous produce to the menu. He made a barley salad that has become one of the most-ordered items at the restaurant. His tandoori kathal (jackfruit) mussalam are subversive; even devout non-vegetarians have questioned their choices.

Mookerjee, a copywriter-turned-self-taught-chef,  shares Zacharias’s vision for eating, cooking and purveying local. It is he who has put Sienna Cafe & Store, the three-storeyed eatery in Kolkata, on the national food radar. Regular favourites on his menu are basil pesto pasta and black truffle and scallion butter ravioli, but frequent pop-ups or ‘tasting menus’ allow him to follow the ‘bazaar-to-table’ code in his kitchen. It’s his nod to the ‘farm-to-table' concept, which has nudged the curiosity of urban foodies. Both chefs, however, feel different about the phrase.

“Can you call it ‘farm-to-table’ when the supply is governed by demand?” Zacharias asks. The beauty lies in the day’s produce deciding what storm is brewed in the kitchen that day—the reason behind Mookerjee’s reluctance to use the particular phrase.

Mookerjee is all for pop-ups. “Once just a platform for home chefs, it is now a great networking tool,” he points out. For Zacharias, the exchange of knowledge coupled with an intensely flavourful culinary experience is the USP. The chhoto maach pop-up proved to be the perfect excuse to revive his popular Instagram series Chef on the Road (#COTR).

Documenting his gastronomic adventures and lesser-known local produce of places like Bhubaneswar, Goa, Uttarakhand and Nagaland, the celebrity chef’s latest focus was on the farmers’ markets of Kolkata.

“The curiosity around local ingredients is on a gentle rise, but still far away from becoming the norm,” Zacharias thinks. Zacharias and Mookerjee might have to wait until the audience responds at their desired pace, but until then, they keep putting sustainability on the menu, one dish at a time.