Indulge 14th anniversary special: Five new-age chefs who are redefining the job that comes with an apron
Here’s how these 20-somethings from Chennai are using the pandemic to ladle up on innovation and inner ‘peas’
Restaurants were hit big time over the last two years. But hope springs: in the places that managed to survive; in the brands that continue to thrive; and with young chefs that are changing the game entirely. We spoke to a handful of up-and-coming chefs who, pandemic or not, are crafting their own paths. A Cordon Bleu education does not imply the five-star hotel route and a quest for the coveted executive chef title; we discover over conversations that steer off the beaten path. Instead, the ‘new age’ seeks meaning, purpose and joy in the everyday. From kitchens that educate on ‘clean eating that nourishes’ amidst the ongoing pandemic to recipe development for home pantry additions that could transform your hosting nights, this generation of chefs is redefining the job that comes with an apron.
Also, they ask: why wait for 40 when you can level up at 20?
“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or slowest form of poison.” These words by the late Ann Wigmore, a naturopath, back in the 1960s are the ethos behind Seeking Roots, a recently opened cloud kitchen by chef Sania Naqvi (27). Growing up in Allahabad, she recalls, “My father was very particular at the dining table about each dish being of a different colour.” This was the beginning of her understanding of ‘ingredient-based’ cooking. Fast forward to a global pandemic, and Sania decided there was no better time to make “clean eating more accessible” and as she puts it “make eating less damaging”. This unique lens combined with culinary skills picked up at the ITC Hospitality Management Institute, Manesar followed by stints at the ITC Gardenia (Bengaluru) and ITC Grand Chola (Chennai) has led to a novel menu with uncommon pairings.
Our curiosity was piqued by the Malabar Spinach and Melon Salad (which we hear is a crowd favourite) and the Ragi and Dark Chocolate Granola Brownies. Local ingredients and nuanced flavours apart, Sania says that in the future, she hopes to collaborate with farmers and food enthusiasts to reimagine people’s relationship with food and ingredients. Order via Facebook or Instagram for a meal or try the subscription for a regular meal plan customised to your needs.
French pastry with seasonal ingredients. This is the heart of Tanvi Bokaria’s pastry studio — Stubborn Baker — which launched on Instagram, earlier this year. Imagine Gondhoraj lemons plucked fresh from her garden in Chennai are used for her Lemon Tarts, while sweet red carrots from Kodai make their way into her Spice Carrot Cake. Of course, none of this might have come to be if not for the pandemic. After stints in Michelin star restaurants like Eleven Madison Park in New York, following her pastry course at the Culinary Institute of America, it was time to come home to Chennai and get more‚ work experience. So when COVID-19 hit, Tanvi decided to spend her time baking at home and taking orders from friends and family. The response, she says, was phenomenal. “I set up my professional pastry studio this year in February to keep up with the orders!” she tells us.
An Instagram storefront, one that was not part of the original plan pre-pandemic, she shares, now gives her the creative freedom to experiment with unlikely flavour combinations. (We’re curious to try her Strawberry and Black Pepper Cheesecake!) That apart, she shares, there is a joy in “getting real-time response and feedback” via a speedy DM, in contrast to months of paperwork in the wait for an appraisal within the conventional hospitality structure. Orders require three to four days notice.
Abhav Malhotra (22) is a trained chef from The Culinary Institute of America. But he doesn’t work at a restaurant. Nor does he intend to anytime soon. “I am not hung up on the title of chef,” he surprises us. “For me, it’s more about the food. And food... is a broad, broad-spectrum.” Free time during the early days of lockdown inspired Abhav to experiment with food photography on his Instagram which quickly saw him graduate to how-to videos tutorials on everything from ‘mother sauces’ to ‘a guide to knives for your kitchen’.
With a slew of quick and nutritious recipes posted via reels, he shares, “I’m trying to build a community where I can share healthy and delicious recipes through cooking tutorials. People, especially in my generation, tend to overlook cooking and may sometimes deem it too difficult, but in reality anyone can cook.” Cue the latest project he is involved in: an app that gives 13-year-old bakers a marketplace to get visibility for their menus and make sales, minus the hassle of marketing.
After working in professional kitchens around the country for five years with The Oberoi Group of Hotels — Payal Rajanker (28) decided it was time to come home. “I gave the tried and tested hospitality route a shot, but realised that I got bored of routine quickly,” she admits candidly. To keep things fresh and interesting for guests and herself, Payal now focuses on sit-down multi-course meals at the guest’s home under her personal brand The Gourmet Gig (started in July 2018). “Varied menus, meeting new people, cooking in different kitchens... I love the rush!” she shares with apparent glee. Her cuisine of choice ‘reimagined Indian food’ also gives her plenty of room for creative play with dishes like the 15-hour Potato Mille-feuille, Fauji Lamb Kheema and Garlic Toum and the Roti Cenai served with Masala Fried Soft Shell Crab.
While the pandemic did alter her cooking style from luxurious to more comforting, Payal tells us, the lockdown in fact, boosted her business. Since people weren’t dining at restaurants or hotels, they wanted a similar experience at home with an intimate group of friends and family. And this brand’s end-to-end service, ranging from floral table décor, premium crockery and cutlery, table linen and a personalized menu cards catered to this perfectly. “I am also working on some community table pop-ups since everything has opened up now,” she says.
Recipes without borders. This is the driving force for the very creative Adhira Swami (25) whose delightful rasam-inspired gazpacho we got a chance to taste at On The Rocks’ recent chef takeover series. Pairing her training in French and Spanish cuisine (Le Cordon Bleu London and Madrid) with her South Indian roots, courtesy her dad, actor Arvind Swami — Adhira’s flavours reveal layers of depth and nuance.
When Adhira isn’t consulting or curating menus for exclusive pop-up dinners, she tells us she is working on a new brand of ‘elusive’ pantry staples, (think jams, spreads and preserves) that will be difficult to find in a supermarket. Liver pâté in a bottle, anyone? Slated to launch early next year.