Indulge one-on-one: Dancer Aparnaa Nagesh chats with Italian Chef Mauro Ferrari about passions, disco in the 80s, and food
Dance and food might sound like a rather odd combination, but in this case, it is an amalgamation that works.Contemporary dancer Aparnaa Nagesh, founder of Madras Dance Arts and High Kicks All Girls Dance Ensemble and Mauro Ferrari, the larger-than-life Italian chef at the Hyatt Regency, hit it off as soon as they met. While Aparnaa was dressed in a black silk sari, Chef Mauro was dressed in crisp chef’s whites including his toque blanche hat that he eventually placed on the table before they settled down for a chat at 365 AS, Hyatt Regency. As the conversation progressed, it was almost impossible to believe that these two performance artistes, albeit in different professions, were meeting for the first time.
Aparnaa gets down to basics and asks Chef Mauro whether he always wanted to become a chef. “I knew from when I was 10 years old that I wanted to become a chef,” says the vivacious Italian. “I have never changed my mind after that. And you know, it’s passion. It’s true love. Something that comes naturally for me. And that passion has pushed me every single day. It’s not just work, it’s love. I loved watching people prepare food, and something clicked. I don’t know what it was.” Aparnaa nods in agreement as she chimes in about her love for dance and where it came from. “I really connected with you when you said that it’s not work, and it’s love. I am not married yet because I am literally married to my work. I have always loved dancing, even though my family is musically inclined.” Aparnaa recalls that she wanted to learn bharatnatyam but had a fascination for Western dance as a kid, and even used to shut the door, and listen to English music on All India Radio, and dance away. “By 15, I was bitten by the dance bug! It gave me a lot of confidence because here’s something that I truly believed I was good at.” Listening closely, Mauro points out that true passion takes you places and it is stimulation for an artiste. “Can I call you an artiste?” he asks with a smile. “Yes, you can, and I believe even you’re an artiste too. I’ve heard that you’re a performance chef. What does that mean?”
Chef Mauro has been in Chennai for two years as an integral part of Foccacia, the Italian restaurant at Hyatt Regency. After having worked in Oman and Morocco for over four years, the culinary expert says that the performance part of the cooking comes with a different view. “I’m not a chef that is strictly in the kitchen to cook food. It’s like theatre, you know? There’s drama, we create something live in front of the guests and that encourages interaction. For example, people come with me to the kitchen and see how I stuff pasta like ravioli, and they have all these questions.” Mauro is a firm believer of engaging all senses when it comes to senses.
He directs the question back at Aparnaa, his curiosity sufficiently piqued about what she does. “After 12 years of working, I went to New York to learn dance and when I came back, I realised that girls were taking dance just as a hobby. I wanted to change that so I started High Kicks. The first year was a mess, but it soon picked up. The universe conspired and gave me my dream. I was able to convince young women that this is a physically sustainable profession.”
For the love of music and dance
Chef Mauro concurs with a nod, as he changes gears and talks about the music that Aparnaa often chooses for her dance routines. “For you, music must be very important, no? I ask because I draw a lot of my inspiration from all kinds of music — lounge, ambient, zen music. What kind of music helps you?” Aparnaa prides herself in her impeccable choice of dance music, as she nails it in most of her performances. “I find that listening to a particular genre of music makes me feel a certain way, which then triggers an idea,” she says.
We come back to the topic of food and Aparnaa eventually asks about spice and the stereotype that Indian food is only curry or vindaloo. “So, as a chef who’s travelled the world, how can Indian food be globalised better?” Chef Mauro starts with the fact that he has tried a lot of Indian food, and the flavours aren’t new to him considering he has been in Chennai for two years. “From paneer to dal, I’ve had a lot of variety. But it’s true. India is a big country and so the food varies too. But it is too spicy, and it completely overshadows other flavours of the dish. “It’s not just five-star hotels that I’ve eaten at. I have been invited by a few friends and had meals at their place. And the way they make fish curry or chicken curry is such a contrast.” Mauro further emphasises that only a balance of flavours can wow people. However, palates differ from person-to-person. “Why aren’t there many Michelin-star restaurants or chefs from India? They should focus on the best of their own cuisine. And they always think that Italian chefs don’t use spice. I use all the spices! And I know my spices. But why mix everything without a balance?”
The Italian disco scene
“So does your wife cook, or do you cook at home?” asks Aparnaa. “I am never at home to cook,” says Chef Mauro as he roars with laughter. “While my wife lives in Italy, my 20-year-old twin sons are chefs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.” Just when we thought the conversation was coming to an end, the chef decides to let us in on a secret. “I used to dance and spend all my nights as a youngster at a disco!” Aparnaa, excited by this informations jumps from her seat, asking to hear more. “Around the ’70s and ’80s, there was a thriving disco culture in Italy. The culture was absolutely lively and the ’60s were just winding, and trickling into the ’80s culture. It was raging. Till today, that music is relevant.” says an excited Mauro.
The conversation winds up with the duo deciding on a way to make food and dance work, as part of a double performance act. And Aparnaa promising to bring Chef Mauro some puliyodhare and vathakolambu. “Definitely, why not!” he says with a hearty laugh.