Plenty of people chop onions and dream about becoming glamorous actors. Aditya Bal, however, posed under the arc lights and dreamt about chopping onions. “I felt I was doing something that wasn’t giving me any real returns. I was looking for something real in life to pursue... Somewhere down the line, food was always on my mind,” he says, over a tall glass of cold coffee at the Accord Metropolitan hotel.

Aditya was in town recently to announce Lay’s “Give us your dillicious flavour” competition, in which consumers across the country are invited to come up with the new flavour for the company’s potato chips. Though a lanky ex-model seems like an unusual choice to promote potato chips, considering how obsessively celebrities tend to count their calories. He says with a laugh, “I’ll be honest with you, male models are always eating. Much more than most people think they do. And working out. It’s a vain existence!”

He should know. A model turned actor turned chef turned TV presenter, he’s spun around the social circuit: ramp-walking, air-kissing, partying… the works. “I did it for 8 to 9 years,” he says. However, Aditya seems faintly embarrassed about his celebrity uncle, Rohit Bal, insisting he’s essentially a small-town boy. “I grew up in Kashmir. It was a simple life,” he says. “We left in the Nineties when the problems started. Then I was in boarding school in Himachal, in Sanawar. I just did my college in Delhi.”

Meanders into modelling

Aditya tripped into the modelling industry by accident. “I was 21 and wanted freedom. I fought with my father and ended in Mumbai.” From here, he says, he just meandered into modelling.

“Then movies, because everyone else was doing that. I didn’t have a plan.” However, he says he was restless. “You get to the stage where it’s all about luck. You curse your luck. Meet people who can supposedly see your future. You put your life and destiny in the hands of everyone but yourself.”

Cooking, on the other hand, was surprisingly satisfying. “My grandmother was a legendary cook… She used to supply the only big supermarket in Delhi with home made jams. And she had a pasta machine, so we would make fresh pasta together.”

So, roughly three years ago, he quit modelling and moved to Goa to intern at Starco, a friend’s restaurant. “I wanted to see if I had the aptitude to shift from a home kitchen to a professional one.” “At first they thought I was just messing around. But inside the kitchen, I finally felt ‘this is my zone. This is it. I’m happy.’ Six months later, Aditya moved to My Place, run by an Italian man who was Osho’s head cook in Pune for 40 years. “At the ashram, he used to make lasagne every Sunday — for 10,000 people!” says Aditya, adding that he learnt to make all kinds of intricate pastas from here. “It’s a super high… There’s something about manual work that is soothing. It’s different from working with your head. More peaceful.”

Living in Goa, dividing time among the restaurant, his home kitchen and piles of cookery books, Aditya made the transition from model to cook. “If you want to learn about food Goa’s the perfect place. Everyone’s talking food. The French are there. The Israelis. The Russians. The English…. It’s like travelling around the world. And you’re still in your own backyard.”

However, once he was back in Mumbai, he realised that the doors of the hotels were firmly closed to self-trained cooks like him. “The industry is like that now. Not just the kitchen industry. Most industries.” However, he didn’t want to go to school “I’ll be 34 now,” he says, rolling his eyes. “Also didn’t want to unlearn everything I knew. Professional training is — I won’t call it cloning — but it doesn’t give you ability to cook with intuition.”

Cooking, he maintains, should come naturally. “You need a basic understanding. You must derive pleasure from it. That must be the best thing that has happened to you in a day.”

Fortunately, even while hotel doors were slamming shut, there was an unexpected opening. NDTV Good Times was looking for a food anchor, and he fitted the role perfectly, thanks to his chaotic career so far, blending modelling, acting and food. “You don’t know what you do in life — when it comes together. Or how,” he smiles, “That’s what they say, in the end, it all works out.”

Keywords: Aditya Balchef