Once banker and now chef, Nikhil Chib, a panellist at The Hindu Lit for Life session today, talks about why he moved from numbers to food.

It is hard to believe that Nikhil Chib was once a banker, crunching numbers on the Wall Street. Now a celebrated chef, restaurateur, columnist and a television food show host, Chib founded Busaba, the popular restro-lounge in Mumbai. A self-taught chef, Chib's career graph has been on the rise since he opened his small catering business in 1995. Gearing up to share his experience and love for cooking during The Hindu Lit for Life, Chib talks about his passion for food, and his idea of what makes a great chef.

What made you start cooking?

I like working with my hands. I used to be with Citibank, working on the Wall Street. Then, one day, I was walking down the street from work and bought fruit from a fruit seller. Suddenly, I felt his job was more exciting than mine, the whole act was so simple and yet so rewarding. I think that's when the idea of working with food first struck me. I wanted to be able to work with the fresh produce, to actually feel the heat of the stove, the feel of making something with my own hands.

How was the move from a banker to a chef?

It was a big step, certainly. I was moving from a completely organised sector to a disorganised one. Working in the kitchen is very different from sitting in an office behind a desk number crunching. Instead, you've got activity, woks and food. It is the experience I wanted. I am a bricks and mortar sort of a guy; I like to touch and feel what I'm doing.

What was your first step into cooking professionally?

Rashmi Uday Singh, the food critic, also happens to be a close friend. The first time I cooked was for her; a get-together in her house. She wrote about me and that was, I suppose, my first step. Then I began catering. I think, after that, things just took off.

You've been a chef for over a decade. What have you learnt about the Indian palate?

The Indian palate is progressively growing more adventurous. Once, there were three predominant cuisines: India, continental and Chinese. Now, with more disposable income and more people looking to travel and spend more on food, people are discovering previously untried cuisines. There are more variants; Thai, Japanese and Korean. But I suppose some cuisines are still far too subtle. French cuisine, considered one of the finest in the world, has still not been able to make its place in India. Our own food is so dominant and has so much variety with regional difference and variants that it is very hard for any sort of competition to make a place for itself.

What, according to you, are the makings of a great chef?

Well, a good chef needs excellent skills; you know, to be able to cut cleanly, precisely, fast. He/she also has to cook hygienically and be very hands-on, spending a good amount of time on choosing the produce. A good chef will also have to really understand flavours, there's no substitute for good taste. That has to be the ultimate test of a good chef: making food that tastes great. But this is only half of what a good chef needs to be. The other 50 per cent is just one thing. A great chef will cook from the heart.

What's your favourite cuisine?

I'd have to say French. It is a highly delicate and subtle cuisine.