Mayur Sharma and Rocky Singh, open up about why they go chasing food on highways across the country.
For over 100 episodes now, Mayur Sharma and Rocky Singh have been eating their way through India's highways, and their show has become one of the best loved on NDTV Good Times. “Highway on my Plate” encapsulates everything the channel stands for, great food and even better times.
The chemistry between the two is undeniable, and their long friendship comes through as they travel the length and breadth of India, eating at some of the best dhabbas, roadside eateries and vendors along the highways and more often than not having adventures that make for excellent conversation starters.
In this interview, the duo talks about the upcoming launch of their book, their common love for travelling and, obviously, food.
Give us a bit of the background? How did the show come together?
Mayur: We had never done TV before. In fact we didn't really have any connection to the world of television at all except that a friend of ours was working with NDTV at that time.
He knew how extensively we'd travelled and just how much we love to eat. He thought we fit the bill and referred us to the channel. The first shoot was very different from how the show has turned out.
Rocky: Yes, the original plan was that HOMP would cover only NH1, exploring places along the Grand Trunk road. The show had a script and everything, but we just weren't used to reading out pre-written lines. We aren't anchors; we have no professional training or anything. I think the pilot was quite bad and we were too stiff.
Mayur: Right. So before the second episode, Rocky “accidentally” set fire to all the three scripts. Pretty convenient, because after that we were told to just go ahead with the impromptu act. That allowed us to bring to the set our own brand of humour and banter. We were free to go with the flow. From then on, we just do anything and everything on the show. Nothing is fixed. We don't follow a rulebook. We are allowed to be completely ourselves. It lends the show the natural quality, which I think appeals to people.
Your show features some very offbeat and obscure places, which turn out to be excellent finds. What are your sources?
Rocky: We have travelled quite lot, over 60000 km all over the country. All through college we'd both just take one of our cars...
Mayur: it was always Rocky's cars actually
Rocky: ... and go on these road trips. We have friends all over the place and since Mayur has studied pretty much everywhere, he knows someone in almost every city. So we get in touch with these people, talk to them; ask them about the local cuisine and the best eating places. In the cities we don't know anyone; we ask the local people, the auto wallahs, the shopkeepers, even the pedestrians on the road. They are always the best sources.
Mayur: There is also a research team that helps us. Once we have a number of places, we draw up a list and select the ones we want featured on the show, depending on the number of factors.
From the hundreds of places you've been to, what would you say was your favourite destination and cuisine?
Mayur: Oh mine is definitely Gujarat. I know people seem to think that the food there is all the same but actually the variety is breathtaking. There is the Kathiawadi cuisine, which I love, and then there is Kuchhi from the Bay of Kutch area. That is spicy! Then there is the actual Gujarati cuisine. The food there is marvellous.
Rocky: Mine would have to be Karnataka. It's my favourite destination and the range and variety of food there is excellent too. That state has everything, forests, hills, cities...
Coorg is my personal favourite. And the great thing is, you get all the different kind of cuisines there and each of them is good. For example, I've had some really bad Malayali food in Delhi but some great Punjabi food in Bangalore.
The show went international for a season. How was the experience?
Rocky: The idea was to take the Indian palate and see what happens when we take it abroad. The funny thing is, it wasn't much different at all. What we realised was that Indian food and flavours seemed to have made a place for themselves everywhere. Everywhere we went; there was either Indian food or some sort of hybrid which was part Indian.
Travelling so much, you are bound to have had moments you can't forget. Would you like to recount some of them?
Mayur: There are so many, but one remarkable one stands out. We were travelling to Leh and Ladakh that time, and the terrain there is very rough. Flash floods are common; you never know when ankle-high water will reach your neck and you'll be swept away.
We were in a convoy of two cars and we reached this road, or what used to be a road, but had been washed away. Now there was knee-high water there. Then we saw a jeep trapped behind gravel. There were two men and two women in t-shirts and jeans. They had a baby with them. We stopped and literally lifted them out of that place. All this while, in such cold weather and trapped like that, those people were oblivious to the discomfort, clearly very happy about travelling. It was a real tribute to the spirit of adventure.
Rocky: Another one was quite funny. We were travelling to Bombay but via Jodhpur. We got lost and the guide with us insisted on using the map. That's when I told him that a map would be no use to him. The right way to find a place is to roll down the window and ask someone. He wouldn't agree. So Mayur rolled down his window and asked this old man with a herd of goats how to get to Bombay. The poor man looked apologetic and said, “Arre aap toh galat aa gaye ho” (Oh you've come the wrong way) and then he proceeded to give us accurate directions to get from Jodhpur to Bombay.
Mayur: Remember the time you had those endless glasses of bhang and then thought you were a bird for an hour? He also ate 16 desserts once we got back to our hotel. The menu had only eight, so he ordered each one twice.
What according to you has made the show click?
Rocky: You mean besides our good looks and sex appeal? (Laughs) I suppose that would be because the show appeals to every Indian. It isn't about expensive unaffordable places.
We show people that you don't always need money and fancy clubs to have a good time. It's about our country, our humour. We appeal to everyone who watches the show, no matter who you are. We keep the essence of India alive in the show and I suppose that is what makes us click.
Mayur: Also, the camaraderie we share helps. We have been friends for over 30 years now, and we've reached a point in our friendship where we can complete each other's sentences. This comes through in the show and makes everything more natural and comfortable.
We have also tried to keep ourselves as approachable as possible. We make it a point to never talk down to anyone. No matter who it is, a street vendor or the owner of a five-star hotel, we have exactly the same amount of fun with everyone.
Rocky: The impromptu bit helps. Cookery and Food shows before were predictable, rehearsed. We try to make everything as spontaneous as possible. In fact more and more shows are going the same way.
Doesn't the travelling eat into private life? How do you manage to strike a balance between your careers and the show?
Rocky: Oh we have no personal lives. Our wives will vouch for that. And the show takes up a lot of time. For five months in a year, we're travelling.
So the remaining time we dedicate to work. Mayur and I are partners in a corporate training company that we started in 2008. We use the outdoors; activities like rafting, trekking, rock-climbing etc, to teach business theory and organisational skills.
Tell us a little more about your upcoming book.
Mayur: The book's going to be like a guide to street food. It'll contain a description, ratings, and overall assessment of all the places we've been to. We've covered 250 towns and cities so far, and the book will contain information of where you can eat, if it's a place you can take your family to and things like that.
Apart from the show, your company and the book, is there anything else in the pipeline?
Rocky: Oh loads. We might be doing another food show, and one on the supernatural.
We have also started emceeing events now, where we basically get paid to dress up well and behave badly.