Venkatesh Bhat says you don't have to taste your cooking to be a good chef

“The key to becoming a good chef is to understand the ingredients that go behind the dishes you churn out. Once you understand that, you will make an excellent cook,” says Venkatesh Bhat, the CEO and grand master chef of the Bon South and South Indies chain of restaurants. Belonging to a family of hoteliers and restaurateurs, food was always close to his heart. “My family wanted me to learn the intricacies of managing a restaurant chain. After finishing my class ten, I used to accompany my father, who used to scour for ingredients from markets across Chennai.”

He adds, “These trips to the marketplaces helped me gain an intimate knowledge of spices, vegetables used, types of rice etc. It may look simple, but to get the best taste, you need to ensure that the ingredients are also in perfect condition and used in adequate quantities. These trips have been very helpful in my evolution as a chef.”

Red hot chillies

He learnt things that no hospitality school would probably teach — the fact that weather patterns affect the hotness of chillies. Bhat soon joined a hotel management programme in Tamil Nadu. It was during the course of this programme that he first entered an abattoir, and was initially shocked. “I have been a vegetarian all my life and could not bring myself to cut meat.” After the completion of the programme, he decided to join a hotel chain to understand the business models. “My family was against the decision. They felt that I should learn to manage the family business instead of working for someone else.”

He quips, “I decided to leave home, and with the help of one of my uncles, I landed a trainee job at the Taj in Chennai. That move changed my career path completely.”

At the Taj, Bhat soon got an opportunity to participate in an initiative by the Taj Group that saw trainee chefs travelling across south India and studying cuisines at various houses in the southern states. He explains, “The Taj in Chennai was planning to reopen its south Indian restaurant. We were given the task to go to the houses of well known personalities and learn their culinary secrets.”

“I got to spend a lot of time at places such as Shivaji Ganesan's hometown and the Mammen Mathew residence in Kottayam. In these places, we learnt to prepare many dishes, and improvising on existing ones. The programme not only helped me gain an insight into the culinary delights churned out at homes, it also helped me gain a great deal of cooking experience. I learnt a great deal about non-vegetarian cooking.”

In an aside, he mentions a discovery: “Shivaji Ganesan would shoot for all his movies in his hometown and was particular about different food items for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The quantities were minimal but the variety was mindboggling.”

Though he churns out south Indian vegetarian and non vegetarian dishes with great ease, Bhat remains a vegetarian. “Some people feel that if you do not taste the food you cook, you will not be able to judge it properly. I tend to disagree. A seasoned chef can understand how the dish is going to taste by the look and smell of the preparation.”

After a successful stint at the Taj, he moved to The Leela in Bangalore, where he was approached by the South Indies promoters, nearly three years ago. He was fairly impressed by their plans. “They were looking at taking south Indian food beyond the ordinary idli-vada-dosa routine and felt that it could be made popular as gourmet cuisine. Three years on, we have been very successful and plan to spread our wings into other cities as well.”

One often wonders, what would be the one dish that could have the best of chefs in a quandary? Bhat says, “It has to be my personal favourite, the thayir sadam. It can be outrageously easy and very difficult to make. The rice must be mixed well, the curd should not be too sour or too light, it must be cooled at the right temperature for preserving the taste. It also works as a great de-stressor.”

In his free time, Bhat likes to unwind listening to his extensive music collection, catching the occasional sports on the telly and spending time with family.

His advice for young chefs: “You have to be passionate about the job. That is one factor that drives you to achieve success in any job. This is true for any job, but is vital as far as being a chef is concerned.”