She began experimenting with omelettes as a youngster and today leads an all-male team of 14 chefs. Shonali Muthalaly talks to Nimrat Pahwa, chef-manager of the fine-dining restaurant On The Rocks

We get distracted by her nose ring. “I got it pierced just before my holiday,” giggles Chef Nimrat Pahwa, obligingly swivelling to show it off from every angle. “I was in California, visiting my sister in San Diego. We were all over the place: San Diego, San Francisco, Las Vegas…” She's opening up her restaurant as we chat.

Entering the dark interiors, Chef Nimrat's on auto pilot: rapidly switching on lights, opening cupboards and turning on ovens. The transformation is as striking as it is sudden.

From giggly 25-year-old to responsible chef-manager of On The Rocks at Sheraton Park and Towers, in seconds. (Well, to be honest, she never does turn completely poker-faced.) In a world of brash young chefs bursting with equal amounts of machismo and attitude, she's an interesting change. Soft-spoken and polite, Chef Nimrat runs On The Rocks, arguably one of South India's best fine-dining restaurants.

She leads an all-male team of 14 chefs and service staff, most of whom are older than her. And, she's achieved all this barely four years after graduating from college.

“I'm from a typical Punjabi family. We love cooking, we love feeding everyone. My grandmother made this amazing gur roti, cooked with rose petals, and I always wanted to recreate it.” By the time she was in Class 6, she was rebelling from straitlaced recipes. “My sister was studying for her boards and would say ‘make me an omelette'. So I tried all kinds of ‘gourmet omelettes'. I'd put everything possible into them. Anything I could find in the house. Mathri (the cumin-flavoured deep-fried north Indian snack). I tried peanuts, and believe me they taste good… Even chocolate. Which my sister liked! My mom was very diet conscious, but she was also a gourmet. So we always had stuff like smoked salmon and fancy cheeses in the house, and I'd put them into my omelettes too.”

Since her father was in the Army, they moved around a lot: Tripura, Gwalior, Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab… Her mother kept a semblance of stability by baking cakes for the girls. “She made everything… Swiss rolls, Lamingtons. All on one tiny little oven,” says Chef Nimrat, adding with a chuckle. “She stopped when my sister and I started putting on weight. Said, ‘That's it', and there were no more cakes!”

Despite the chocolate omelettes, Chef Nimrat decided to become a doctor, at first. “After all that's what is expected of you when you're from a ‘good Indian family'. Become a doctor or an engineer. Then I realised that it involved so much studying. And so many years of studying!” So, she applied and got into the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal. “It was a four year course. In my first year I decided I wanted to be a baker. I love painting and poetry. And you can really be creative.”

However, by her second year, she shifted allegiance to the demanding hot kitchen. “Everyone says women can't handle the hot kitchen. That's one reason I decided to do it. There are so many women in baking. Only two girls in my batch opted for hot kitchen. I don't know why. It's strenuous, sure. But then which job isn't? It's just a perception.”

Chef Nimrat began as trainee at the ITC Maurya in Delhi, and then moved to the ITC Grand Central in Mumbai. “I finally started work at West View: The Grill Room, the restaurant at the ITC Gardenia, Bangalore. It was a European grill concept.” She adds, “My advantage was the fact that I was part of the pre-opening. I knew all the intricacies of the role. In the beginning we had no staff. There were days when I would come in early in the morning and head to the butchery, to cut and prepare the meat — fish, lamb, tenderloin, quail …” Being in the trenches proved to be the best training for an aspiring chef. She ended up heading the restaurant, and two and a half years later was moved to Chennai to take over On The Rocks.

“I don't believe in making changes just to put my stamp on a restaurant. If something's doing well, my job is to think of inputs, of ways I can contribute to make it better.” One of her inputs was the recent edible flower festival. “I was researching wine with unique ingredients, and I read about a French king who put carnations in his wine to cleanse his digestive system.” She adds, “In India we have always used roses, and around the world chefs are increasingly using more micro greens and baby flowers. For example, ginger and onion flowers taste wonderful with food.” Her menu included roses, gladioli and ginger flowers. “They're all in the markets. The ginger flowers are actually used in flower arrangements — people don't realise it can be eaten. It's a little sour and has an aftertaste just like ginger.”

As she starts cooking, positioning herself between two massive bubbling stock pots, her chefs swing into action, chopping, washing and stirring, in a move that almost looks choreographed. “As a younger chef, the good part is that I'm still in the absorption phase… Grabbing ideas from everywhere,” she says. She's stresses that gender is immaterial when it comes to the kitchen. “I know people say it's tougher for women. But that's a myth. You just need to be sure of yourself.”

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Shonali MuthalalyMay 11, 2012