Chef Mandaar Sukhtankar's skills aren't limited to Italian and European cuisines. He is also a writer, photographer and a musician

Good food is an art and Mandaar Sukhtankar, Executive Chef, The Park, is nothing short of an artist. His creative streak manifests itself in food, writing, music and photography. Known for whipping up Italian delicacies that are finger-licking good and his engaging writing on food, chef Mandaar would like to write a book soon. Away from the kitchen, seated at Aqua on a windy morning, he lets us in on his culinary journey, from learning to bake in his mom's kitchen to getting acclimatised to red hot Andhra cuisine to mastering Italian cuisine. It's been one delectable journey.

Mandaar became a chef partly by accident and partly with intent. His mother was a journalist and was part of the protocol team for the Asian Games held in New Delhi. He found himself making sandwiches and packing her lunch boxes. “I also helped her in preparing the batter when we baked cakes at home,” he says.

His father was in the army and Mandaar spent his schooling years in different parts of the country. Mandaar too wanted to be a part of the army or the air force, but destiny had other plans. But once he was initiated into culinary arts through a hotel management course in New Delhi, there was no regret barring a brief period when he was working in the butchery section.

Mandaar laughs as he looks back at those years, when he was splicing through different meats. “It's not easy. As a young chef, you are learning to cope with demanding work hours. The butchery section can be emotionally draining. You deal with all kinds of meats. If there is a requirement for liver on the menu, you do that too. There's nothing glamorous about putting aside 40kg of liver in a day. The smell and blood can put anyone off. For a while, I thought of quitting this profession,” he says.

It takes years of work before a chef becomes a celebrity, like Rachel Allen, Nigella Lawson or our own Sanjeev Kapoor and Tarla Dalal. Ask chef Mandaar if he, like everyone else, started off by cutting sacks of potatoes and onions, and he corrects us, “The stage of chopping comes later. Initially, you have to transport 200 to 300 kilos of provisions — maida, atta, pulses or vegetables — from the purchase section to the kitchens. You begin by being part of the team that loads the raw materials into giant trolleys, shoving these trolleys into service elevators and dragging them to the kitchen. The process can take six to seven hours.”

The formative years, he mentions, prepares chefs for the rigors of the kitchen. Only a few come unscathed from the Army-like drill. “When you graduate to chopping vegetables, you learn how to ‘turn' potatoes. Cutting each potato into four pieces and turning them into a desired shape is an art and continuously doing that can leave you with callused hands. The recognition and the money come much later. In your formative years, you learn the basics. Getting simple things right — like poaching, boiling, frying — holds you in good stead later on,” he emphasises.

Mandaar was at home with North Indian cuisine but his first major assignment, when he joined The Park group 18 years ago (yes, he has been with the group ever since. But more on that later). “I spent three years in Vizag. I was not conversant in Telugu. Vizag was a good learning ground,” he says. Mandaar was then posted in New Delhi when the hotel decided to open a Spanish restaurant. He was formally initiated into European cuisine. He learnt the basics and it came in handy when he had to helm the Italian restaurant, i.t-alia, of The Park, Bangalore. “I didn't have a structured training in Italian cuisine. The lack of structure made it so interesting,” he says.

Working in different cities, in different kitchens and learning different cuisines saw to it that he didn't feel stagnated. “People change jobs frequently for better designations and pay packages. Luckily, I didn't have to do that,” he says with a smile.

Chef Mandaar's mainstay is Italian cuisine. Mandaar owes his training to chef Antonio Carluccio. “The mentorship continued on and off for nearly a decade when I was part of i.t-alia in Bangalore,” he says.

Mandaar feels he still has a long way to go. “Italians have a sensitive palate and can detect the slightest increase in spice levels. I had to completely desensitise my palate to learn authentic Italian delicacies. Even now, I don't think my spice sensitivity matches that of Italians. This is a profession where the learning curve never ends,” he says.

Life as a chef, he points out, is like being on call 24 hours a day. During this journey, Mandaar also honed his skills in writing and photography. “There are many things I'd like to do, including learning music,” says Mandaar, who is a self-taught guitarist. Also on his wish list is exploring rural kitchens and bringing the delicacies to the urban tables.

Does he shy away from the kitchen at home? “If it's western food, I cook. My wife Meenakshi is excellent with Indian cooking,” says the chef. At home, you will find chef Mandaar and his son indulging in baking.

As a parting shot, he says, “It's amazing how informed people are about food these days, thanks to travelling and exposure to international cuisine. The globe, truly, has become our dining hall.”

Taste of Europe

* Chef Mandaar learnt European cuisine under the guidance of Spanish Chef Pedro Doce Hoyos and was part of the team that launched Las Meninas at The Park, New Delhi.

* He was one of the 12 winners worldwide, chosen for the ‘Foundation for the Future' scholarship awarded by the International Hotel and Restaurant Association in 2000-01. The scholarship won him a training programme at the College of Culinary Arts, Johnson and Wales University, Rhode Island, USA.

* The training in Italian cuisine began under Antonio Carluccio at ‘The Neal Street Restaurant' in London. Later, in 2005, he attended a professional's course at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners (ICIF) at Castello di Costigliole d'Asti, Asti, Italy. Following this course, he worked with the Antica Zecca restaurant in Caselle Torinese.

* In November 2006, Mandaar was rated as one of the Top Young Chefs in the country by the Taste and Travel magazine.