He has set records, cooked in whacky locations and dug out forgotten cuisines. Shonali Muthalaly on Chef Jacob’s recipe for success
Chef Jacob beams and bounces. Bounce. Beam. Bounce. I pull out my notebook in a businesslike manner. He’s still beaming. And still bouncing. Smiling politely, I begin asking about his influences. “Wait,” he beams. “Juice? Tea? Coffee?” Bounce. “Dessert?”
Minutes later I’m slicing into a cool wobbly confection, rich with coconut milk. And I can’t hold back any more. “Are you sitting on an exercise ball?” I ask, staring at his shiny blue circular seat with disbelief. “Yes,” he laughs, bouncing on it with glee. “It’s great for your core muscles.”
I narrow my eyes. “Trying for another Guinness record?” He looks shifty for a second. “Ok. Yes. In December. But don’t tell anyone.” Thoughtful bounce. “Actually, you can say it. But don’t disclose what the record will be.”
Flamboyant Chef Jacob Sahaya Kumar Aruni can’t resist a challenge. In March 2010, he created a Guinness record for the world’s longest barbeque marathon by cooking outdoors, at Radisson Temple Bay, for 24 hours and five minutes.
His whacky show Aaha Enna Rusi on Sun TV, made him famous as the ‘Chef who cooks on trees’. The show, which began in 2008, consistently broke away from convention. “Everyone was doing cooking demonstrations from a set. I wanted to take it outside. To showcase regional food.” So he climbed a coconut tree. “I made a coconut-mutton curry on top. The camera man was on the next tree.”
The audiences were flummoxed. “I took a Rs. 10 lakh loan and produced the show myself because I was sure it would work,” he says, “but for the first three months it was a failure. People could not digest it because they were used to programmes where a host stands in the kitchen and shows them how to cook.” Then, gradually, it caught on. “We did not cut costs. We had hi-fi editing and music…”
Today, he says the show has fans across the world. “In the U.S., Singapore, Malaysia…” He shakes his head, barely concealing his glee. “My private life is gone. People come to me on the street, the super market, even the airport to ask doubts about cooking. Like how to make a soft dosa…” Jacob admits, “I enjoy it. I also try to get some good recipes out of them. After I answer their questions I say, ‘So what are you good at cooking.’ I start a conversation. In the end either they bring me a chicken curry, or I will go their homes to eat it.”
Fascinated with food as a child, he says, he always knew he wanted to be a chef. But his parents, both doctors from CMC Vellore had other plans for him. “I wanted to dedicate myself to cooking. They insisted that I study medicine.” His mother finally let him off the hook when she saw his reaction to a nurse giving someone an insulin injection. “I fainted!” says Jacob, rolling his eyes. So they sent me to Madurai to do a B.Sc. in Physics.
Undeterred, he began cooking for his college friends. “I would make biryani mainly. Using my mom’s special masala with mint and coriander. Her final touch was a special blend of onion, coconut and khus khus, which she would smear across the rice.” He also worked on parathas and chapattis, “because you really needed practise to get it round.” When his mother fell ill, he took over the home kitchen. “I started cooking for my sister and brother. I would send food to their school.”
Once he finished his B.Sc., he was finally allowed to join catering college. “I went to SNR and Sons College in Coimbatore. After a few weeks, the professors let me handle the practical session for the whole class. Because after cooking for my family for so long, making sambar, poriyal, payasam was so easy.”
Finding a job in a professional kitchen, however, proved tough. He was finally hired by the Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers, “but as room service, not a chef.” It didn’t faze him. “The executive chef would have a glass of lime juice at 4 p.m. every afternoon. I managed to get the job of serving it to him, just so I could ask him to let me into the kitchen. He drove me away, saying there are already so many people vying for those positions. But I begged every day, saying ‘just give me one month’s training.’ Finally because I pestered him so much, he gave in.” He worked at the hotel’s award winning restaurant Dakshin for one year, and then decided to start a “quest to find the forgotten flavours of India.” Specifically the South of India.
“I wanted to do research on ancient foods. To record recipes from homes,” he says, explaining why he’s ideal for the job. “It needs a chef. To understand a person’s recipes, see visuals and they explain, and recreate them.” His foray into culinary academia began at the Cherraan’s Art Science College. “I wanted the students to develop an interest in traditional South Indian cuisine so I asked each one to bring his mother’s best recipes to class. Then we visited their houses and asked the mothers to demonstrate it, while we videographed the method.”
With all the research collated, he and his students organised a Kongunadu (Coimbatore and surrounding districts) festival in Chennai, which became so popular, it got Jacob and his students a ticket to Rashtrapati Bhavan. “We were honoured by Abdul Kalam when he was President. He invited us to Delhi in May 2007, for tea at Rashtrapati Bhavan.”
Next came his work on Nanjilnadu, the Nadar cuisine from Madurai to Kanyakumari. After that he researched food habits of people who lived between the 3rd and 16th Century. “It’s interesting because you can see how food is influenced by trade and culture,” he says.
He recently started his own restaurant, Jakob’s Kitchen, which revives the recipes of 175 South Indian housewives. “I couldn’t stay away from the kitchen,” he smiles. “I just have to be doing something all the time.”
Chopped celery – 5 tbspGreen, red and yellow capsicum - 1 eachGarlic - 2Boiled and ground horse gram – 3 tbspFresh tomato puree - 50 mlCrushed black pepper - 1/2 tspShredded cabbage - a handfulOlive oil - 1 tspBlack salt - to taste
MethodHeat olive oil in a non-stick pan and sauté celery and cabbage for about half a minute.Cut capsicum into cubes and add to the pan.Add garlic and fresh tomato puree and continue sautéing for a minute.Now add enough water to the mixture to cook for a minute. Add black salt.When the mixture starts boiling, add horse gram paste and cook well for two more minutes.Serve hot with brown bread.
Nenthiram pazham - 2 Boiled milk - 200 mlFresh coconut milk - 100 mlCardamom powder - 1/4 tspSugar - 100 gmRice flour - 2 tbsp
Method In a thick bottomed kadai add milk and sugar. Bring to a boil. Add cardamom powder.Add sliced bananas. Cool well. Make sure it doesn’t break.Mix rice flour in coconut milk and add it to the boiling mixture.Continue boiling for two minutes. Cool, chill and serve.