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Holy smoke! The chief chef is a she!

Julia Carmen de Sa, who knows her onions, plans to bring in her own flavour to her job.

Innovation is the keyword for Julia Carmen de Sa.

FOR SOMEONE who once didn't like cooking, Julia Carmen de Sa today finds herself as the Executive Chef at The Taj Residency, ruling over some 80 assorted chefs, cooks, and helpers. Julia, the sole woman Executive Chef in the entire Taj group, drifted into the industry when her father once snapped at her: "Go do hotel management or something." She did, and it opened up a whole new world for her.

Today, her work does not merely involve cooking but also production, innovation, creativity, menu planning, keeping up with culinary trends, people management, purchases, and business strategy. "I just spend some three or four hours actually cooking, but I'm always available on the cell should my advice be needed," she says over a light lunch of clear soup and rolls.

In a highly competitive industry, keeping a step ahead of rivals is the keyword. "The days of temperamental chefs are gone. There is no place for moods and tantrums as I have to carry the entire team with me." Though she is the honcho in the hotel kitchen, there are "other honchos" above her.

Julia personally checks out the markets each morning ("All those fellows at Russel and Johnson Markets know me!") and calls the hotel on her cell, saying such-and-such vegetable/meat/poultry/fish is fresh. She especially looks out for nati vegetables.

Sure, she is constantly creating new dishes, and her passion is fusion cuisine, blending Indian flavours with a Western touch, coming up with what she calls a "partnership of cuisines". "There's so much you can invent," she says, adding that she tries out her inventions on a small group of 15 to 20 to get their feedback. Contrary to popular notions, she insists that vegetarians have a wider choice than non-veggies.

She is now seriously working out a strategy where housewives and others will be invited to share their recipes and culinary traditions with the hotel. They will hold a lecdem before the Taj's kitchen team. "When we include the items in the menu, we're even planning to give credit to the person behind the dish," says Julia, "We'll probably put it up in the restaurant."

This is not a first for her. She perfected her pasta way back in 1987 when an excitable male Italian guest, appalled by the mess, hauled her into her kitchen, boiled the pasta al dent and threw it against the wall! That was a lesson in authenticity on which she places great value. "We even use a stone grinder for some masalas," she points out.

How does she take criticism? "When I was younger, I was a little defensive. But now I've learned that the customer is always right." What happens when there's a disaster? "It never comes out of the kitchen!"

What was her most challenging assignment? "In my previous job, the hotel was under construction and there were 750 workers on the site. Their shed got washed away and we had to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner for them for four days." The team came out with flying colours, she says.

She has thrice cooked for Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. "He is partial to seafood and likes surprises." She was also part of the team that featured in Madhur Jaffrey's serial on ethnic cuisine on BBC World. "If you saw a little girl near that pork on a spit, that was me." The serial was a bit touristy, but "we had great fun!"

This Goan has to be prodded to acknowledge that her favourite food is red rice and fish curry. "I can eat it everyday."

Does cooking ever tire her? "Never." She even cooks at home, usually making do with "whatever is there in the fridge". When I confess that the day I'm in a bad mood, whatever I cook is a disaster, she says her job allows her no such luxury. "We keep out personal emotions out of our professional life. We train ourselves to be 100 per cent professional. Our standards are nothing but the best, we make no compromises, and we strive for excellence."

Like all chefs, she too would like to start her own restaurant some day, with her special touch. And like all good chefs, she refuses to divulge the secret ingredient that will constitute the special touch.


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