It was sometime around 1997 when a young graduate fresh out of Institute of Hotel Management, Bangalore, during his first job at the first Café Coffee Day in the country as product development manager, decided to put paneer tikka over pizza. It was almost blasphemous back then!
A popular pizza chain took potshots at the paneer tikka pizza through advertisements. “The ads asked ‘Would you put sambhar in your spaghetti? Why would you put paneer in your pizza?’ But today, every pizza chain uses paneer toppings,” says Koushik S., also known as the ‘Mad Chef’, of Eatitude Gourmet Technologists.
He has been the brain behind the food design and concept of over 40 brands and 150 outlets over the last 17 years.
The first cold coffee he made for Café Coffee Day back then — the Cold Sparkle — is still a popular choice on the menu. “It was cold coffee with coconut milk and jaggery,” he recalls.
Ever since, he has gone on to put white chocolate over spaghetti, dark chocolate over meatballs, and strawberries with basil sauce at Toss Up, Porur, a restaurant with noodles as a theme. “Of course, this is part of the dessert and not main course because it tastes different but sweet. That’s the kind of stuff I do.”
He is also the mad scientist responsible for Phuket paneer at Peach’s, Velachery; orange peel vathakuzhambu and beetroot samosa in rabri at Simply South, Mylapore. “I got the nickname Mad Chef back in college when my instructors saw that I had done South Indian food with Continental presentation. And the name stuck.”
The highpoint of his career was when Sashi Chimala of Qwiky’s introduced him to Mukesh Ambani during the launch of Java Green in Mumbai. “And Mukesh Ambani introduced me to Amitabh Bachchan as the Mad Chef. I shook hands with him after serving him my Java Green granita that had Blue Curacao with khus. I didn’t wash my hand for a day,” he says, still excited about the moment.
The early days
Koushik’s adventure with food started when he was five. “I had just read Asterix In Spain and I took my grandma’s help to make cheese fondue. I’ve been at it since.”
“I had a learning disability. I wasn’t strong in math and I’m from a family of engineers. I just couldn’t fit in. With great difficulty I passed school and joined the Institute of Hotel Management in Bangalore.”
In 1999 he came to Chennai when Qwiky’s hired him fresh out of Café Coffee Day. “Sashi gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to. He was instrumental in my growth. Because, after Qwiky’s, we set up Java Green for Reliance. After Java Green, I started Eatitude and have been consulting for people wanting to start up in the food and beverage sector,” he says.
“The brand is the story. The food has to be a by-product of the story. So we go deep into brand philosophy and come up with food that justifies the brand,” explains Koushik.
“I’m a foodie first. I live to eat. Part-chef, part-food technologist and molecular gastronomy is kind of my thing. There’s so much you can experiment with food and technology. Not everyone in the business can afford to pay a chef but they definitely need one for planning and conceptualisation.”
But what is it that he does exactly as the chief culinary officer? “We do the six Ms — menu, manpower, material, machinery, marketing and management. We set it up, train people and move on to the next project,” he says.
Change, the only constant
“Change in taste is very gradual in Chennai, not like Mumbai or Bangalore. I keep in touch with international trends and constantly meet customers and experiment regularly,” says Koushik.
“In Chennai, people are getting more particular about their food. Pork is getting more acceptance than before. Many new chefs and international flavours have come in. Molecular mixology and flair bartending is also coming in. All of us would love to see alcohol with our food, and liberal licences could drastically change Chennai.”
So has he tried putting sambhar in spaghetti?
“Not yet,” he grins.
Showing the way
Kaushik says he has been a consultant for cafés and restaurants such as Toss Up, Illusions, Peach’s, Simply South, Azzuri Bay, The Tower (North Carolina), Mantra (North Carolina), Hundred’s Heritage, Coal N Flame, Eleven Fine Dining, Greens N Grains, Raakozhi, Sri Krishna Rassa, Sri Krishna Gokulams, Sri Krishna Sweets, The Gig, Texas Fiesta, The Bayleaf, M.A.S.H., Chennai Chillin’, Hazzel Dairy, The Madaras Kafe, Boomerang, Soup and Salad Café, Dewberry’s, Funk N Jazz, Kalmane Koffees, Java Green and Qwiky’s