When Koushik Shankar saw the flair displayed by ambidextrous chef Martin Yan in the popular Chinese cooking show Yan can cook, he was completely bowled over . In the late 80s, in an effort to recreate the cleaver at a time when it was unheard of in regular households, Koushik went to an iron maker to forge a blade. He then went to a carpenter to make the handle for it. Then, he practised with it. “It’s because of things like this that they call me ‘The Mad Chef’,” he grins.
Today, Koushik says he has worked with over 40 brands in just this city through Eatitude, his consultation company. These include popular local hangouts such as Illusions The Madras Pub, Jonah’s Bistro, Petawrap, Maplai and more. He’s worked for Mukhesh Ambani and served Amitabh Bachchan his food. He’s consulted for restaurants in Mauritius, the United States, the Middle East and many cities in India. Along the way, he introduced Chennai to paneer tikka pizza, white chocolate spaghetti and orange peel vathakuzhambu . Yet, despite the accolades, the Mad Chef from Madras says rejection has been a big part of his life. “I would be a totally different person if my life had gone the way I had planned. When I started, I wasn’t the famous mad chef and my experiments were not so readily accepted. The beginning was not easy,” he says.
In 1991, right after school, when Koushik told his father about his plans to pursue his culinary ambitions, he was not pleased. “He became violently angry and threw me out of the house. He expected me to come running back home, but instead I lived in a railway station for a while. Then I moved to a friend’s house, my grandmother’s house, my aunt’s place…”
To rustle up the funds he needed to put himself through college, Koushik spent two years juggling odd jobs to pay the bills. He donned the hat of a pharmaceutical sales rep, picked up many crates as a store boy, knocked on doors to fill up questionnaires for market research, emceed many events with his deep voice and worked as a kitchen supervisor in Hotel Rama, Bangalore. “I have a lot of stories to tell my grandkids,” he grins.
In two years, he saved the money he needed to study at the Institute of Hotel Management, Bangalore. “Things were really low back then, but I was still one of the top three in my batch,” he says. Koushik pursued the course with a vengeance, even while he spent most evenings waiting tables at The New Night Watchman pub. He says he pursued his professors with a lot of over-enthusiastic questions, spent a lot of time researching food and carried out experiments which were considered sacrilegious in the culinary world. His antics soon earned him the name he is still known by. “My professors told me I’d be a chef no doubt, and a mad one at that!”
It wasn’t until campus placements that he realised that he was good at handling customers, and taking on the service side of the business. “I was applying for kitchen positions, while being offered service jobs. So, I decided I’ll be one of those chefs who can cook and also talk to my customers.” And he can certainly talk. Especially, when it comes to his art, which prompts conversations that can go on for hours. “If you take food out of my life, I don’t think I will have anything else to talk about!”
After college, Koushik worked with Leela Kempinski in Mumbai, Cafe Coffee Day in Bangalore, and then Qwiky’s and Java Green in Chennai. “I had given myself a commitment that I wouldn’t stay in a place for longer than a year, because I have a short life and a long way to go. I wanted to learn.”
At Qwiky’s, he donned many roles, including handling the kitchen, training employees, opening outlets, product development and marketing. At Java Green, he learnt about food technology. “This is when science came in and I learnt a lot about the flavour wheel. Do you know rose, onion and coffee are next to each other on the wheel and go beautifully together?”
Temporarily torn between production work and food technology, the chef finally realised his core strength was the kitchen. For the last seven years, he has been whipping up a storm in a wide variety of restaurant kitchens. There’s just one hitch. The chef is absolutely not allowed to cook at home. “Oh my wife says something about chefs not cleaning up after themselves,” he mumbles, adding with a grin, “I can candidly tell you I’m scared of my wife. What can I do?”
Married, with a brood that includes two children and eight dogs, the chef is quite the family man. Yet, work wakes him up at 5 a.m. every morning and keeps him on his toes till 2 a.m. And as long as he can remember, he says he’s been surviving on three hours of sleep a day. “Sometimes, when I’m really tired, you might find me dozing off in the middle of the day in one of my restaurants,” laughs the Mad Chef.
Bacon wrapped chicken (Chicken supremes wrapped with cheddar cheese and bacon, oven-cooked)
Karupattimisu (a cross between karupatti and tiramisu), Maplai burrito (the south-Indian version of the Mexican staple, made of veech parota, biryani khuska and mutton chukka)
Phuket paneer (where the paneer looks exactly like and tastes mildly similar to the Thai phuket fish)
Aachi curry stroganoff (Chettinad flavours take over the famous Dutch dish)
Kummankuthu barotta (inspired by the triple schezwan and made of fried parotta, parotta and masala to offer different flavours and textures)
Steak Jonah’s (beef steak that is grilled and cooked in wine, served with goat cheese)
Chicken piquant (made with fermented chilli paste and a little honey, and grilled on a skewer)