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Cook for life: Choosing cookery as a vocation

The exceptional few who broke out of traditional roles to become chefs

A musician friend of mine is particularly fond of a line that figures in a Dev Anand-Hemant Kumar song from the 1952 film Jaal. Zindagi key geet ki dhun badal key dekh ley (Change the melody of your life), he often sings. He knows what it means. A toxicologist, he chucked academics several years ago and now regales millions with his music. Whenever I hear the song, I doff my cap to people who break out of a familiar and comfortable world. And I am sure that people who follow their hearts have stories to tell.

Ritu Dalmia, for one, certainly does. She is a self-taught chef who runs several Italian restaurants. In her book, Italian Khana, she writes about how she embraced cooking. “My love affair with Italian food began when I was sixteen,” she writes. “I had dropped out of school and was travelling all over Italy, trying to sell marble. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by food. Markets overflowed with boisterously coloured fruits and vegetables. In small shops I found baskets of still warm ricotta cheese. I could hear the hiss and sizzle of artichokes dropped in hot oil in the Jewish quarters in Rome. If I close my eyes I can still smell them.”

Eureka moments

I love reading this book, not just for the simple recipes it carries, but also for the way she describes food. She travelled around Italy, trying out a red mullet encrusted with black olive pâté, with just a squeeze of lemon over it, buttery goose liver, and zucchini and feta cheese fritters. Her Italian love affair soon turned into a “full-blown obsession” and she started out as a chef-entrepreneur with a restaurant called MezzaLuna in New Delhi.

In many of the books in my cookbook corner, chefs mention the eureka moments that pushed them towards food. In How I Learned to Cook, Tamasin Day-Lewis refers to her turning point — a meal with her boyfriend and a rich American at La Tante Claire in England when she was 19 and about to study English at King’s College, Cambridge.

“The moment the fine linen was napped across my knee, the menu perused, the champagne poured, and the bread served with sweet, unsalted French butter, I felt as excited as one does after a spectacularly fine overture or the first act of a brilliant play. But it wasn’t until the dinner that I was really blown away,” writes the filmmaker, author, and TV show presenter. Dessert was feuillete aux poires: “A coffin of the most stratospherically light puff pastry into which was set a perfectly poached half pear covered with a thin vein of caramel arrived.” The dish had an “extraordinary influence” on her life. “It was about entering the world I had seen as somewhat frivolous before, realising that it could be serious, that perfecting the craft of cooking could be a lifetime’s very happy work, even in the domestic kitchen of an enthusiastic amateur.”

My friend, celebrity chef Ranveer Brar, has often talked about how he started. His landowning father wanted him to be an engineer. But Brar had been charmed by the culinary art ever since he prepared some meethey chawal (sweet rice) in a gurdwara where he was helping as a small boy. He recalls in Come into My Kitchen how he ran away from home as a teenager, and started working with Ustad Munir Ahmed, one of Lucknow’s oldest kababchis. “At 17, after six months with Munir Ustad, my parents finally gave in to my decision,” writes Brar.

Whether Brar or Dalmia, I am glad they chose to become cooks. Feeding people well is a special skill not everyone can boast of. Clearly, the marble and engineering industries’ loss is the culinary world’s gain.

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 4:21:33 PM |

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