Who Am I? And How Plates Are Made
I’ll start this off by saying that Indian food is probably one of the most difficult cuisines to learn and one of the best cuisines to eat. It does, however, have its faults. The desserts were always far too sweet for my liking, and the heat of the various curries as they were made in India scorched my mouth. And there was the unfortunate trait that if you stuck it, hot, in a lunchbox and kept it in a backpack all day, it would only get more and more odorous.
I was around twelve or thirteen when I had begun my culinary journey, starting off by cooking partly out of necessity, as classmates often turned their noses up at the ‘stink’ of my Indian lunch. I would wait until I came back home, turn on the Food Network, and eat my lunch then. I suppose somewhere along the way I figured I could just cook my own food if I truly didn’t like my bringing my mom’s food to school, and so my mother came home one day to see her precious little 12 year old boiling water and mixing Prego sauce with Kraft cheese in an vain attempt to make a passable pasta. She scolded me, and as I went to visit my grandmother and my aunts in India, most of the cooks in my family echoed her and told me that 'a man wasn’t allowed to be in the kitchen.'
Because of my love for food and not a small degree of spite, I’m sure, I then resolved to learn how to cook. At
this point I had wanted to be furthest from the Indian kitchen which had pushed me away, and so I threw myself into learning Italian cuisine. I never took a class during high school to learn the basics, preferring to teach myself, and somewhere along the way I picked up a decent knife and some knife skills. Most of my younger years as a cook were spent trying to prove an unknown something to multiple unknown someones. It was all about whether I was a ‘better’ cook than those in my school who had taken culinary classes, or about how crazy, complex, and rich my mac and cheese could get (I ended up stopping at 6 cheeses, pictured left).
It was around 4 years ago, or around junior year of high school when I watched the first episode of Chef’s Table and learned of Chef Massimo Bottura, the owner and culinary mind behind Osteria Francescana. Massimo obliterated my then very basic and categorical understanding of what ‘good food’ was, and his ideals and passion inspired me. I idolized him almost instantly. Bottura saying, “You have to learn the rules before you break them” is what pushed me to study French Cuisine, from stocks to sauces. Before He came into my life (and yes, he deserves a capital H), I had been cooking for 3 years already, but once I became aware of him, I realized how far I still had to go.
A little while after this, I was asked by my dad’s best friend to ‘make him something’, as he knew I had an interest in cooking, and to this day I have no idea what possessed me to do what I did, but I created a dish. It was the first time that I didn’t follow some sort of recipe, that I went to the grocery store and picked up things
that spoke to me and put them in my cart. It was the first time that when my dad asked me what to get from the grocery store, I couldn’t just show him a list and be done with it. I ended up making a bruschetta with topped with pesto, seared mushrooms in toasted sesame oil, spinach, twice caramelized onions, and melted fresh mozzarella on top (pictured right). And it was then, to my mother’s dismay, that I told her for the first time that I wanted to be a chef.
During my time in and out professional kitchens (the majority of which my mother still refused to accept the fact that I wanted to be a chef), I mainly tried to understand how I created my first dish. At the time, I knew nothing of balancing flavors, and I’m sure I had only seen pesto in various cooking shows. Whenever I asked Chef how he created the specials that went on the menu, he gave me the usual schpiel that spills out of most chef’s mouths when they’re asked similar questions.
“The Five Tastes are sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. Every dish or meal has to have a balance between all those components to taste good.”
So formulaic. And it’s true, in theory. But I didn’t know that or think about it when I made my first plate. And it’s later that night when I read articles about my idol and re - watched that fateful episode of Chef’s Table for what must have been the 20th time that I understood. Massimo had a test he gave to almost every one of his employees. He gave them a classic dish and asked them to make it in such a way that the ending plate answered the question “Who are you?” At its root, every dish could be broken down into components, but the sum of those components transcended the original parts it was made of. Cooking had to have a purpose. And it was then, about a year ago, that I set out to create a dish that satisfied Massimo’s question.
The first few months were rough, what with being Indian – American representing a huge part of my identity, and my complete inability to cook Indian food the traditional way, since most people in my family now found me too intimidating to have in the kitchen with them, and the others (mainly my grandmother) still refused to teach me on account of gender.
Eventually, I got my chance. My aunt’s birthday was coming up, and my dad, rather than telling me to limit myself to making one dish as usual, gave me free reign of the kitchen. I started planning days in advance. I was making a three-course meal. My appetizer and main course, while delicious, weren’t original creations, more based off things I had made during my time working at NIX and Claudette (one of which is pictured left). But for my aunt, who I knew had a sweet tooth, dessert had to be perfect.
It was at that point, after around 24 hours of straight cooking and about 3 hours of deep sleep that I asked my dad the day before his sister’s birthday what her favorite dessert was.
“Pista Kulfi ice cream” Was his answer.
Indian. And even worse, something I rarely ate, due to it being flavored with pistachios, and very sweet. But I rose to the challenge. Another 23 hours later, as I stood there dead on my feet, physically and mentally exhausted, bags under my eyes, looking tiredly down at the plate I had just set in front of my aunt, I felt a calm settle. Nothing I had ever made came close to the significance this held for me. I spent at least 3 hours shucking pistachios and soaking them to remove the salt (they had no plain pistachios at the store), then roasting them until they were fragrant again. The flavor was just as I wanted it to be. I added almond on top of the roasted pistachio to the Parisian style ice cream custard base since I didn’t feel it tasted nutty enough, put slightly less sugar than I would in a usual ice cream, and added more green cardamom and some vanilla bean husk to balance the sweetness. The texture was smooth and creamy, as I had added some vodka and some high fructose corn syrup to smooth out the ice cream and prevent freezer burn. It sat atop a bed of brown sugar crumb, spiced with star anise, clove, cinnamon, and juniper, an ode to one of Massimo Bottura’s signature dishes, “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart.” It was and is my love letter to Indian cuisine, expressed through my French and Italian culinary training. It is my promise to Indian cuisine, that no matter what it takes, I will master it.
It is unique, delicious and my answer to the question Massimo posed me: Who am I? I'm a Chef.