A chef for all seasons

Features, Back of House

While innovation perforce must needs be seasonal, senior chefs should create a conducive environment for the same, says Soumya Goswami, as he plays culinary Nostradamus for 2010.

Innovation is not about inventing cuisine; I see it as a way of creative indulgence in premium ingredients, nurtured to their peak of flavours to seduce the most discerning customer.

To be a significant chef, one has to be greatly disciplined, understand the history of food and how textures, flavours, and ingredients go together, to even attempt innovation.

For instance, Flyod Cardoz at Tabla, New York, first perfected the keema samosa before he attempted to make his signature goat cheese and roast almond samosas. Innovative food starts and ends with the customer; like it or not, a chef is as good as the last meal he cooked for his customer.

For a chef innovation is sustenance – a habit or penchant to keep your customers excited with each repeated visit to your restaurant, dining room, or home.

The ubiquitous bread and butter pudding persists as my favourite example; many moons ago, a grandmother invented it after she felt guilty throwing away stale bread. Gordon Ramsay re-invented it, or should I say ‘innovated’ the modern day version, with Venezuelan single-origin chocolate, wild berries, Californian raisins, and Iranian pistachios – he won three Michelin stars for it!

Creative and innovative chefs are a lot like a painter staring at a stretch of blank canvas (his white plate) and a box of paints (a collection of his favourite ingredients); the dishes he paints must be a vibrant, energetic balance of colour, texture, and flavour.

A chef’s work is ephemeral – for all the passion and attention he puts into making a dish, it disappears at the touch of a fork, spoon, or pair of chopsticks. Innovation is seasonal for chefs; we need to put the best produce on our customer’s plates with creative energy and enthusiasm.

At The Oberoi Vanyavilas, the chefs pride themselves on a daily changing menu dependent on the produce from their nurtured organic herb and vegetable garden. Innovation has driven them to capture the best seasonal produce in their backyard, lest their customers ever think they were in the middle of a jungle.

Nobu Matsuhisa, despite being debt ridden after his first restaurant burnt down, continued to import his fresh seasonal produce from fourteen locations in Japan to his Los Angeles restaurant, to fuel his innovations which are legendary and encapsulated in his restaurants all around the world.

As senior chefs, we must create an environment where innovation is possible. The most popular dishes are not always created by the chefs at the helm. When we opened The Oberoi Patisserie and Delicatessen, our most popular chocolate cake recipe came from one of our junior executives who just tried his hand at innovation with some Valhrona cocoa powder mixed with his favourite single-origin chocolate from Guatemala.

Similarly, one day one of our pastry shop assistants put together a lovely breakfast hamper for a confused guest, with a wedge of Camembert, a packet of Dorset muesli, a bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling mandarin juice, Himalayan borage honey, a box of Darjeeling tea, and our selection of breakfast pastries – giving birth to one of our highest selling gift hampers.

I call well travelled chefs ‘oyster seekers’; well, after all, the world is their oyster. They are often the most creative and innovative chefs. Like artists and writers, chefs also suffer from a creative block at times, and need to re-invent themselves to stay innovative for sustenance. Exposure to new ingredients, restaurant concepts, dishes, and culinary culture, rejuvenates the urge to be creative. Innovations are often simply new or improved ideas, devices, and refinements, which help us along.

Sometimes, it can be a small aesthetic improvement that subtly upgrades a restaurant’s ambience or level of refinement – creative amuse gueles, migniardises, or a pre- dessert. I have realised there are no universal food or restaurant trends; food trends or preferences in India are not in tandem with the world at all. Although we have made progress with government regulations on imports we are still far away from global standards of quality agricultural, meat, and seafood produce.

Since I have been told to play Nostradamus for 2010 food trends, let me hazard a few guesses. Chinese cuisine will remain India’s most popular import, but this year we will see more authentic Chinese restaurants opening, and older ones upgrading themselves; I am told there are over 1000 Chinese chefs from China, Hong Kong, and Singapore working in our country.  Stand-alone pastry shops offering breakfast menus in locations with a large working population will be a trend.

Food warehouses with retail and food kiosks will be the next dining rage – modelled on Movenpick’s Le Marche restaurants around the world, these work like huge food retail venues with good quality ingredients, and a selection of international and regional Indian food kiosks with limited seating.

Further, hotel restaurants will continue to listen to their F&B consultants from the west and ape western restaurant trends with chic decors, and concepts like Japanese, seafood, Spanish/Mediterranean, and bars with microbreweries.

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