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Salude: Top chefs spill beans on their favourite Torque Queens

By Madhulika Dash

Google top chefs or culinary trend makers, and you can be assured that at least part of the delicious list will have lady chefs who are mistress of their craft, have been able to engage a community and are respected worldwide for their ability to create new culinary routes. In this Women’s Day series, we ask some of very own list of crème de la crème as to who has been their inspiration.

CHEF SHARAD DEWAN, REGIONAL DIRECTOR – FOOD PRODUCTION, THE PARK KOLKATA
TORQUE QUEEN: PRIYA PAUL, CHAIRPERSON, THE PARK GROUP OF HOTELS

“Finding that one lady chef who has inspired me in my years as a chef is perhaps one of the toughest questions to answer, just because there are too many of them.
Like Elena Arzak, the award- winning Spanish chef. Her unquenchable zeal of presenting Spanish cuisine to the world is infectious and she has in her many ways inspired me to develop my own approach to indigenous food culture. Like Donna Hay, who has given me a different perspective in presenting food. In fact, I confess that my early plating was hugely inspired by her technique of keeping it naturally simple yet elegant. But the one lady who has, in her own ways, has given me the direction to chart newer culinary routes and the freedom as well is our very own Priya Paul. A seasoned hotelier, she is one unlikely torque queen who excels in understanding the world of food, especially the knack of what appeals to the diners. And has been a generous reason for The Parks across the country doing so well.”


CHEF AJAY ANAND, DIRECTOR OF CULINARY, PULLMAN AEROCITY
TORQUE QUEEN: CHEF NITA NAGARAJ, CORPORATE CHEF, JAYPEE GROUP

“There is a reason that you remember you first with such fondness. They are the people who have the biggest role in making you what you are today. for me, that first was Chef Nita Nagaraj. She was my boss and mentor, who ran her kitchen with an iron fist. And thank heavens, she did so. Because of her I spent my early years developing as a chef, a leader who can run a team and yet when need be handle any section with practice ease. It was because of her that I developed a love for French cuisine and eventually that became my forte. Her strict boss and happy mentor routine was instrumental in giving me an insight into creating bonds that are priceless. Today, if I have a team in Pullman that can reproduce what I as a head visualise, it is to the early lessons she taught me. Chef Nagaraj will always remain my Torque Queen.


CHEF VIKAS SETH, CULINARY DIRECTOR, EMBASSY LEISURE
TORQUE QUEEN: CHEF ILIANA DE LA VEGA OF EL NARANJO

“I think its human nature to have an idol and an ideal. In my case, it is Chef Illiana De la Vega. A legend in Mexican cuisine much like Diana Kennedy, she has this amazing approach to food and culture which is both exciting, awe-inspiring and addictive. I chanced upon meeting her – and even cooking besides her during one of my trips to Mexico to explore more about the ancient cuisine which in many ways resembles that of India. Though my association with her was brief, it left a lasting impression on me when it came to working with local produce and how to use her creation to effect the thinking of a larger community. One of the things that I did after I came back was to start working with more local ingredients. Today, when we create variation of a certain popular dish or even create new ones, the thought is the same – how would it effect the community at large. The approach has worked beautifully, as the first community I could see the change is in my own staff, who now own up much of the menu – not because they are more familiar with it now, but because now they understand the ethos completely.”


CHEF SABYASACHI GORAI, CULINARY DIRECTOR, BOB’S BAR
TORQUE QUEEN: KYLIE KWONG, OWNER, BILLY KWONG

“There are many reasons that I consider her to my ideal. She has done everything that as a chef we hope for- excel in our art, work in the finest kitchen, have your own successful, award winning restaurant, a widely watched series and books that are followed like Culinary Bible. And she has done it in her own terms. But my respect (and appreciation) for her begin when I started working at Rockpool, one of the finest kitchens in Australia. She was the head chef there – although by the time I joined she had left it. But the immaculate system and training ensured that the standards remained the same. Even the line cooks there had better skills than I had as a relatively senior chef. I had to work doubly hard to be able to stand at the head of the line and command. For me Chef Kwong was the teacher that taught me the true meaning of being a Chef – and even influenced my culinary course. I hope someday to cook alongside her.”


CHEF ABHIJIT SAHA, CHEFPRENEUR, FAVA/CAPEBERRY/ROCKSALT
TORQUE QUEEN: CHEF NITA NAGARAJ, CORPORATE CHEF, JAYPEE GROUP

“If you started your career like me three decades ago, there could be only one lady who could have shaped you as a chef – Chef Nita Nagaraj. An outstanding human being and perhaps the best teachers one could ask for to give you a hands-on approach to the chef life, she has been instrumental in not only charting the way good kitchens run, but also defined how a good kitchen master (chef) should be. An old school teacher, one of her best lessons to all those who have worked under her is to help them discover their own potential and then chart their own culinary route. For me, Chef Nita has been the reason that I can today dabble between cuisines, techniques and even flavours. For the culinary world, she is a priceless gem.”


CHEF RAJIV MALHOTRA, CORPORATE CHEF, HABITAT WORLD
TORQUE QUEEN: CHEF PANKAJ BHADOURIA, OWNER, PANKAJ BHADOURIA CULINARY ACADEMY

“inspirations can come from any place, any time. For me, one of the lady chefs I look up to is Masterchef India Season 1 winner, Pankaj Bhadouria. It is inspiring how that lady has created avenues that some of us dream to do when we retire – write a book, preserve our culinary legacy and even make it relevant with her TV series and even open a culinary school that advocates how versatile, impressive and amazing our own culinary legacy is. She is one of the reasons that home-style food is back in vogue. And the most impressive of all is how she easily connects to people using food as a ruse, be it with chefs she works to learn more or diners she (and her food) instantly connects with.”


CHEF NEERAJ TYAGI, EAM, SHANGRI LA-EROS, NEW DELHI
TORQUE QUEEN: NIGELLA LAWSON

“It’s breath-taking how a homemaker with love of cooking could go ahead and establish an empire with nothing but her ladle and conviction. For me that amazing personality is Nigella Lawson, who went on to break rules and create her own style and epitomises how food could transcend boundaries. But what she inspired me with most is the art of presenting food – with a story. Her influence was visible when I created the menu of Mister Chai, where we travelled around India and other places to decipher that one single nugget that made them relatable. And then we did our version of it to present it with a selection of teas. This exercise left an indelible imprint on my mind and has changed how I approach food – and my diners today.”


CHEF DHIRAJ DARGAN, EXECUTIVE CHEF, COMORIN
TORQUE QUEEN: ELENA ARZAK, HEAD CHEF, ARZAK

“One of the most talented lady chefs that I know is Chef Elena Arzak. Elena is the joint head chef of three Michelin Starred restaurant Arzak in San Sebastián, Spain alongside her father, Juan Mari Arzak. I first met her when I visited her restaurant when we were travelling for work. The Chef is an exemplary example for work-life balance. She has two kids and is managing a 3 Michelin Star restaurant, which has been consistent in its achievements and has a reputation that they never cease to innovate.”


CHEF HARPAWAN KAPOOR, PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT, ITC LIMITED
TORQUE QUEEN: CHEF ANDREA DOPICO CAFARELLI, PASTRY CHEF, MANDARIN ORIENTAL

“Whosoever said that you can find inspiration even in a new leaf that holds a dew drop, knew something more about life than we do. At least in my opinion. Chef Dopico is the young female chef who I'm inspired by at present. I met her for a hands-on dessert workshop. Watching her work was a sheer wonderment. The kind of energy and zeal she has for the trade has made her achieve so much at such a young age. And the best part, she doesn’t mind sharing her infectious passion that you can feel though her recipe books. The fact that in spite her success, she still remains in heart a humble being with a child-like fascination for everything sweet is perhaps one of the most endearing quality of hers.”


CHEF SHANTANU MEHROTRA, EXECUTIVE CHEF, INDIAN ACCENT
TORQUE QUEEN: CHEF SHUBHRA MEHROTRA, EXECUTIVE SOUS CHEF, ITC MAURYA

“In my close to three decades’ of kitchen life, there have been many inspirations, and it still continues. But when it comes to those who have influenced me, the list incidentally has remained the same: Chef Ritu Dalmia, Chef Manisha Bhasin, Chef Julia Child and even Madhur Jaffrey. But the one person who has shaped my thinking – and had impressed me with her craft and diligence even as a young kitchen hand is Chef Shubhra Mehrotra. The kind of sincerity that she brings to her food and her child like fascination into exploring produce and culture is infectious. Having her on my side, of course, comes with its perks and banes, but in the years, I have seen her work, I have to say, I finally have understood why women chef make the biggest dent in creating delicious culinary routes – it’s inbuilt in them to create, nurture and then share with the larger community. I am just blessed to know such taste-makers and even work with them.”