Four chefs share the stories of how the pre-service meal often is their play ground for culinary ingenuity, a showcase of their philosophy – and most important team bonding!
Of the many royal tales known to scion Chef Mujbeer Rehman, the one he loves reiterating to his guests often is how the khansamas or Bakwal (senior cook) back in time would find their protégés to take over: With a staff meal.
"While there were separated chefs designated to cook for the staff and the soldiers (since the kitchen staff was counted as part of the foot soldiers), there were times when a Bakwal would cook a special dish and ask his staff to gather around the caldron for a quick taste. Each of them would have a bowl and the Bakwal would ladle a spoonful.
"It was the one occasion where the hierarchily-strict kitchen would loosen up with each staff getting his say without the fear of being lashed or fired. It was these meals that often became not only a way to bond, but also the canvas that helped the khansama to work on his newer dishes with important feedback," adds the chef who saw his grandfather use a similar tactics to find chefs worth of their ladle in the kitchen.
Interestingly, not much has changed since then as staff meal continue to be the canvas for chefs to bond, encourage their staff to do well, and in that process create new dishes. Here, some of the best chefs talk about why staff meal is the most important service they cook for regularly.
By: Madhulika Dash
Sabyasachi Gorai, Chef-owner, Lavaash by Saby
The Oatyani (a favourite among staff) for instance is a biryani made in the traditional pakki biryani style that uses oats instead of rice as its base. Besides being healthier, the oats, which have a tendency to sweel up and keep you full for long hours (a necessity in service and kitchens), it has the necessary fibre that keeps you active and agile. That aside, says Chef Gorai, "it is a perfect way to showcase how to use local ingredients and cook it just that much that it retains its nutrients and natural taste."
Culinary Philosophy: Having cooked in some of the most dynamic kitchens across the best restaurants (and for some top embassies), this President awardee believes that food is the next best to spoken words. "A good meal is all what’s needed to get your message across effectively and efficiently – be it encouraging a staff after a bad day at service, cajole them to think out of the box, introducing them to the newest ingredient or even developing their skill as a chef or a server. And that’s why staff meal is as important (or even more at times) as that of the guests."
Gresham Fernandes, Executive Chef for Fine Dining at Impresario Handmade Restaurants
Dish: Fish Head Masala with Crispy Fried Bones
A favourite of the staff, this dish uses the tastiest anti-restaurant ingredients that are high on flavours and nutrients like the fish head and the bones from the fillets. But the flavours and healthfulness is only one half of what makes the dish so special, it is also the play around with the spices – which is kept to two or three – and is changed every time to give it a new feel. This is served with a special salad, which is often a mix of local greens, beans and dressing sauce that is often has a nostalgic value for someone or the other.
Culinary Philosophy: Much of the food thought of Chef Fernandes – the brain behind Impressario's coolest restaurant like Social and Salt Water Café – was built during his childhood years under the care of his grandmother (an excellent cook herself) grocery shopping spree. "We would shop for a wide variety of things, including vegetables and parts of fish and meat that I would ordinarily not find in any of my friend's dabba.
But that was my grandma, who taught me the use of every single part of the vegetable and meat. And that knowledge is exactly what I bring into my daily cooking, especially when it is about cooking for food neophiles, which thankfully most of the staff here is. That also helps me devise newer ways to use the same ingredients to bring out a dish that is high on taste, texture and even the surprise element – minus the gimmicks."
Vikas Seth, Culinary director, lounge hospitality
Dish: Quesadilla burger
The interesting thing about the dish is that it works two ways: first it's a total DIY right down to the filling and the accompaniments and thus extremely engaging; and two, it is a delicious way to open their minds to think out of the box and healthy (the fries here are baked sweet potatoes).
That's right. The quesadilla here is heated on the grill till the outer layer develops a crunch, and the filling can be anything from grilled meat to vegetables and even a mix of both. And since staff meal often is a crash course on the wonders of good produce and fresh ideas, this little twist on the traditional Mexican dish works like a charm.
Culinary Philosophy: Trained in Mexican, Oriental and Indian cuisine, Chef Seth's biggest takeaway from his over two decade old journey as a chef is mixing techniques to get the best from the local flavours. A master of flavour layering using techniques from across continents, the culinary director of Singkong and Sanchos believes that "good cooking is all about enhancing the natural characteristics of a produce than slathering it with lard, and a good meal is one that can help you discover newer things in an old favourite."
Chetan Sethi, Chef Owner, Zaffran
Dish: Chicken Wing Curry with Red Poha Coriander Rice
What makes chicken wings super interesting is that they are these perfect bites to experiment without the issue of whether the spices have percolated every inch of the meat. They cook fast and go with a variety of preparation. And that is what makes it an absolute love for the staff who needs something filling (in terms of their meat treat) yet light enough to enable them to get them back to work after the meal. Served with poha rice, it is the perfect curry that can be made different each time.
Culinary Philosophy: Trained in modern European cuisine but owner of a desi restaurant, Chef Sethi's transformation from a chef to chef-owner was the biggest learning curve that changed the way he looked and cooked food. “While researching for Indian cuisine, I discovered the art of creating flavours that are big on the palate memory with very few things, including the spice and produce. That is the lesson I use while cooking for most of my staff as well, after all, they are my first unbiased diners too."