My Mentor, My Confidant, My Guru: Chef Vernon Coelho

“We won’t be a chef, if not for Chef Coelho.” On Teachers’ Day, two of India’s finest chefs share the single significant reason why they choose knife over service – and their rise to success.

As told to Madhulika Dash

His deep understanding of food, culinary cultures and world trends could have easily garnered him any position in one of the top kitchens in the country (and world), yet, like the proverbial Gandalf to the culinary shire, he chose to teach. In his 44 years as mentor, guide and a strict, iron-fisted teacher in the kitchen, he has shaped a generation of chefs, some of them are counted among the top culinary champions of our country. A man with an Asian elephant size memory – he remembers his students by his/her first name, batch and virtues and the number is on the other side of a few lakh – and the former president of WICA (Western India Culinary Association), his contribution to the F&B world has been unparallel and beyond admiration: whether it was evolving the IHM competitions; effectively creating synergies among chefs with WICA or simply being accessible to his many students for guidance or a healthy banter and a cook off.

Easily India’s culinary Giant, retirement has done little to fade the magic of this well-read, well-travelled gentleman who remains a definition of ‘excellence’ for an era of chefs. This teachers’ day, we pay our respect to India’s finest culinary counsellor, Chef Vernon Coelho – the man with a timeless appeal.

It is an unlikely confession from a chef who is considered the finest in Mexican cooking, but that is the truth, says CHEF VIKAS SETH (Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure) as he recollects his days with Chef Coelho:
“It may come as a surprise to everyone, but in my second year of college I was more inclined to join the front of the house instead of being in the kitchen – and this while I liked all the hot kitchen classes. It was, I think, the glamour or the fact that it appealed to my nature of meeting people. Kitchen, I had somewhere thought, will be very limiting. Those were the days when chefs coming into the restaurant could be possible only during non-service hours. It was Chef Coelho who convinced me that I should be in the kitchen, but he never said it directly to me. It was by giving me challenging assignments in the kitchen, which I enjoyed doing. It was when I realised how much I liked to work with the knife that he finally told me, ‘ I see a good chef in you.’ It is the one line that still motivates me to do the best. Of course, what shaped me were those little hand-written notes that were xeroxed and given to us, so we would never feel lost in our professional lives. I still have those preserved and refer to them every now and then to understand food better. And for everything else, he is always a call away.”

Known to be an authority in Rajasthani cuisine, CHEF AKSHRAJ JODHA (Executive Chef, ITC Windsor) is easily the poster boy of the exotic creed of chefs who have championed the cause of regional cuisine. Perhaps the only chef to work with INTACH to redocument his culinary legacy to about 800 years, Chef Jodha is a beacon for those who want to work on their own legacy. But none of this would have been possible without Chef Coelho, confesses Chef Jodha, who found his footing as an Indian Masterchef thanks to his mentor.

“I never had doubts that I will be a chef – I love eating, cooking and was fascinated by the little quirks of what made Indian cooking so fascinating. However, this was the early 90s and of course the charm was of European cuisine. You wanted to excel in making a souffle rather than a bati. But that was until after my second year of internship, I was chosen to be a part of the IHM Chefs Competition. Our mentor from IHM Mumbai was Chef Coelho – it was my chance to be tutored under him. Those three intense weeks of hot/cold kitchen taught me more than what I could have learned in any professional kitchen – my love for my legacy, the art of team work and of course, the courage to putting your work out there with confidence. We made history by winning all the 18 segments (a record till date at IHM Mumbai). But what sealed the moment wasn’t just our victory, but the fact that we celebrated those who competed with us more. What was our food that day? Indian inspired, our creation. What kept us through the competition and the pressure? Faith on each other and Chef Coelho literally standing with us through all the segments beaming in our work. What makes us harder work on our skills today? His remark, “We did swell.”