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Food gene pool: Two 'famous' families talk about their kitchen memories

Two families with famous members passionately bound by and to food, discuss their kitchen memories. While two sisters team up to create special sundaes, the son who gave his dad's legacy a nitrogen blast

World ka sabse best chef kaun?

Back in the ’80s, James Gomes was executive chef with Juhu’s famed Sun N Sand hotel, one of the few five-stars in the suburbs. James returned to his Juhu residence after serving a party of 2,000 guests. It was 4 am on a Sunday. As was his habit, he opened the door to his son Stephen’s room to check if he was in bed. “I pulled the bedsheet to find a stack of pillows and a recorder that emitted the sound of snoring. He could fool his mum, not me,” laughs the 79-year-old, slapping his hand on the chair.

James (left) with son Stephen Gomes at his first Mumbai restaurant, Chemistry 101, which opened doors in Lower Parel in last month. PIC/Pradeep Dhivar
James (left) with son Stephen Gomes at his first Mumbai restaurant, Chemistry 101, which opened doors in Lower Parel in last month. PIC/Pradeep Dhivar

The next morning, he didn’t have to ask Stephen where he’d been. The newspaper spoke of a performance by French band, Cyclops. Stephen could’ve been nowhere but there.

“Naughtier” of his two children, James admits he has lost ‘control’ of Stephen, who now takes off on cliffhanging trips to Spain. “I was a rock freak, an adventure junkie. I had really long hair. We rode the BMX bikes pretty rough,” recalls Stephen.

James Gomes with son Stephen, who launched Chemistry 101 at Kamala Mills last month. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
James Gomes with son Stephen, who launched Chemistry 101 at Kamala Mills last month. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

He spends more time in professional kitchens now, but rock music still plays in the background.

We are at Stephen’s first restaurant in Mumbai, Chemistry 101.

James says his own interaction with food began in 1958 in Delhi. “I was 23 when my uncle set me up at Gaylord’s as a trainee. It was a lot of hard work. I scrubbed pots and chopped vegetables.”

From here, he moved to a club in the capital, followed by a hotel called Janpath. “The owner, Joseph Gomes, put me in charge of meals that went on board Air India. That was my first real break,” he recalls.

Within two years, he was made sous chef at Asoka Hotel. Here, he whipped up Chinese, Indian and Continental.

In 1963, the 25-year-old moved from Delhi to Mumbai to join Nataraj, the hotel that kissed Marine Drive. Two years into the stint, he was made executive chef at the newly-opened Shalimar Hotel at Kemps Corner. “I told the owners I was too young to head their kitchen but they were adamant,” he says. The big move happened in 1973 when he took on the task of running a 200-seater restaurant called Tandoor in New York. Bollywood stars, including Raj Kumar, were regulars when shooting there.”

In 1975, he returned to Mumbai. RJ Advani of Sun N Sand coerced him to stay back. And he never left. Gomes served there for 25 years.

But dad, Stephen argues, “has still not retired”. “He cooks for ma every day,” says Stephen, about his mom Bina.

Cooking is in their blood. His brother, Ignatius, is a chef-turned hotelier who now owns Comfort Inn and Suites across the US, and his grandfather, Nagar, was executive chef at Bombay International [now InterContinental]. He had been a chef onboard a battleship during the World War II. “My great grandfather, was head chef at the Eastern Shipping Company during the Raj,” says Stephen who had dreams of being a pilot. “But my genes called out,” he laughs.

After a catering course in the 1990s, he started as a commie at Juhu’s Sea Princess, and later did a stint at Sun N Sand too. But his heart lay in smaller kitchens, like those of Mogul Mahal and Haveli. “That is where you find real food.”

After working in Bahrain and South Africa, Stephen first accompanied his father to London where his friend Muquim Ahmed, (owner of UK’s Café Naaz chain) was looking for chefs to hire. “I went reluctantly, and stayed. By 2000, a lot of Indian chefs had migrated to the UK, including the likes of Atul Kochchar and Vineet Bhatia. Chicken tikka had become the national food of Britain, and Indian chefs were playing an important role in the food scene,” explains Stephen.

In 2007, he launched Moksh in Cardiff, the mecca of modern Indian cuisine. “My food had an Indian influence, but, I mixed cuisines. It also had a lot of British and European influences. I’d do a rogan gosh in Myanmar sauce, and stuff samosas with pasta.” He won his first Cobra Good Curry guide award in 2007, and he has held the title for 10 years.

When in 2011, he signed up for a molecular gastronomy course in Westminster, food became a canvas for him to innovate. “I would present mini tandoors — made out of tomato puree cans — on tables. Once I had my own lab, the magic began,” he quips, pointing to a symbol on his black coat. In blue, it is the emblem of the Craft Guild Award 2015 for Ethnic Chef of the Year. His father, though proud of his achievements, pushed him to do more. “When I called him in 2007 to tell him I had won the award for the best chef in the UK, he said, ‘Usme kya hai? Jab world ka best chef banega toh batana’.”

James nods to confirm the claim. “I was bursting with pride inside,” he says.

The awards brought with them responsibility. Moksh has won 30 national awards (including an AA Rosette in 2015). “I know that with so much glory comes the expectation. Every customer wants to see innovation,” he adds.

His international claim aside, he says his mother is the family’s best cook. “She used to run canteens across colleges like Mithibai and Bhagubhai in Vile Parle. But my dad makes the best Lobster Thermidor,” says Stephen.

Any secret ingredient, we inquire?
“He hasn’t told me but he may to you. I am going to get it out of him soon, and it will make it to a book,” says Stephen.

Stephen may have made a name as one of Britain’s most promising restaurateurs, but his biggest kick still comes from reaching a summit and enjoying the view over a cup of chai.

The sibling soufflé
Rachel Goenka of The Sassy Spoon sends every dish to sister Sasha for a taste test. Their camaraderie is proof in their latest collaboration — a line of ice-cream sundaes 

Seventeen-year-old Sasha Goenka, daughter to Viveck Goenka of the Indian Express group, says she grew up watching older sister Rachel ‘whisk and stir’.

The observation came in handy, it seems, because the siblings harbour a love for food, which Rachel of course, has channelised into The Sassy Spoon chain of restaurants in Mumbai. Sasha has made her own inroad as creator of a new line of ice-cream sundaes for the summer.

“Sassy’s homemade ice-creams are really good. It was high time we promoted them. So, I thought why not do sundaes? No one does them here, unlike outside of india, where they are a family attraction,” says Sasha, who will be graduating from the American School of Bombay next week.

 Sasha Goenka (right) follows sister Rachel of The Sassy Spoon into the food business by creating a line of sundaes. Pic/Shadab Khan
 Sasha Goenka (right) follows sister Rachel of The Sassy Spoon into the food business by creating a line of sundaes. Pic/Shadab Khan

In January, she recalls calling Rachel with the sundaes idea. Busy with trials for her just-launched Juhu Patisserie, Sassy Teaspoon, Rachel encouraged her to design flavours.

Once she had got to 10, the two sat down for a brainstorming session and agreed that each would need an interesting component. “For our Honey Razzle Dazzle, we added a honeycomb; for Rum and Raisin, it was cinnamon-dipped beignets,” says Rachel.

Sasha and Rachel Goenka teamed up to launch Sasha’s Sassy Sundaes. Pics/Shadab Khan
Sasha and Rachel Goenka teamed up to launch Sasha’s Sassy Sundaes. Pics/Shadab Khan

Sasha admits Rachel is the big culinary influence for her, and she has learnt by doing her own research. When we wonder if she’s any good, Rachel chips in, “We use her recipe for our chocolate-chip cookie.”

Most of her creations are a result of trial and error and SOS calls to Rachel. “Out of the blue, she will call to say the batter is runny, what do I do?” laughs Rachel, who went to Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland before graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, London.

Vacations are usually also about food. Tuscany is a favourite for its fresh local produce. They book tables at coveted restaurants in advance, figuring what they will order before they land.

“While the family chills by the pool, we’ll be convincing local chefs to teach us recipes,” says Rachel.

Back home, they would pour their heads and test them in the kitchen. “In Florence, we once ordered three portions of a cheesecake just to understand how it was made. We then tried a passion fruit version with balsamic caviar to make it look like it had passion fruit seeds,” says Sasha.

At home, their go-to person for comfort food is their nanny, Lourdes Mary. “Every morning we get a call from her, asking what we want to eat. She is awesome with Thai, Indian as well as Continental,” says Rachel.

Their mother Zita, who is a Goan, is the one to have warmed them up to coconut in their meals. “We get a lot of coconuts from our holiday home in Goa, which are sent to a local mill to extract organic cold-pressed coconut oil. We use it in our cooking,” shares Sasha.

Father Viveck isn’t too experimental with his meals, but he is grateful for the special sugar-free dessert menu Rachel designed keeping his diabetes in mind.

The sisters say they agree on most things except “clothes, and who will win MasterChef”. Food brings them together. “She knows my palate. Her art background helps her apply rules of balance and texture,” says Rachel.

And while the self-taught teen baker, who is off to the UK this fall to pursuer a degree in liberal arts, is undecided about getting a formal education in food, she knows she will always be involved in Rachel’s kitchen.

“I am hoping she will join me some day,” Rachel says.

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