Not without my sous chef

Sep 13, 2015, 02:00 IST | Phorum Dalal

How do head chefs manage to be in two places at one time? Five pairs share the secret with Phorum Dalal

'I speak to him more than my wife'
Culinary director: Paul Kinny
Executive sous chef: Vishal Kothawale
At: Bellona Hospitality of Phoenix Mills Group

We meet Paul Kinny at 10.30 am on a Tuesday, at 212, Phoenix Market City Kurla. The tables have been set to perfection; the cutlery is squeaky clean. But 42-year-old Kinny seems to have a grouse. He looks at the black board and frowns. "I don't like the handwriting. My child's writing is better."

Paul Kinny and Vishal Kothawale at 212 Phoenix Marketcity Kurla. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi
Paul Kinny and Vishal Kothawale at 212 Phoenix Marketcity Kurla. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi 

A staffer, responsible for the scribble, darts in to wipe off the 'Day's Special' – butterfly chicken – and begins anew.
"Chef is particular about details. I am still learning," says Kothawale, 40. Together, the pair has launched Amaya, 212 and Sichuan House, with a few more restaurants in the pipeline.

"I have a restless keeda, which makes me open restaurants," says Kinny, who as executive chef of Intercon first met his sous chef in 2009. "We opened Koh and Long & Short there," he says, adding that the two have even ended up designing their kitchens.

"Chef has taught me everything from making menu costings to understanding profitability and yield testing. You know, there is a vast difference between a kilogram of onions, and a kilogram of chopped onions?" he smiles.

In 2014, when Kinny moved to Palladium Hotel (now St Regis) to launch Sahib Room and Kipling Bar, he faced a roadblock. "As head chef, you need a team that understands your style of cooking. I'm not an easy person to work with, although I am rarely
unreasonable." Kothawale is an extension of his person.

"Even if I am away, I know things are in control. We cover up for each other. I speak to him more than I speak to my wife," quips Kinny. "There is only one drawback – we never have time to meet as families. Either of us has to be around at the restaurants."

'A sous chef is you, in your absence'
Executive chef: Mukhtar Qureshi
Sous chef: Sanjay Sutare
At: Neel - Tote on the Turf, Mahalaxmi Racecourse

In 1998, Chef Mukhtar Qureshi was on his way out from Sun N Sand to join the ITC group. "During my time at Kabab Hut, I hardly worked with Sanjay. But there was a 'junoon' about him that I noticed, the fire to learn, to better himself," he says about Sutare.

Chef Sanjay Sutare and Mukhtar Qureshi at Neel —Tote on the Turf, Mahalaxmi. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi
Chef Sanjay Sutare and Mukhtar Qureshi at Neel —Tote on the Turf, Mahalaxmi. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi 

It was four year ago that Qureshi set up Neel in collaboration with restaurateur Rahul Akerkar, and thought of Sutare. "In July 2011, after eight months of trials, Rahulji and I opened Neel. We decided on an offbeat take on Karachi, Awadhi, Hyderabadi and Kashmiri cuisines.

The idea was to have an Indian restaurant that wouldn't serve butter chicken. Sometimes, it takes two, three or even five years to find a sous chef who understand your food language," says Qureshi, adding, "A sous chef is you, in your absence."

Sutare joined Qureshi in 2012. He started from scratch despite having worked on Indian food in the country and Dubai. He had to adapt to a modified version of dum pukht or cooking in a handi, and bukhara or the art of cooking in clay ovens.

"I couldn't figure why we were using olive oil instead of desi ghee," he says with a straight face, making Qureshi crack up. He may pull up the junior for errors, which his team says he senses by simply looking at a dish, but Qureshi is around to play shield.

"Once, Rahulji wanted me to smoke a dish, and I ended up roasting it in the oven. Chef came to my rescue," admits Sutare. For the last two years, Qureshi has stopped micromanaging. "I don't have to tell Sanjay anything, except, take his permission when I want leave."

'If I goof up before Unna, he will pull my leg for long'
Executive chef: Gresham Fernandes
Sous chef: Manoj Shetty
At: Impressario Group

If the graffiti-lined walls of Jude Bakery in Waroda Road behind A1 bakery on Hill Road don't attract you, the aroma of fresh pao in the lane will. Inside, group executive chef (fine dine) Gresham Fernandes and city chef Manoj Shetty are sitting at a long, wooden centre table. They could easily pass off as students struggling to meet a submission deadline.

Gresham Fernandes and Manoj Shetty at Jude Bakery Bandra West. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi
Gresham Fernandes and Manoj Shetty at Jude Bakery Bandra West. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi 

"Unna (Fernandes fondly calls Shetty that) was my junior at Rizvi College," confesses Fernandes, 35. While Shetty went to the US after graduating, Gresham joined Riyaaz Amlani-owned Impressario in 2004. The two met again in 2009 when Shetty, now in Mumbai, visited Bandra's Salt Water Café for a cooking trial for a job.

"I made a cauliflower soup," Shetty remembers. "His flavours were clean. Usually, a candidate tries to create an elaborate dish in a bid to impress. But owing to the size of our kitchen, and that we were in the middle of service, Unna got it right, all under 15 minutes," says Fernandes.

The colleagues say they share an eerie mental connection. "He only has to look at me and I know what he wants. His plans keep changing, and I have learned to adapt. When he says, prepare for 12 guests, I am ready for 14," says Shetty, who meticulously writes out recipes and pointers after Fernandes has scribbled jottings in his notepad.

"Unna is hot-headed. You cannot have two such people in the kitchen. So, thanks to him, I have calmed down," laughs Fernandes, who
together with Shetty handles The Tasting Room at Lower Parel and the Salt Water Cafés scattered across the city.

"If I have guests coming in at 8 pm, Chef wants everything ready by 7.30. So, at 7.20, I blow my lid with the juniors, And then, it's all good." In turn, he doesn't miss the chance to tease his senior if he misses a step. "I make sure I don't goof up in front of Unna as he is likely to pull my leg for long," laughs Fernandes, when Shetty reminds him in jest: "Remember, mixing up an order of beef steak with burger?"

But it's always service first. The two recount a recent incident when during a tasting, a junior chef chopped off his finger. "Anna and I looked at each other, and immediately calculated the expected delay. We re-divided the work between us. Then it struck us, we should have someone take him to the doctor!"

'We have to make it work, like a marriage'
Executive chef: Satbir Bakshi
Sous chef: Swapnil Chandawale
At: The Oberoi Hotel, Nariman Point

Following the 26/11 terror attacks, when the Oberoi Hotel reopened to public in 2010, Swapnil Chandawale was transferred from Trident to The Oberoi as sous chef. Back then, Satbir Bakshi was executive sous vhef to chef Matthew Cropp. "In 2011, I took over the baton from Chef Cropp and officially became executive chef in 2014 and Swapnil my second-in-line," says 37-year -old Bakshi, as he reminds a commis to prepare a special dip for a VIP guest.

Satbir Bakshi and Swapnil Chandawale at The Oberoi. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi
Satbir Bakshi and Swapnil Chandawale at The Oberoi. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi 

"Now, as a head, I have duties outside the kitchen. But I know things are running smoothly, thanks to Swapnil." They call themselves the hot-and-cold duo. "We compliment each other. Swapnil is great with cold foods. I'm good with the hot," says Bakshi, to which, Chandawale is quick to add, "But we are opposites in person. I'm hotheaded."

Their performance peaks during high-pressure situations. Two years ago, the hotel got a request for a party on December 25. "We had one week to come up with a menu of deconstructed dishes including chicken tikka in a terrain. This had to be planned apart from the regular festive buffet spread. Each morning, Chef would ask us what we had come up with. We'd trash idea after idea, knowing he wouldn't approve. As sous chef, I have to read my chef's mind," says Chandawale.

For one New Year service, he wanted to create a glass set-up for bite-sized foods. "We argued for an hour. Eventually, I realised that he was right. Although good, my idea would mean blocking a portion of the restaurant. Chef is like a football team manager; he can see what is coming," says Chandawale, who appreciates Bakshi's patience. "If I had to sum up what I have learnt from Chef, it is focus."

After work, the two often unwind over a round of drinks. "All I offer Chef is company. We talk about everything but work. Our children are around the same age, so we discuss them. We have to make it work, like a marriage. But the fights can't be too long," smiles Bakshi.

'Clyde is a creative maverick in the kitchen'
Executive chef: Jaydeep Mukherjee
Sous chef: Clyde Comello
At: Indigo Deli, Bandra

JD was the first guy to interview me," says Comello, when we get the two on a concall late on a Wednesday evening. Brought on board in 2003 for a restaurant in Juhu that never took off, the two had a chance meeting in 2009, when Mukherjee was trying to get hold of his dog, who had run out into a building's corridor. "My pup ran out of my friend's home and into an open door down the corridor. I chased him in, and who comes out? Clyde," says Mukherjee.

Cylde Comollo and Jaydeep Mukherjee at Indigo Deli, Bandra West. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar Not without my sous chef
Cylde Comollo and Jaydeep Mukherjee at Indigo Deli, Bandra West. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar Not without my sous chef 

"I was working at Vie Lounge then," says Clyde Comello, who joined Indigo Deli, Colaba, that same year. "Every time JD was likely to visit the outlet, the chefs would buckle up. But I was at ease around him. I looked forward to his visits because it meant we would be whipping up new dishes," says the 34-year-old, who works a 12-hour shift. "Clyde is a creative maverick in the kitchen.

He must be reigned in though, like when he threatens to make wasabi ice-cream. But he's a good kid; honest. As chef, I get to yell in the kitchen, but there have been times when he has yelled back," laughs Mukherjee. Last week, he threw a challenge before his six sous chefs, including Comello: come up with a creative eight-course menu influenced by a story.

"Clyde prepared a delicious spread of Goan dishes with Portuguese influence. Lovely, except for the last dish — vegan lasagna! He got a earful for that."

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