Too many cooks...

Updated: Jul 21, 2019, 11:02 IST | Phorum Dalal

Make for a thriving cooking club. Meet the amateur and professional chefs from the country who regularly meet to discuss recipes over potluck

Too many cooks...
The first meeting of Bakers Club India at a studio in Dadar

The corner table gives a clear view of the restaurant. Noisier than usual, the long centre table has been booked for a private event, which doesn't seem like a regular party. There's a flurry of movement on the floor, a palatable excitement as a group of 30 goes about setting up bright red casseroles, wrought-iron deep serving dishes with name cards for each dish. There's spring rolls, pho, seafood noodles, crab salad to name a few.

Some hands carry bowls and pans into the kitchen for a last-minute finish in the oven. James Beard winner, chef Charles Phan's modern Vietnamese cookbook Slanted Door stands tall on the table. An energetic voice cuts the banter as the group falls silent for a few seconds, ringing in a laughter as they tease her calling her teacher. "Time to discuss the dishes!" the chirpy voice of Ruchira Hoon announces.

Bread pudding; (right) Gula Melaka chiffon cake
Bread pudding; (right) Gula Melaka chiffon cake

Nine months ago, Hoon, chef, food stylist and consultant, put up a post sharing her idea of a cook book club on Facebook. It got her the first 20 members—a cheery mix of chefs, entrepreneurs, engineers and businesspersons—of Delhi's The Cereal Killer Cook Book Club.

At the first meet where members cooked dishes from Simple by Ottholenghi, Ankur Rohatgi presented an aubergine bake with buttermilk sauce and pomegranate molasses. "I had just started cooking a few months before joining the club—sandwiches and barbeques. Frankly, I didn't think I belonged in that company, but it has changed me as a chef. I have a large sounding board now, and the group is so helpful, from suggesting what oven to buy to how to treat an ingredient. I have become a more confident chef since," says Rohatgi, recalling a few dishes he has mastered over the years.

Baked Kutchhi handvo
Baked Kutchhi handvo

"One of the cook books we recently cooked from was Prashad by Jiggs Kalra. I came home and made a maas ki kadhi, another member had made. When I tried it at home, it wasn't as great and that's when Sunil Madan, who created the group, suggested I cook the meat and chickpea-yogurt kadhi separately and smoke the mixture in the end. Now it is my signature recipe for home dinners," beams Rohatgi.

Each chef cooks enough for everyone to get a taste of the dish and take home a piece, which makes cooking for a large group easy. "Each event is a lot of fun and there is a joy we feel in cooking for each other," says Hoon. Trying all dishes from a cook book gives value for money, and also gives an insight into the cuisine. At the end of every meet, a chit system decides the next host who gets to pick the book and venue. "We are on a closed Facebook group where we post the recipe each of us is going to cook, to ensure there is no overlap. We exchange notes on cooking and where to source ingredients," she explains.

Sahil Khan and Meha Desai at the Cook Nook Book club in Pune where they cooked from Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking by SH Fernando
Sahil Khan and Meha Desai at the Cook Nook Book club in Pune where they cooked from Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking by SH Fernando

Even for professional chefs, the cook book club gives them a chance to cook out of their specific menu. "When you are a chef, everything is so structured," says Parul Pratap, the executive chef at Music & Mountains in the GK1 area of New Delhi, where the meet up was held, adding, "Everything on the menu is cuisine and season specific. This club gives me a chance to indulge in other cuisines, be more daring and also gives exposure to new ideas. Being a chef for 20 years, one thinks they have seen and tasted it all. But it is not true. The learning is baffling."

At their next meet at a member's home, we meet another member, Bijay Thapa. After working in the IT sector for a decade, Thapa decided to follow his passion for food and design baking and founded Sugar Daddy Bakes. At the meet, he answered questions on the Naga Pork Curry he has cooked for the occasion. "We don't use onions or pepper, and instead the meat is allowed to simmer in its own flavours in water and salt.

Mango ghevar at Indore Cook Book club
Mango ghevar at Indore Cook Book club

Then we flavour it with simple flavours from Naga Ginger, Fermented Bamboo shoots and Naga Basil. flavours come from Naga ginger and garlic," he says, distributing stems of Naga lemon basil herb used in the dish that he has brought all the way from Kohima, his hometown in Nagaland.

Thapa, who was among the top 20 contestants in Season 3 of MasterChef India 2013, says, "As a baker, I was apprehensive about joining the club, as I hardly cook in the hot kitchen but I am very passionate about flavour cooking. The club has managed to put together a bunch of people who are mad about food, eating and cooking, and there is an incredible skills exchange going on."

Thapa is not happy with the recipe in the book, and has gone with his own family recipe. "I am happy that a recipe from Nagaland found mention in the book, but I felt the recipe had been adapted to include ingredients which we would never use back home. I decided to go with a recipe I grew up with and kept it true to ingredients we use in Nagaland."

Mango yoghurt Parfait at Indore Cookbook Club
Mango yoghurt Parfait at Indore Cookbook Club

Community feedback

When chef Amit Pamnani learned of The Cereal Killer Cook Book Club four months ago, he got together with Sandhya Mirchandani, a sexagenarian cookery teacher, and Aastha Mahajan who runs Aastha's Kitchen blogger, to start The Indore Cook Book Club in the street food capital of India. "The city is mainly vegetarian, and for our first meet, we picked a mango theme instead of a book to ease members into the idea," says Pamnani, a food consultant and founder of culinary experiential homestay and Stay with a Chef in Indore.

The turnout of 35 included RJs, homemakers, chefs and even a 10-year-old who surprised everyone by making mango laddoos. The young club has attracted food enthusiasts even from Sonkach, which is a two-hour drive from Indore. One such member is Amisha Pancholi who runs a food delivery service. The 26-year-old engineer and MBA graduate was waiting for such an opportunity.

The Cereal Killer Cook Book Club in Delhi has a cheery mix of chefs, entrepreneurs, engineers and businesspersons
The Cereal Killer Cook Book Club in Delhi has a cheery mix of chefs, entrepreneurs, engineers and businesspersons

"Where else would you get to meet like-minded people and improve your repertoire? For one meet, I made Balushahi (glazed Indian doughnut), which needs a lot of precision to ensure it is crispy. Another time, I made spinach pancakes and dahi ka shorba from Nadita Iyer's blog Saffron Trails. Everyone told me they didn't risk making the shorba fearing the rice flour will split, but mine was perfect," she beams.

Too many cooks

While television shows have made viewers drool over food and treat it as an entertaining watch, cooking clubs are taking members to the source—the kitchen. Two years ago, if someone had told Sahil Khan to cook, he'd probably offer to assemble a sandwich. Ask him today, and he will make you a dry fish curry with coconut and unripe mangoes or even caramelised minced pork and cured meats. The Pune-based mobile app designer says the change occurred when he joined The Cook Book Nook Club in 2017. "When founder Meha Desai (now based in Hyderabad) asked me to join, I was crazy enough to say yes," says Khan, who is now part of another cooking club, The Incredibles. His kitchen today is well equipped with chef's knives, stockpot and steamer. "We don't restrict ourselves to cook books. We meet once a month and we ask people to pick a dish, dietary preferences and decide on a menu that compliments the dishes," says Khan.

Stuffed bitter gourd with spicy sauce. Pics/Studio Fry
Stuffed bitter gourd with spicy sauce. Pics/Studio Fry

On the other hand, another member, Sheena Dabholkar, who runs a lifestyle publication, has lived independently since her teens. "I have always been a part of potluck groups or looked for people to cook with," says the 33-year-old. The group has cooked from titles by Anthony Bourdain, Yasmin Khan, Ottolenghi.

"I am a five to six ingredient cook, so soups and salads are my thing. We churn out restaurant quality food, and it is such a pleasure to have people who share the same passion. There have been massive failures too. Once, we had chosen Annapurni by Tamilian chef Sabita Radhakrishna. I was making adai (south Indian pancakes) but didn't have a non-stick pan so they just wouldn't come off! I had hosted that meet but had nothing to serve! Cooking from a cook book is the best way to review it."

Sign up, MUMBAI

In Mumbai, while there are not too many intimate cook book or cooking clubs, four months ago, Saloni Malkani, along with Pooja Khanna and Bharati Bhojwani started The Bakers Club India, an open forum that has 87 members on a WhatsApp group. "Our meet-ups have an upper cap of 30 people. We tie up with venues for the space and each member gets the floor to discuss their dish, after which we indulge in the food. From professionals to amateurs, the group is open to all," says Malkani. Their first meet was at a cooking studio in Dadar, followed by next few at cafes across the city. "We have bakers making savoury Onion Alsace Tart, sweet Indonesian cakes and all types of breads. The idea is to share tips, network and improve our baking skills." On July 26, Malkani, along with Ananya Banerjee, will also launch The Wild Asparagus Table, an open forum that will focus on international cuisine recipes on.

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