Is Oil Re-used in Fancy Hotels?

He can make or break your mood. Where would we be without that scrumptious bite thatís a salve for our soul? We spoke with Mumbai-based chef and restaurateur Nitin Tandon on dishing it out day after day

Published: Dec 4, 2009

Do you get invited for dinner to people’s houses? Or are people too intimidated?
Yes, I do find that people are intimidated. But I don’t know why. I always tell people just cook what makes you happy. It will usually be enjoyed.

Is oil re-used in fancy hotels?
Yes — and rightly so. This does not mean that the same oil is used for frying everything for days on end. There are occasions when reuse is necessary and desirable. For example, oil that is used for marinating some items acquires a flavour which adds flavour when roasting. Similarly french fries do not acquire a golden colour unless they are fried in oil that has been used once. Besides, today, even the most basic restaurant kitchen equipment has advanced filters and purifiers. So it is not like reusing oil in a kadai.

Image: Malay Karmarkar
Some restaurants never place a knife. Why is that?
The most important instrument in dining today is the fork. The knife is becoming obsolete. The reason: A widely prevalent café culture, smaller size of meats and fewer hard cuts of meat served in India. The spoon will be the next casualty.

What dishes should you avoid at closing time?
Don’t ask for things like kebabs because the tandoor is probably shut. Don’t order elaborate dishes. Stick to simple fare like pasta or a stir fry. Best of all ask the chef what he can offer.

Do you like it when customers ask for pepper, salt or ketchup?
Some people need a higher tone of spices while some others have a lower tone. The important thing is to please the guest.

Do you like customers who ask to speak to the chef?
Of course! The reason I wanted to do this was the appreciation and the glimmer of satisfaction in the eyes of the person who eats my food.

Do you set extremely high standards for food served to you?
The chef is not the most difficult to please; it is the food critic.

How much of the food on the menu is pre-cooked?
Almost everything is made from scratch. Except things like Indian curries. I make these the previous day specifically to increase taste. Refrigeration techniques are very superior now, so things remain fresh longer.

What are the dishes that you must not order at a restaurant?
Things that are inappropriate at that restaurant. At a sandwich and pasta place, don’t ask for Veg Kolhapuri. Similarly,  in Delhi, stay clear of fish. Stick to food that moves fast. All food dies in about an hour and a half.

Which is the most complex dish you’ve ever cooked?
I spent three days recently learning to boil rice. It is the simplest things that take the longest time. I wanted to be able to boil rice to the exact consistency, and see how I can get the longest grain.  

How does bad mood affect your cooking?
We have systems in place to avoid human error and to achieve consistency. But our moods do get reflected in the food we make. It is an artist and his craft after all.

What is the toughest meat you've ever had to cook?
Delicate meat is toughest to cook. Unless the cook is very efficient and has an in-depth knowledge of grilling, it can be ruined.

Do you feel there is a need for fine-dining courses, where people learn what to order and when?
There is a huge disparity in our country in the knowledge level of the customer and most restaurants. There is definitely a need for more exposure and a general lifting of fine dining culture in the country.

Which region do the squid, octopuses, beef and veal on the menu come from?
Kochi is the prime area for sea food. Lamb comes from Rajasthan and pork and beef comes from Allahabad. Bangalore is also a good place for meats. Any place in India that has big grazing patches has good meat.

What does it feel like to create the same product day and day again, without recognition in most cases?
That is the biggest challenge that I face in my profession. Different chefs have different methods to combat tedium. What I do is to focus on quality and improving it. Despite this fear of monotony, typically quality can only be achieved if the same cooks do the same thing day after day and achieve expertise in the same narrow task like making sauces. That is the only way to get consistency. We also don’t have very large menus so that we can focus on good quality.

What is your favourite food item?
Cheese. I can live on it.

What are your thoughts on molecular gastronomy?
I don’t think it is for everyone. But it has its benefits and any science or any new idea has to be applauded.

What are the most popular cuisines currently?
The cuisine of the country that is in the news in USA — often because it is attacked — is usually popular. For example, Vietnamese cuisine was all the rage. Now it is Korean and Chinese. Indian cuisine is going to scale new heights. In India, Japanese is in, as is Moroccan.

What do you do with leftovers?
A lot of planning goes into what is cooked and how. All dough and batter that is left over has to be thrown away. Vegetables that are boiled have to be thrown. Indian gravy however tastes better the next day. Some things are marinated.

What kind of food do you eat at home? Or when you go out with your family?
I am not the dal chawal type of guy. I can live off experimental food every day. And to counter balance that I like to have comfort food like a simple stir fry, dim sum or good old pasta.

What happens to all the food you spoil? Surely, you don’t get it right each time.
Usually a patch is made. And then it is increased. If a large patch is made and it is spoilt but still edible, then we try to convert it. For example, we could use it in a sandwich or a soup. But if it is not edible then we need to throw it.

Is cooking an inherent or acquired skill?
I feel that you need to have at least 30- 50 percent of it in you. It is a combination of knowledge and skill and instinct, but at the end of the day it is an art like any other.

Do non-foodies become good chefs?
There has to be a basic artistic element within you. And then this can be developed with the help of science, and practice.

(Co-ordinated by Divya Subramaniam)

(This story appears in the 18 December, 2009 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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