The winner of the Gourmand Award 2012, Chef Michael Swamy has been associated with institutions such as the Le Cordon Bleu in London, the Taj Group and Bombay Brasserie. Not just a chef by profession, he is also a food consultant, stylist, photographer, and creative writer – the man who dons many hats in the world of food. In a chat with Shanti Padukone, Swamy talks about what food means to him, the Indian restaurant scene and his current projects.
What does food mean to you?
Food for me is comfort with a touch of class and experiment. It should bring back memories of the past with futuristic presentations. I don’t want people to just say ‘wow’ when I cook, rather I want them to be transported to some nostalgic place of comfort; I want them to ‘feel’ wow!
Having graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in London, you came back to write recipe books the traditional way – by researching, meeting people and collecting recipes. How does this compare in today’s digital world?
I always wanted to get into the world of food media. For me, food is sacrosanct; hence, it’s important to know the art and technique behind it before writing about or making films on it. It’s sad that food professionals are not blogging. Chefs need to blog and tweet about good food. Although there are some bloggers who seriously and truly know and understand food, most bloggers confuse true knowledge with a Google search. It’s easy to rattle off names of dishes and cuisines, but it’s important to understand that a dish is more than ingredients – it’s a mix of ingredients, history and culture. Any blog that has been written only with the point of view of showing off knowledge is a turn off for me.
Tell us about the East Indian cuisine. Why is it so important to you and what are its key ingredients?
East Indian cuisine is a dying culture. It is an amalgamation of Maharashtrian, Portuguese and British influences and so very different from the cuisine of Goa. East Indian food is centred around its ‘Bottle’ masala – a secret blend of over 30 spices. Each family and village has its own zealously guarded recipe of this masala. It is the cuisine I grew up on and the reason for my endeavour to make Indian food a global cuisine.
What are the challenges in writing and researching for recipe books?
There are several challenges in writing a recipe book. The biggest hurdle I encountered was that people agree to share recipes but they leave out vital ingredients or techniques and tips while doing so. What they fail to realise is that anyone who tastes a dish is able to remember that taste for sometime, and no matter how many secrets you keep, if the person continues to try the recipe, he or she will ultimately crack the code. Another major challenge is in making recipes user-friendly. In other words, they need to be simplified so that the reader gets it right in the second attempt, if not the first.
What would you consider to be the major achievements in the course of your career? Did you make any mistakes?
Winning a Gourmand Award 2012 for the best Indian cookbook and being recognised as one of India’s top 50 chefs of 2013 by the ICF are some of my major achievements. Yes, I have made many mistakes. The fact that I am blunt and call a spade a spade doesn’t go down well with people, and I usually face criticism for it. But I don’t see the harm in expecting perfection and class from those who expect it from me.
Tell us about your key learnings gleaned over the years in the industry.
Be honest to your food and your creations. Bending to the will of an audience is something that gets you nowhere. Perseverance is another thing I have learnt; no matter what happens, continue doing your work in all honesty, and things will fall into place for good. Despite not having a godfather in the trade, I am probably one of the first food critics in India who is from the food industry. A chef getting into the world of food media and new age cookbooks was not heard of in the 1900s; so I have learnt how to adapt from the stereotyping of that era to the freedom that people have today.
Food media in the early 2000s was very different from what it is today. What do you think has changed and what has brought this change?
The Internet boom, television channels such as Travel & Living, and the onset of shows by Nigella Lawson and Anthony Bourdain have inspired generations and have created a change in the world of food media. Be it the honest brutality of Bourdain’s show or the calm easy going pace of Jamie Oliver, people are appreciating true chefs talking about food. That’s a huge change.
How do you think the seeming ‘invasion’ of foreign cuisines is influencing the Indian palate? Where do you see the food scene in say the next five years?
Indian cuisine has been influenced by foreign cuisine since time immemorial. Even our tandoor is not Indian. Of course, some influences that are considered foreign today were a part of us when they came about. One cannot forget that Burma was a part of India 80 years ago or that Iran was a beloved neighbour at one point of time. I welcome the new foods and influences that are entering the Indian cuisine; however, I strongly believe that they should be used to enhance food, not pollute it. It’s good to see chefs like Vikas Khanna and Atul Kocchar playing with new flavours but not straying from the tenets of Indian cooking. Sure, new techniques are being applied thanks to a better understanding, but it’s alright as long as the original cultural essence is not lost. The Indian food scene will definitely be for the better in a few years.
Which would you say is the most popular cuisine in India today?
Mediterranean and Southeast Asian cuisines are famous in India.
You have helped set up several restaurants in the country. What are the various challenges involved in doing so?
Dealing with bureaucracy is the toughest. Creating menus that are more chef focussed rather than audience focussed is another problem. Convincing owners that a menu won’t work just by putting up 10 popular dishes or trying to get them to understand the needs of a bigger kitchen and serving good food instead of cutting corners is a huge challenge. Most of my clients talk about taking risks in business but won’t take risks when it comes to food. For example, if one is setting up an Italian restaurant, the client will not want anything beyond a pasta, pizza or risotto. They will not want to focus on a good antipasti spread.
What are the most common mistakes restaurateurs make that result in their restaurants shutting down? How can these be overcome?
The biggest mistake is creating biblical menus wherein the menu is larger than what the staff can handle. Another major mistake is underestimating the importance of proper training or hiring of trained staff. Training needs to be continuous, which is sadly not the case. Hiring trained staff is beneficial as it provides value for money in the long run. Most restaurateurs hire two untrained staff for the cost of one resulting in the food and service quality declining. Underpaid staff never works efficiently, and there are places where I have noticed that even the cleaner wants an assistant. These restaurants are so overstaffed that loopholes and problems go unnoticed till it’s too late to repair them.
Who do you consider to be the chef(s) to contend with in the Indian food scene? Who is your idol?
Chefs such as Atul Kocchar, Vikas Khanna and Sabyasachi Gorai are the ones to contend with for their art and creativity. They are the experts who have gone beyond cooking to conceptualise food in a very refined and refreshed way. My idols are Chef Anton Mosimann, Chef Gary Rhodes and Chef Claire Clark.
What are the most common mistakes that chefs make?
One mistake many chefs make is in thinking that they will outlive a restaurant. When a restaurant shuts down, chefs are forgotten – unless they have managed to make an outstanding mark purely through their food. Also, most chefs have inflated egos and lack the ability to respect other chefs, which is surprising as we all belong to the same fraternity and have come up by doing the same kind of hard work.
How can chefs minimise wastage in the kitchen? Any innovative strategies and tips you would like to share?
It’s easy – make employees a part of the revenue sharing process, and there will definitely be a change. Most owners never sit and talk about the problems of the restaurant with the staff. Almost all restaurateurs make the mistake of never asking the staff if there are any problems or feedback they would like to share. This not only results in the staff feeling taken for granted but also thinking that the owner doesn’t care about the future of the restaurant. It’s all about human relations. If you explain the problems of wastage, then there will be less. If you penalise staff for wastage, they get upset and retaliate.
Training, training, and training is the key. Most chefs abroad clean up after themselves. In India they don’t follow that, leading to more wastage and extra manpower. When you make people responsible, there will definitely be an improvement.
Tell us something about food styling and photography. Have these matured enough to become full fledged careers today in India?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that people are slowly waking up to the fact that making food for the camera is a whole different scenario as compared to making it for consumption. This calls for specialisation, and people are showing the readiness to respect and learn it. No, in the sense that most clients still think that anyone who cooks and owns a digital camera can create great food shots. Chefs can cook, but they haven’t understood the art of composition of a shot or frame or how food needs to be placed for a camera. Similarly, photographers who can cook often bite off more than they can chew. They understand lighting and composition but things begin to go haywire when the food suddenly changes colour or texture. And yes, every stylist and photographer still grapples with the word ‘budget.’
You are also a consultant for MasterChef India. How do such reality shows affect/influence the consumer demand for gourmet ingredients and foods in restaurants?
I was the consultant for seasons I and II. But it’s sad that they never valued the knowledge and expertise of the food team in India. Food shows like Masterchef Australia are all about the food and not drama. The honesty and portrayal of good food makes people want to try out new things. Even if they don’t try, they are exposed to a larger picture wherein they see people cooking and pushed to create new things. When we showcased equipment like ice-cream makers, K-mixers and pasta machines, people bought the same. Showing new ingredients and how they are used and cooked by simple homemakers bridges a certain gap and makes the audience try out the ingredients when shopping or dining out.
What is the current food trend globally? How does Indian cuisine figure in this?
The current trend is of more holistic food, with seasonal importance and food that has less air miles attached to it – in other words what Indian food has been all about since the beginning of time. I have been pushing for Indian food to become a global cuisine along with Chef Vikas Khanna through workshops and books. As I’ve said before, chefs such as Khanna and Kocchar have already paved the way for making Indian cuisine a prominent one globally by modernising it and making regional cuisines approachable to the Western audience. However, many people still confuse modern Indian with fusion, sometimes with the result of making it more difficult for the global audience to understand and appreciate.
Michelin Star has not yet hit India unlike Europe and the world over. What are your observations on this? Do you see this changing?
Attaining a Michelin Star is a concept whereby the entire culinary experience is modelled on perfection. It is only when the government and restaurant owners give more emphasis to perfection, and chefs and staff are trained on the same lines that chefs in India can gain such a status. In India, a TV chef is given more importance than a Michelin chef, which according to me reflects the sad state of media today. One cannot blame the audience. The content creators should know and understand the importance of this achievement and give it due respect. Instead, everything is based on TRPs. There is a change, but only on a minor scale, and I seem to be the only one shouting that our lesser known chefs need to be given some standing.
Tell us about your current and future projects.
I’m currently working on several book projects. Food styling for major hotels, doing food research with Michelin Chef Vikas Khanna on his book and film projects – mainly the Epic, which is a study on Indian cuisine since Harappan times to present day – are on my plate. I also do restaurant reviews for The Hindu. There is also an exciting project in the pipeline, but I don’t want to divulge too many details just yet.