A while ago, I got the wonderful chance to witness Chef Michael Swamy in action at a cook-off organised by Fairfield By Marriott, Rajajinagar, Bangalore. It was an informative, enriching experience that set me thinking about different food-related aspects.
I am glad to have had the opportunity to interact further with Chef Michael Swamy, to have a little chat with him about things foodie and otherwise. I present our conversation here, for your reading pleasure.
Me: How did your journey into the culinary world start?
Chef: I grew up in a family who entertained a lot. Growing up, we were always surrounded by great food. Also, I loved food, and loved watching cookery shows and pretending to be a TV chef. It was my mum, a documentary film-maker, who pushed me in the direction of art, food and photography, and insisted on my being a chef before I became a “TV chef”. I did my HAFT from Sophia’s and then went to London to pursue Le Cordon Bleu. Since then, there has been no looking back…
Me: How has the ride been so far?
Chef: It has been an awesome ride, meeting different people, chefs, and food professionals. It has also has its down moments, but I believe in continuing to do the things I believe in. At the end of the day, I go to sleep with the happy knowledge that, no matter in how small or big a way, I am working towards fulfilling my dreams.
Me: How do you think Indian food is perceived outside India?
Chef: It is perceived as food to be eaten when downing a beer or just a cheap dinner. It is not considered as a global cuisine yet. Also, it is perceived as a very complex cuisine, requiring a laundry list of ingredients for every dish. This is not true, as I feel that some of our best dishes are the most simple ones.
Me: Would you like to change that?
Chef: Of course! We need to globalize Indian cuisine and really highlight the aspects which the world will relate to, aspects which are very much present in our cuisine. We need to delve and record our culinary histories, though that is something that will take many lifetimes. One needs to make chefs more prominent. Here, I mean the true chefs, the ones that work day in and day out in their chosen profession. We need more professional chefs to become TV chefs and educate people properly about our myriad cuisines. Of course, chefs also need to come out and share their knowledge openly.
Me: What do you think are the best-kept secrets of Indian cuisine?
Chef: I think the best-kept secret is that there is no secret to Indian cuisine. Each household uses their own family recipes and techniques. The same dish sometimes tastes different from village to village, city to city, and house to house. Also, some of the techniques used in Indian cooking are so unique and rare, owing to the abundance of certain elements and absolute dearth of others in several regions.
Also, I think the cuisines of the hills, Coorg, Munnar, the inner coasts of eastern India are relatively unexplored. There are many secrets and traditions in there, and we only have barely touched the surface.
Me: How do you think food in India has changed over the years?
Chef: I think India is always 10 years behind global food traditions. The acceptance of the Indian palate to global foods is very slow. This is due to the fact that not much is being done to explain different cuisines to other parts of the world. We’re all too busy reviewing restaurants than actually delving into the cuisine and studying the food philosophy a chef follows and trying to understand it better. We like the role of the judge more than that of an experiencer.
Me: Why did you choose to showcase Latin American cuisine in your restaurant Nueva? What inspired you to do so?
Chef: As a chef and history lover, I do a lot of food research. About a decade ago, I had predicted the rise of Peruvian cuisine on the world scene, and so it was. I had studied a lot about the Spanish influence on the cuisine and the history of the continent of South America, as their culture and rain forests have always intrigued me. At the about the same time, the executive chef at the Marriott in Bombay was Peruvian and I, being a regular at the hotel, spent a lot of time with him, even interviewing him for a magazine I was the editor of then. Though not consciously, I think I may have wished to do something with this cuisine right back then. Also, whenever I do something, I see what the world is doing and set out to do something different. When this opportunity came to me, I saw that though people were beginning to dabble in Peruvian cuisine, nobody was doing justice to the rest of South America. So, I decided – why not me?
Me: How challenging was it to source ingredients and train staff in a cuisine that is as exotic as Latin American?
Chef: It was, and still is, a bit challenging. That said, I have a good network, and know most of the vendors handling exotic produce from my times when I handled Masterchef India and through all these years of restaurant consultancies.
Training staff is always a thrilling challenge and, here, the case was interesting because I decided to work mostly with freshers who did not carry any baggage of “the way we cooked at our earlier job”. None of them were familiar with Latin American cuisine or techniques, so it was a re-learning with them of sorts. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, the process.
Me: How difficult are you finding it to be an entrepreneur, vis-à-vis being a cook and food stylist?
Chef: It is difficult, but I don’t’ know why people don’t consider being a food stylist as an entrepreneurial role! Why are only restaurateurs thought of as entrepreneurs? I have been running a business in food media for 15 years now, and it has been much more difficult to run and manage, given the much higher demands of the scope of work – and we covered the full spectrum from print to television there. Also, people forget that I became a chef first and then decided to step out of the kitchen to pursue food styling. So, as a stylist, I was a chef, an author too!
Me: What do you think of the recent trend of using millets in place of rice, in a lot of traditional Indian dishes? Is it here to stay or a fad that will pass away?
Chef: Like all fads, they will disappear in the city. However, small cities and villages still rely heavily on the use of various millets. It’s just become a trend in the big cities because it has suddenly been marketed well in the west. And, sadly, despite our history, we are still so besotted with the west that we refuse to acknowledge and value our own wisdom. However, looking at the trend through the eyes of a modern cook, millets may seem daunting and not so easily applicable or likeable for many, so the busy housewife is going to return to the familiar stuff.
Me: What do you think are the major culinary trends that will be making news in the next year or so?
Chef: South American, Korean, and Vietnamese are the cuisines to watch out for!
Me: How do you manage to stay healthy in spite of so much cooking, day after day?
Chef: A healthy eating style of a good breakfast and good lunch, a light dinner before 7 pm, and some exercise when I can pull it off has helped. Also, once I eat something, I don’t dwell on the number of calories I’ve consumed. I enjoy my food and value it, and I think that’s one reason why the food I eat also keeps me healthy.
Me: Tell us about the chefs who have inspired you the most…
Chef: Anton Mossiman, Gary Rhodes, Charlie Trotter, and Heston Blumenthal have greatly inspired me. Their work continues to inspire me to do my best.
Me: How was the experience of serving cricketer Virat Kohli?
Chef: Frankly, I’m not a person who is starstruck. My parents hailed from a media background, and I have cooked and served several celebrities through the years. The tendency of looking at a celeb and feeling awestruck is past, for me. For me, every guest, regardless of their stature in society, is equally important.
Me: Considering the passionate traveller that you are, which are your most favourite holiday destinations?
Chef: Dhanachuli in Uttarakhand, the mountains, and Mc Leod Gunj. The jungles of Kanha and Corbett move me too. I also love the winding roads of Ireland and the scenic lakes of Italy.
Me: Could you tell us about your upcoming projects? What are you working on currently?
Chef: Cookbooks are always an ongoing project for me. I am expecting my next book to be published shortly. Other than that, I’m toying with the idea of doing something content-related for television.
I hope you enjoyed reading this tete-a-tete just as much as I enjoyed having it!