Categories
Featured People

Michael Swamy: The Chef Who Wears Many Hats

A chef, food stylist, writer, restaurateur, food photographer – Chef Michael Swamy does all of these and more. A graduate of London’s Cordon Bleu Culinary School, he had the opportunity to work with several Michelin-star chefs, who were impressed by this Mumbai lad’s inclination to be innovative with food and encouraged him to enter the world of food media. It helped that his mother was a successful documentary film-maker, and Michael could closely study various aspects of media from handling cameras to editing, since he likes to joke that he literally grew up in studios! This exposure to the technical aspects of food media, with his training as a chef is what set Michael down the path of food styling and photography. And in between these assignments, he travels the length and breadth of the country to discover different cuisines and blog about them. He has also written ‘The East Indian Kitchen’, which like the name suggests was about the food Michael grew up on, and which won the Gourmand Award, 2011 for India.

He has worked with hospitality giants like The Taj Group of Hotels in Mumbai, Bombay Brasserie in London and as the menu planner for Kuwait Airways (Kuwait) before he decided to take the plunge as as restauranteur and set up The Bowl House chain of restaurants in India. But his moment of glory came when he was the food consultant on MasterChef India’s seasons 1 and 2, where he tried to impart his own quest for perfection in participants as they prepared their dishes to impress the celebrity chefs.

Here he is in a free-wheeling chat with Vinita Bhatia.

Vinita Bhatia (VB): What prompted you to pursue a course in the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School (LCB) in London?Was there any special subject that you were especially interested in?
Michael Swamy (MS): It was a dream to specialize. I wasn’t happy with what was being done at the catering college here in Mumbai. In fact what we learnt in three years here, we did in 3 months at the LCB. I always wanted to get into the world of food media and that’s why I wanted to be a food professional before writing about food. I did the Patisserie course? and then spent my scholarship time doing the culinary course.

VB: You have quite an interesting career trajectory, don’t you?
MS: You can say that! I am a graduate of HAFT from Sophia Polytechnic which I attended after finishing my 12th grade at St. Xaviers College in Mumbai. After finishing HAFT, I worked a bit at The Taj Hotel in Mumbai and then moved to London to work with with Noon Products before joining LCB.

While I was in London, I worked with The Bombay Brasserie (a Taj property) and then headed to Australia, backpacked a bit and then headed to Kuwait where I was a Menu Planning Officer with Kuwait Airways. But I felt homesick and returned to India, to teach at a catering college for two years. After that I set up my base as a chef consultant and food stylist.

VB: Impressive! Since you have travelled a bit and worked with all types of chefs, who are some chefs who you look at for inspiration?
MS:
I worked under UK’s famous Pastry Chef Claire Clark and Australian Chef Andrew Males as an assistant. I head the food team for Michelin-star Chef Vikas Khanna’s projects in India. The chefs that I look up to are Gary Rhodes, Anton Mossiman and Raymond Blac. Though considered old, these are the chefs who depended a lot on technique.

VB: From a chef to a restaurateur, to a food blogger, to an author to a food stylist – how do you make the transition from one to another? Today, which of these hats would like to doff the most?
MS:
When you look at the fact that everyone can cook, but only few can be chefs, you reach the point of ‘what next’. Most go the way of consultants but assisting a stylist and chef at LCB put me on the track of styling. With styling my creative skills are put to the test, wherein?work goes beyond just cooking but creating.

Making the transition is easy, considering I have a great team in Mugdha Savkar, Ganesh Shedge and Mrunal Savkar. Together we are able to adapt to different situations quite easily. I would be wrong to say I did it all by myself. The hat I doff the most is that of Food Stylist and Food Critic and one can carry it off well what with having a culinary backing.

VB: When did you open your own restaurant – The Bowl House?
MS:
Hotelier Vijay Kamath is a good friend and one day asked me to help him launch the restaurant which I did. Though it’s not mine on paper the attachment is still there. I wouldn’t dream of opening a restaurant in India – it takes a heart of iron to face the sheer craziness!

VB: Your book, ‘The East Indian Kitchen’ won the Gourmand Award in 2011 for India. But it does not get place of pride in bookshelves throughout the country! What’s wrong here?
MS: Several reasons. Sadly in today’s internet age, most people don’t value research as it was done in old times. Neither do they value physical books – the trend of PDFs is on the rise at an alarming rate. The digital version of my book is doing great business. Another major reason is that bookstores don’t display the less popular authors. We don’t value our own culinary heritage so books on rare cuisines are hardly seen on the shelves. The books stores need to have more faith in other authors besides the popular ones. Publishers also need to support their authors. Yes, it’s understandable that they handle hundreds of books at the same time, but they need to understand that for an author, his or her book is the manifestation of months – perhaps years – of effort, struggle and study.

VB: How was the experience as food consultant in MasterChef India Seasons 1 and 2?
MS:
As head of the food team my role was to support and drive a team who groomed and trained the contestants, designed tasks for each episode (Yes! The food team does that!), setting up the set and counters with all the ingredients and equipment and, keeping a record of all that was being cooked. Plus, we took care of food shots, formatting the recipes cooked by contestants to make them available on the website, made a full functional kitchen complete with exotic ingredients available in the middle of nowhere (this with the complete support of the Production Team) and put up with contestants’ tantrums!  It was a fun but physically and mentally challenging time. The food team doesn’t eat or sleep – just delivers that too with no thanks or credit for it.

VB: You often say that fantastic chefs in big hotels rarely get the appreciation they deserve. What’s the basis of this feeling?
MS:
One, they don’t get as much exposure by way of workshops, books, etc, and large hotels never put their Chef in the limelight – they always want the branding for the hotel. They need to understand that sometimes people will come to eat if they know more about the chef. In India if you are on TV you are considered a Masterchef. To be a Masterchef you have to do an international exam every 5 years, so are our so called Masterchefs qualified? Cooking on TV and cooking in reality are two different things. We don’t give value for a Michelin star chef, more value is given to a TV chef and that is the sad reality.

VB: That’s quite sad. But let’s move on to what your likes are. What’s your favourite cuisine?
MS:
The healthy and clean aspect of Japanese cuisine, the refined techniques in French cuisine are my favorites. I also like a dash of Italian for the freshness of the flavors.

VB: How would you define your cooking style?
MS:
Mine is a contemporary style with a modern look. Taking comfort food and making it exotic. I play a lot with natural flavours and keeping the food on simple lines. A few spices can make a dish, dishes where one can taste the meat or the vegetables.

VB: And what’s your go-to-comfort food?
MS:
Pasta and khichdi, when am sick or down these bring up memories of my childhood, cookouts amongst friends in days when it was the easiest thing to cook.

VB: Who according to you is the best chef you have met. Please don’t say your mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, wife, father – that’s passe!
MS:
(laughs heartily) My mum and cook? She was a businesswoman first and after my father’s passing away, she had to become the ‘man of the house’ so cooking was never her thing. Her thing was going out to eat and we kids being dragged along which was good for I was hitting hotels at a very young age. Chef Claire Clarke, Chef Andrew Males and Chef Filip Tibos were instrumental in grooming me to go beyond cooking, to look at food as more than the obvious and achieve more. With Chef Vikas Khanna – he put Indian food into a whole new perspective for me.

[box]

QUICK QUESTIONS

  • One dish that you have never seem to get right? Dal. Even a simple dal is something I just don’t get right. 
  • The one celebrity you would like to cook for? President Obama he is known for his love of good food or Sonam Kapoor, the actress not only is she a pleasant person and erudite she is someone who I am sure will appreciate good food and give an honest opinion of it. 
  • If not a cook then what would you have become? Definitely a full-time wildlife photographer or travel journalist.
[/box]