I’m confident there are few bloggers out there who don’t cherish and nurture a desire to attend culinary school, be a student and study the art and science of cooking. I’m one of them. Our lives however, usually behave differently and Nachiketa, blogger at the aptly named ‘The Variable’ is one of the few bloggers I know, who have successfully put their corporate careers on hold to don chef’s whites and return to school. She currently attends Le Cordon Bleu at London. The other issue is that of admissions. Few institutions out there accept those past their youth into their programs, firmly holding on to an antiquated system that only recognizes the very young as students. Perhaps it is the massive population of our country that ensures every institution is able to fill it’s classes or a cultural belief; in either case, we certainly are due for massive educational reform as very, very few institutions that truly advocate excellence exist today with the rest ride a wave of demand, proudly wear their badges of sullen mediocrity whilst reaping unimaginable profits. Chances are, most of us attended mediocre institutes and do our children.
Talking of excellence and returning to school, the Chef at Large Blogger’s Table was invited to a luncheon at IICA – International Institute of Culinary Arts at Hauz Khas Village. Relatively tiny as far as educational institutions go, especially one that includes kitchen experience as a part of the education it imparts, IICA nonetheless proved itself a giant that unforgettable afternoon. Started and conceptualized by Chef V.S. Datta, a man who’s been cooking for 40 years and run by Arjun Datta, his son, IICA appeared to us, to be a modular, compact, well put together institute that could certainly change the sad and uninspired Indian culinary scene – if it sticks to the path it claims to be on. Most encouragingly, IICA is also home to internationally recognized courses, which are an added bonus to students.
Have you never wondered why we don’t have many chefs worthy of emulation and worship? Please, let’s leave the guys on TV alone and far, far away from this discussion.
We started with a very neatly and most temptingly plated Salad Nicoise. One of the few times (can count ’em on the fingers of one hand) I’ve eaten this salad prepared the right way, it was a fantastic start to the meal. I had the privilege of being seated at the right of Chef Datta, who regaled us with stories from his professional past. Stories, they may be to him; I found myself learning something new in every other sentence he uttered. A French Onion Soup came next, that needed work on the stock used, and wasn’t missed, as I was paying close attention to what Chef Datta had to say.
Some skills, one can learn entirely from books, gaining the rest from experience. Others though, one needs to sit besides a Master and just listen. This was one such opportunity for me. Food is one of the greatest equalizers I know of, to excel at which one must harbor and nurture a passion. Please don’t mistake my use of the word ‘Excel’ as applied to ‘Fame’. From what I’ve learnt thus far, I’ve realised fame and talent are two very different creatures.
We continued with a Sole Meuniere, that was made just right; neither under nor overcooked, plated in modern style that was delicious with a squeeze of lime. Carrying on our conversation. Chef Datta and I agreed most culinary specialists today desire a published book the week after graduating and a television show by the coming weekend, at the end of which conversation, we were presented with a most beautifully presented Poulet Saute Chasseur or Hunter’s Chicken. Minimal garnish, all performing functional duties and edible too, were what I most appreciated with all the dishes Poulet Saute Chasseur was no exception. Poussin leg and thigh, floured and sauteed, served with blanched cauliflower, French beans and sauteed baby potatoes – this was a delicious and most satisfying course. The only other thing I thought that could be done better during the meal, which I understand the reasons behind, was consistency of portions, especially given every course was so good.
We finished with a very simple Mangue Romanoff, and, I’m running out of adjectives here, irresistible, even to a diabetic.
This was a meal that could easily have given a restaurant a run for their money. It seems redundant to mention that the cooks were students from all walks of life, with only four months of culinary training behind them. If that’s what IICA can transform people into within that short span of time, I wonder what manner of giants will walk the corridors of IICA at full term.
Note: I hesitate to use the word ‘Chef’ for anyone who cooks, or even a graduate of a culinary school. A Chef is a professional cook who leads or has led other professional cooks in a professional kitchen. I do not recognize the term ‘Home Chef’ for the same reason. Similarly, I prefer using the phrase ‘Qualified to be a Chef’ for culinary school graduates rather than the commonly used, ‘Chef’.
Ed: Cover photo of Salad Nicoise, by Aishwarya Lahiri.