Earlier this week, I served on the jury of an unusual contest, which The Oberoi, New Delhi, has been hosting for the last four years: a Little Chefs competition for children aged between 6-12 years. As skittish as I am about placing children in direct competition with each other (given our academia culture and the pressure school-going children face on a daily basis), I couldn’t help but marvel, at the end of the experience, what this meant for cooking as a profession. Chefs of a certain vintage will tell you quite candidly how they were often considered losers by friends and family when they opted for a career in the kitchens. At the end of the day, even if one worked in a five-star hotel, you were still a glorified khansaama. The dignity accorded to the profession today has been a hard-earned one. So it was particularly heartening to see parents encouraging their children in their culinary endeavors. It was an afternoon of fun and creativity, but also an acceptance of cooking as a worthwhile pursuit. Furthermore, the participation of boys in the contest (who were honest and proud in saying that they helped their mums in the kitchen) signalled a change in social attitudes, which one must welcome.
Although India has a great culinary heritage and diversity of cuisine, chefs—the creators and perpetuators of that heritage—have not been given the same respect that’s usually granted to the torch-bearers of other art forms. Quite simply, we do not consider cooking as an art and its practitioners as artists. However, cooking is indeed an art, and one so complete in its essence that it appeals to all the five senses, like no other art form does. The advent of television reality shows that highlight life in a kitchen like MasterChef and Top Chef have lent some glamour to this profession, permeating our consciousness and entertaining us, as well as finally exposing the masses to the world a chef inhabits and the passion it requires. Furthermore, in these glamour-obsessed times, it has also made celebrities of the chef, at once an accessible entity and yet distinguished. Of course, this new-found celebrity status has people in the restaurant business scoffing, given the fact that some of our most famous TV chefs have never worked in a real restaurant kitchen, but have been made-to-order for TV—boasting the right look, attitude and communication skills.
But to be generous, diluted as their culinary credentials may be, what they have done for the profession cannot be underestimated. However, celebrity chefs have been around for a while and the greatest ancestor of this tradition is Auguste Escoffier, a man most apprentice chefs first hear about. Escoffier was a chef, restaurauteur and culinary writer (1846-1935), who brought into existence the idea of haute cuisine and accorded French food the culinary dominance it enjoys today. But things go further back than that. Escoffier may have captured the imagination of young chefs for his almost scholastic approach and discipline to gastronomy, but his predecessors were far more flamboyant. Famous amongst them was Francois Vatel, the master of grand banquets hosted by the Count de Conde.
So passionate was Vatel about his art and his commitment to perfection that on being told that the fish hadn’t arrived at a banquet for 2,000 people for Louis XIV, the great chef committed suicide! Since then, there have not been many chefs who have followed in his footsteps, but for one—chef Bernard Loiseau (2003), who committed suicide when it was hinted at in the newspapers that his restaurant might lose its three-Michelin-star rating.
Chefs, often regarded as artists by the discerning, have held on to the definition of their work as science. In fact, you will find many a chef being particularly good at math and science while in school, misleading parents into believing that they would become engineers or doctors, before taking the plunge into full-time cooking. This scientific bent may be attributed to another ancestor—French again—Antonin Careme (1784-1883), who wrote the first cookbooks and approached cooking as a science, outlining, for example, the stringent procedure of making sauces, a skill that even the best chefs will admit requires scientific precision. Today, chefs like Heston Blumenthal have taken that science to another level, and their contribution and invention have been recognised too—Blumenthal has been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad