Famously known as ‘The Style Chef’, Chef Shailendra Kekade is known to bring innovation into your everyday home cooking. He has worked in some of the best kitchens across the world and has been the face of a popular show on the Food Food TV channel. This World Food Day, The Tilak Chronicle talks to Chef Shailendra at his newest culinary adventure, Santé Spa Cuisine, about food, ingredients, the meaning of innovation, and eating right.
Let’s begin with your experience in American, British and Italian kitchens. Who was the most innovative?
It is always exciting to see how people outside your immediate vicinity look at food. Even though we are both from Pune, my ‘aamti’ and your ‘aamti’ are going to differ. Just imagine what happens when you travel a few thousand miles – you end up getting a completely different understanding of how food is looked at. Indeed, a great experience! However, I cannot say that certain people are more advanced in innovating with their food. I think the word innovation is misinterpreted when it comes to food.
What does innovation in food mean to you? How do you look at it?
Food needs to be tasty, available at the right time, made in a particular way and appealing to the consumer. Innovation is a very loose concept and this whole ‘wanting-to-do-something-different’ has been stretched too much. There is someone selling chicken tikka inside a mini telephone booth. I don’t see the point – why can’t you serve it on a plate? Many times, for the sake of theatrics, there is unnecessary smoke coming out of somewhere. How does this elevate the food? Unfortunately, all this has been placed under the umbrella of innovative ideas. I think that innovation in food needs to be based on what value you add for the consumer.
While innovating in food, you need to check what your local ingredients are. For example, while cooking here, if I am able to incorporate millets from Solapur or Karnataka into the dish in a different way, then that’s innovation for me. People believe the Basmati to be the king of rice, but it’s not. There are so many varieties of rice. For me, the local variety, Indrayani, is the king of rice. Why not celebrate local produce and take it to a higher level? As a community, we have been the stupidest of all, falling for the glorification of dishes and ingredients that come from the outside and neglecting our own produce.
What are some things food lovers should learn to appreciate when they go to a restaurant?
Nowadays, eating out has become a necessity. When I was younger, it was a luxury; we used to eat at a restaurant about twice a year and we would be looking forward to that experience. Now, because we are always on the go, eating out has become necessary. While doing that, we need to learn the hazards which come with industrial food preparations. For instance, frozen French fries, frozen cheese, frozen meat, frozen fruits and vegetables too – they all come in loaded with pesticides.
Then there is the cleanliness issue. The way the industry is growing, who knows if the kitchen staff qualifies to understand what hygiene means? One of the best ways to find out is to check the toilet area which is used by the staff in any restaurant (laughs). Fortunately, for the last decade or so, business owners have become aware of these things; earlier they would just open a restaurant and that was the end of it. These days we too are aware that there are people working behind the scenes and they need to be working in a cleaner environment.
We should also focus on how fresh the food is and appreciate the actual taste of ingredients rather than the chillies and masalas which spike things up. If I can cook you rotten tomatoes and onions and spike them with some very exotic masala that hides the rot, my job is done and at a very low cost. What we should learn to taste, are the tomatoes.
In a makhni, you don’t taste the butter anymore, you only taste the garam masala. In our cuisine, every spice has a particular use in a particular preparation and in a particular season. However, we have started loading everything up with masalas and nowadays, also with food colour, which is extremely harmful for the body. We associate health risks with cigarettes or alcohol, but we ignore issues of bad food. A person will probably drink alcohol once a day tops and that too occasionally, but food, he will have daily and multiple times in a day.
What are some ingredients you like to innovate with?
Here, at Santé Spa, we are again trying to provide people with the right ingredients. If our customers love pizza, we will give them one, but instead of using maida (refined flour) which costs 20 rupees a kilo and hence cheaper, we use an 86-rupees-per-kilo mixed flour which makes the pizza a little healthier but still charged at market price. This is how I try to innovate. Here in Pune I have access to ingredients across the world – Japanese wasabi, Italian cheese, Peruvian spices, Mexican beans. This access is making the word ‘cuisine’ irrelevant each day. If I have to use these ingredients, I understand them, reflect on them and use them in the right way.
How should food habits change to suit a lifestyle which is sedentary and involves travel?
These days, if you cook at home, you are among the ones better off. The problem is that when you eat out, you are completely at the restaurant’s mercy. If they tell you something is organic, you have to take their word for it.
Did your grandma ever buy canned corn? Do not buy anything which comes in a packet or a bottle or a tin can; there is a reason why previous generations lived a long and disease-free life. Now we hear of people in their 20s and 30s suffering from heart attacks. Even bottled water is acidic and harms the body, slowly and steadily. Instead, drink fresh water from a restaurant’s tap. You will not die; in fact, you’ll be creating a rock-hard immune system for yourself.
I know a 22-year-old girl who has the bones of an 80-year-old because she lives on canned and junk food. The problem is not with her, the problem is with bad parenting.
We are not a bakery friendly nation; we have fresh food. Bakeries popped up in Europe because people had to travel for many days without food and since nothing else would stay fresh for so long, they began to bake. In our climate, bakeries should go out of the system completely.
Start asking how many fresh ingredients you can use; they are the true perks of life, eating at a fancy restaurant is not. Someone I met once ordered something at a restaurant and since he was busy with his work, the food was lying on the table. For a long time, not a single fly or ant came near the food. He decided to not eat it. Animals are better at judging freshness of food than we are. They would never eat something that is loaded with preservatives. I am not saying that you should go to places where food is covered with flies (laughs). I am just asking you to judge your food with the right parameters. We have been taught to think in a certain way, and we need to unlearn and relearn food and eating without any prejudices.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.