What goes on behind the scenes? Whether you are ordering off a menu at a luxury restaurant, throwing a party or deciding on what to cook for dinner at the local market, what you eat and what you cook is influenced by professional kitchens and chefs. At this year’s Lit Fest, we get a chance to meet some of the most influential chefs in the country.
Chefs Sashi Cheliah, Manu Chandra and Thomas Zacharias play a fascinating variety of roles. These talented chefs not only aced running some of the country’s most popular restaurants but have also diversified imaginatively, creating new culinary spaces and products.
At this year’s Lit Fest, they will be discussing how the role of a chef has evolved over the years, especially post pandemic as diners get more adventurous, and the business gets increasingly competitive.
You probably already know Sashi, if you watch MasterChef Australia. The Singapore-born, Adeleide police officer-turned-chef-turned restaurateur, was a crowd favourite at MasterChef Australia, and ended up winning season 10 in 2018, after which he launched a pop up kitchen in Melbourne.
“While MasterChef is a good platform to show your talent, it doesn’t mean people will accept you in the kitchen. Chefs slog for years and years to get where they are,” he says, explaining how he worked hard to launch his first restaurant, Gaja, in Adelaide. Five years after MasterChef, he is the author of Kampong Boy, and also runs Pandan Club, a popular restaurant focussing on Peranakan food, in Chennai.
Discussing how people expect more when they eat out now, Sashi says, “Diners are looking for an experience. They want to try new flavours. They love stories behind the food.” He emphasises how important it is for chefs to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. “We need to keep pushing our boundaries,” he says, adding that with the proliferation of social media, that’s become easier, “People can express themselves and try new things at a much quicker rate.”
Chef, restaurateur and entreprenuer Manu Chandra left a fleet of successful restaurants in 2021, post pandemic, including Bengaluru’s Olive, Toast & Tonic, Monkey Bar and Fatty Bao to launch Single Thread Caterers. The company, run under Manu Chandra Ventures (MCV), went on to land high profile gigs, including cooking at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, redefining the idea of catering, making it bespoke, thoughtful and luxurious. He then opened Lupa, a sprawling, extravagant Italian restaurant set in the heart of Bengaluru, on MG Road.
Discussing his moves, Manu says, “I diversified in terms of my roles, and expertise, and what I could bring to the table,” adding that he continues to work with Begum Victoria cheese, which he launched, as well as Shaka Harry, a vegan protein. “I love creating new products,” he says, adding, “Having that many years of experience, of understanding customers and of trends gives you a lot of foresight on what works and what will not work in India.”
He adds, “Staying relevant for me is more important than anything else.” As for the pressure? “I thrive under pressure. I can’t get complacent, I never have. I am in the kitchen every single day, six days a week — that’s how you build quality benchmarks. I have to lead by example.”
Chef Thomas Zacharias left the popular Bombay Canteen where he was chef-partner, to launch Locavore in 2022, bringing together his passion for storytelling, local produce and building communities. “I wanted to see how I could make a deeper impact in the food systems in India,” he says, adding, “I had some clarity in terms of what I wanted to explore — our food systems and their relation to climate change, and how our practises are having a detrimental effect on the ecosystem, the loss of culinary heritage…”
The Locavore works towards championing local Indian food and its producers, through story telling, partnerships, events and projects. Says Thomas, “There is an overarching feeling that we need to do more… Post Covid, there are so many conversations about sustainability, the climate crisis, and health. We are designed to be collaborative, to work with organisations, farmers and producers…”
Beyond the kitchen: Chefs forging a fresh culinary landscape: Sashi Cheliah, Manu Chandra and Thomas Zacharias in conversation with Shonali Muthalaly. At 2.25pm, January 27 , Sir Mutha Concert Hall, Lady Andal School, Harrington Road.