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Notes from the kitchen

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In June, two-Michelin-starred Spanish chef Sergi Arola opened Arola, a restaurant that serves Catalan food, with great pomp and fanfare at the JW Marriott in Mumbai. This takes the tally of restaurants with Michelin connections in Mumbai to four. The passage of celebrated chefs to India is no longer surprising. The boom in the food industry in recent years has meant well-known foreign restaurants opening outposts in the country, Indian chefs winning Michelin stars abroad and triumphantly setting up restaurants in their home country and gourmet stores sprouting like shiitake mushrooms. The one area in which India is yet to begin catching up with global standards is culinary education. Most Indian catering colleges teach outdated courses that ill equip students for the rigours of the restaurant kitchen.

It's little wonder that students are choosing to study abroad in increasing numbers. One of the most popular institutions of choice is the Le Cordon Bleu chain of schools. While the London outpost is the most popular among Indian students, the Paris branch has seen a substantial increase in the number of enrolments from India, says Catherine Baschet, the Development Manager of Le Cordon Bleu, Paris. "Enrolments from India in our Paris school have increased from 1 per cent in 2002 to 6-7 per cent in 2012, " Baschet says in an email interview. "This can be explained by three main reasons : Paris continues to be an attraction for culinary training, especially for pastry techniques;in the last years there have been many cultural exchanges between India and France (Bonjour India); and the fact that all programs in Paris are taught in French but translated into English. "

One of Cordon Bleu's most successful graduates is Pooja Dhingra, who started Le 15 Patisserie in Mumbai and introduced the city to French macaroons. "Pastry is an art which has not yet been developed in India as it has been in Europe, " Baschet says. "Today, there is a big trend in pastry for macaroons, cake decoration and other French traditional pastries which are coming back into fashion. Indians are very interested in learning classic French pastry techniques because our methodology permits them to master these techniques and then adapt them to their local produce to create fabulous combinations and flavours. "

Popular interest in cooking - once seen as something best left to the maharaj or the bai - has boomed in India. Though the idea of becoming a gourmet chef and maybe even owning your own restaurant someday is one of those enduring fantasies that percolate through each generation, it's only now that Indians are turning those dreams into reality.

Donning the chef's hat is no longer considered a grave risk. "In many cultures becoming a chef was undervalued but today they have become stars, they are on television and some of them have become business leaders in the food industry, " Baschet says. "In recent years we have also seen a globalisation of world cuisines through increased accessibility to ingredients from all over and this has provoked a curiosity for food. "

Another draw of foreign schools is that they teach various kinds of cuisines. Nachiket Shetye, the owner of Mumbai's 36 Oak and Barley, for instance, specialised in Asian food at the Culinary Institute of America. On the other hand, Indian schools, chefs feel, place an inordinate amount of importance on French methods. Prabhu says that she did feel that the first two years of her course were outdated;she was tired of doing the same "coq au vin type recipes". Things got interesting only in the third and final year when she was taught nouvelle cuisine. Mehrotra is appalled that fresh cookery graduates think that 'Continental' is a cuisine by itself. "When I interview new chefs, I ask 'which cuisine are you interested in?'" he says. "When they say 'Continental', I ask which country Continental belongs to. They can't say. "

Food writer Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi had an unusual reason for enrolling at the International Culinary Centre in New York (it was formerly known as the French Culinary Institute). She decided to train in French technique in order to write about food in a more informed manner. "I started thinking about food the way chefs do, and it has helped me immensely with my interviews with chefs and with people from the food industry, " she says. "I am able to indentify flavours and techniques when I am eating out. "

Saba Gaziyani, a food stylist who graduated from the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition (IHMCTAN) in 1992, says she's not even considering Indian schools for her son who wants to be a chef. He's only 15 years old but "way ahead of others", she says. "Back then the hotel industry was not so evolved, " Gaziyani says. "People hardly new what a terrine was. We were theoretically taught to debone a duck, truss it and stuff it. For the current generation, schools need to buck up. If they want the cream of the country to stay, they need to add subjects. "

Manish Mehrotra, the chef at Indian Accent, a modern Indian restaurant, says that there is a gap between the Indian dining industry and culinary education. "What they teach in colleges is nowhere followed in the hotel industry, " says Mehrotra, a graduate of Mumbai's IHMCTAN. Popularly known as the Dadar Catering College, it is considered one of the best catering schools in the country. The chief drawbacks of Indian catering colleges, Mehrotra believes, is a lack of infrastructure and degrees that require students to study all aspects of hotel management, including fields like housekeeping and accounts, even when they want to train as chefs. "When I hire people, I check if they have a good attitude and are hard working, " he says. "Cooking we will teach them later. "

Floyd Cardoz, who was in the news last year for winning the television show Top Chef with his version of upma, studied at IHMCTAN and Les Roches in Switzerland. He's currently the executive chef at New York's North End Grill. "I
feel the infrastructure in hospitality schools in India needs to be revamped, " Cardoz says. "The equipment needs to be updated every four years to what's in the market and what the industry is using. The faculty in my opinion needed to have more industry experience. I feel that having guest lecturers from the industry as a regular part of the curriculum will better prepare students. Most summer training in the industry that is mandated was not educational. There were students who wrapped chocolates all the time. I was lucky enough to show interest so was given better tasks and better kitchens. "

A major drawback of catering schools, restaurateurs say, is that they fail to inspire students to think creatively. The ability to make innovative use of food is crucial in kitchens that specialise in contemporary food, a culinary genre that, in a nutshell, involves mashing together foods and ingredients from across cuisines. "Cooking schools here churn out good cooks, not chefs, " says Nachiket Shetye. "They are not taught to think out of the box. "

Kshama Prabhu, the executive chef of Moshe's in Mumbai and one of the few prominent women chefs in the city, studied at Merit Swiss Asian School of Hotel Management in Ooty. She admits that while the school gave her an excellent foundation in cooking, "we weren't given a chance to think out of the box".

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