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The spread looked every bit nibble worthy. There were crunchy ham croquettes, fried to perfection empanadillas, small bowls of gazpacho, specked with black olive powder, melon soup with cured ham salt and healthy slices of Spanish omelette. Collective "oohs" and "aahs" went around the table at the dinner party, which was in a posh South Delhi locality, and Guillermo Hidalgo couldn't resist breaking into a toothy smile.
Till a few hours ago, the food was being cooked in the narrow bylanes of Rajeev Nagar, a colony in the underdeveloped area of Old Gurgaon in a kitchen that is barely four feet by three.
The smile on Hidalgo's face wasn't unwarranted.
Delhicious, a catering service run by Mera Parivar, an NGO based in Gurgaon, offers Delhiwallas yummy and authentic Spanish and European food. The most incredible aspect - apart from the food - is the fact that all the food is prepared by the women of Rajeev Nagar with basic pots and pans. The only exceptions are a tiny grill and a deep fryer.
"' You're kidding!' is usually the reaction I get from people when I tell them about Delhicious and who makes the food, " says Hildago, a chef by profession who lost his job as a sales manager in Barcelona during the financial crisis in the Spanish economy in 2009. He travelled to India and during his trip, met the folks at Mera Parivaar, the Indian counterpart of a Spanish NGO called Naya Nagar. The Ramana Maharishi follower returned in November 2010 to join the NGO.
The two-storey house in Gurgaon's Rajeev Nagar that serves as Mera Parivaar's office, doubles up as a culinary institute, computer training centre and sewing centre and, if Hidalgo gets a large order, the terrace serves as his kitchen.
Started in October 2011, Delhicious employs and trains about eight women between the ages of 22 and 28 from the locality. The women, who are mostly housewives, attend cooking classes at the institute every day and help Hidalgo with the catering as and when there are orders. There are two chefs, Renu and Sumitra;the others chop and clean. These women were picked after a chopping test - the ones that learnt how to cut and hold the knife the fastest were chosen. Hidalgo initially trained them as cooks for expats who crave European food. But the NGO changed its mind and began Delhicious, a catering service for special events and dinner parties.
"These women have no qualifications, can't read and some are even victims of domestic abuse, " offers the 35-year-old Hidalgo, who is regularly contacted by the Spanish embassy for events and demonstrations. "This is a good way to help them learn new skills and earn a little bit of money too. "
The service which has till date catered to 16 parties - including a wedding for 70 people - offers a great variety of dishes to choose from. On offer are Spanish omelette with chorizo, vegeterian brochettes, roasted peppers on toast with goat cheese snow, tuna tartar with orange and caper reduction and so on. Hidalgo is open to making desi modifications in his food. When an Indian client asked him to make his order spicy, Hidalgo added chaat masala to the Spanish omelette and roasted cumin powder to the gazpacho. "They loved it, " he says.
Hidalgo - called William by all the staff and students as Guillermo is difficult for them to pronounce - says that he is often mistaken for a Kashmiri because of his fair looks and dark hair. For him to get these uneducated and marginalised women to trust him is a remarkable feat. The fact that he speaks a smattering of Hindi and is charming has definitely helped.
Twenty-seven-year-old Jolly used to impart beauty courses at the NGO centre earlier but now works for Delhicious in an administrative capacity. She travels from Badarpur to Old Gurgaon daily to help Hidalgo and his Spanish colleagues coordinate the NGO's activities. It's her job to round up the women every time a catering order comes in. "Humari cooks toh itni acchi train ho gayi hain ki jab William sir nahi hote hain toh woh tab bhi sab kuch kar leti hain (Our cooks are so well trained that even when Willian sir is not around, they manage), " Jolly proudly says. The girls very rarely taste what they cook. "Hamare liye yeh khana kaafi bland hai (This food is too bland for us), " adds Jolly.
Hidalgo tries using locally available ingredients as far as possible but costs rise because he has to use ingredients like good quality olive oil, olives and pine nuts and cured meats such as chorizo and ham. The average cost per person in a party could be anywhere from Rs 500 to Rs 1, 000, depending on the menu. Each girl is paid Rs 30 per hour, and the cooks Rs 35. Hidalgo ensures each woman gets about Rs 150-200 for each party. "We try and pay them more than the national average rate of Rs 115 per day because our aim is to help them economically too, " he says.
Expectedly, nearly all of the clients have been expats. But Hidalgo is hopeful that Indian interest will soon pick up. As of now, wordof-mouth has helped them get orders but a Facebook page and website might just speed things along. However Hidalgo, in the 14 months that he has spent in India, has realised that hurrying never helps. "This is India, everything takes time, " he says.
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