Last month saw the return of a popular TV reality show in which a bunch of enthusiastic amateur cooks go through various trials and tribulations before one of them is chosen as the master chef. It’s a show I regularly watch, but I have to say my interactions with a migrant from Darjeeling have shown me that, in India, it doesn’t necessarily take all this hoopla to create a master chef. Here’s his story.
A few months ago, we had the urge to eat dosas at home. Instead of sweating it out in the kitchen, I requested Vijay to make them for us. He lived nearby, and had been working in a small south-Indian restaurant for almost a year. So he arrived on his day off, and bustled about in the kitchen making sambhar, myriad chutneys and idlis. “We use a more powerful mixer in the restaurant,” he said, as he almost blew the lid off mine grinding coconut. Then he suggested that my dosa mixture wasn’t as finely ground as he’d have liked. Anyway, minor hitches sorted, we finally sat around the dining table and waited for the feast to begin.
The first dosa made a tentative appearance, listlessly drooping over the plate. The first one was always like that, we said robustly. Five long minutes later, the second one arrived, rich brown and unevenly cooked. I went to the kitchen to find Vijay mopping my lovely cast iron pan. “We use non-stick in the restaurant,” he gasped. I soothed him down, told him to persevere and the family to focus on the idlis. At the end of the meal, I just couldn’t believe that an amateur like him was making dosas for a commercial venture.
After this serendipitous beginning, I followed his career as a cook with interest. A month later, Vijay lost his job. Within days, however, he’d got a job in a roadside Chinese eatery at a salary of Rs 4,500. “Actually, for an experienced cook like me who’s been brought up on momos and chowmein, getting this job was easy,” he said. Had his previous employers given him a good reference? “Why would I need that? My word and that of my village brother is good enough!” he said. I was too wary to try his Chinese cuisine, though he said it was fantastic. Months later, when he asked for a month off to go to Darjeeling, the Hungry Dragon, or whatever it was called, laid him off.
Soon after he returned from his village, Vijay found a job frying bhaturas in a small sweet shop for Rs 5,000 a month. Although he’d never done this before, he said it looked easy. Initially he was happy. Then, as the summer heat intensified, the days spent in front of boiling oil began to irk. His employers told him to take a break from frying — by washing dishes. “I’m thinking of quitting,” he confided in me, “frying bhaturas and doing dishes aren’t jobs for a cook as experienced as I!”
The next thing I knew was that on the basis of his extensive experience in “multi-cuisine” cooking, Vijay had been offered a job as a private cook in Gurgaon for Rs 10,000! “My new employers have asked me to make momos tonight and dosas for Sunday’s breakfast… after years of terrible work conditions and stingy employers, I’m finally on the road to success!” he said. He was, undoubtedly, but I could only think of the low standards of employers who’d hired him on face value, with little understanding of his actual worth. Maybe they deserved this master chef’s trademark dosas, momos and bhaturas…