What’s Cooking? – A Recipe for Career Transitions

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A compelling story of how Bala, a Chartered Accountant, turned into a home-chef and then entered the kitchens of Trident, The Oberoi, JW Marriott and ITC group of Hotels.

My forte in cooking is research, especially in Sangam literature. I started my career in the food industry after 40. I am from a family of chartered accountants. I used to cook a lot at home from the age of 9. By 16, I was comfortable cooking any complex dish and sweets. I used to hijack the kitchen from my mom. Women have a tendency not to let others do the cooking in their kitchen. My mom was no exception. She even asked me to try doing a catering course, just to turn me away from the kitchen.

Auditing and Tasting Dishes
After my graduation, I wanted to avoid doing CA and enquired about catering courses. I realised there were no exclusive courses for vegetarian cooking. I come from a vegetarian family. So I enrolled for CA. While doing CA articleship from 94 to 97, I travelled extensively to other states-Kerala and Andhra, especially, for internal and concurrent audits, which were 9 to 5 jobs. After office hours, I would go out to eat and taste the dishes in the deep pockets of Kerala and Andhra and pick the recipes. The moment I eat a particular dish, I have a knack of finding out what ingredients have gone into it.

Many students came to Chennai to do CA and I became friends with many of them. After completing my CA, I went to their homes and found out how they cooked. I finished my CA and initially there were a lot of hiccups. Between 1998 and 2001, when I had just finished my CA, the job opportunities in Madras were less. Somehow, I got a job, started learning about it and grew up in my career.

The Twin Blows in my Life
In 2013, my father passed away and in 2015, my mom passed away, in a span of 18 months. That was a big blow for me. I showed my anger on my career and wanted to quit the job. I had no clue as to what I was going to do next. I was working as a CFO for an intellectual property law firm. My boss even advised me to take a sabbatical. But I put in my papers.

For a couple of days after getting relieved, I was happy. After that, I did not know what to do. The first thing I did was I cooked and posted about it in social media. That is how I met Chef Ashish Bhasin in the social media.
I had posted a picture of my food and commented that I was not very happy with the way it came out. Ashish mistook me for a chef and enquired about me. I explained to him that I am a Chartered Accountant and told him about my resigning the CA job. He sent me some pictures of a Punjabi food cooked by a Punjab chef, for a Punjabi food festival.

Challenging the Celebrity Chef
I immediately took off and lamented to him that the whole food industry is biased and that food from a minuscule portion of India is represented as Indian food across the globe and that each region has got its own unique ingredients and specialities. Ashish heard me patiently and took my comments in a positive vein. He asked me to suggest somebody who knows unique recipes from South India and with whom he can work with.

That was the trigger for me. I told him, “Why somebody else should come? I will come and cook.” He replied that I being a chartered accountant who worked for a law firm cannot cook in a five-star hotel, which has got its rules and regulations. Also, he pointed out that I had never been to a catering school. I shot back saying that for cooking, you don’t need a catering degree and challenged him to test my cooking skills.

As a CA, I have always been living with Excel sheets. So I prepared Excel sheets, highlighting each region in Andhra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and the native ingredients unique to each region. I kept on bombarding him with Excel sheets and he didn’t know what to do with me. He took it up with his GM, which was a very rare thing for a person to do. I am truly honoured that Chef Ashish Bhasin did this for me.

The Baffling Burners
Ashish’s GM felt that my presentation was really good and decided to call out for a trade test, to test my skills in catering. As they worked for Trident, Bombay, they told me to go to Trident, Chennai to do the test. I went there and sent an Excel sheet to the Executive Chef at Trident, Chennai, listing out all the ingredients available in their kitchen and the exotic ingredients that I would carry on my own for the trade test.

I took my bags and went on a Saturday for the test. As soon as I entered the kitchen, I was overwhelmed. The burners were all very heavy and I didn’t know what to do. I started off and was burning everything. Nothing was edible. I have challenged everyone, told them that they are biased and here I am—turning out nothing that was edible and palatable.

I sat down and calmed myself. I spotted a boy who was a catering trainee there and asked for his help in operating the burners and controlling the heat for me. He agreed. I cooked 9 dishes. The GM, the executive chef and others came. All of them tasted it and in front of my eyes, they called Ashish in Bombay and cleared me for doing the food festival with Ashish. That’s how my first event in Trident, Bombay, happened and I kicked off my career in catering.

Trident to Chola to Sangam
Since then, I was doing small events. Then I went to JW Marriott, Pune. For almost two years, I was doing contemporary, region specific, South Indian food. I didn’t want it to be boxed as South Indian food, but food from Southern India.

After being in catering field for two years, I wondered what to do next. I had always been fascinated by King Rajendra Chola from the Chola dynasty. In fact, I tell in many of the management forums that Rajendra Chola’s naval expedition should be presented as a management paper. His strategy can be adopted even in the present circumstances and it’ll work wonders.

To give just one example, we can take his expedition of Southeast Asian countries. He didn’t just like that take a ship and go. He planned for two and a half years and the execution took 45 days. He could go up to the Sumatra and Java and capture Srivijaya. Instead of sailing through the main sea route, he chose the narrowest part and surprised his opponents.

Inspired by him, I decided to try out Chola food, rather than work on the contemporary food from Southern India. I didn’t know where to start, because there were no recipe books for ancient food. One of my friends connected me to the Dean of a History Department in a college. I went daily to the college and sat in the library. Nobody could guide me and I did not know where to start from. I was aimlessly sitting in the library for one week and got introduced to the books of historian Sri Nilakanta Sastri. He has written a lot of books on South India and Chola dynasty.

It was then one lecturer asked me why I should restrict myself to Chola age and instead try Sangam period. “Chola dynasty is from 1046. Why don’t you go further behind?” she said. That was a trigger again. Immediately I ran to the archaeology department at Fort St George. I studied the books and iconographies. Finally I nailed on the poems of Tamil literature Ettu Thogai and Pathu Pattu and got a clue.

I went for an event in Sri Lanka. I had read that writer Kalki went to a library in Sri Lanka to do extensive research for his historical novels. So, after finishing my event, I went to that library and people there were very helpful to me. Having seen me in some TV shows, they were all the more helpful in pulling out the books from the decks and getting photo copies of them. I also met archaeologists and iconographic specialists and learnt from them to dissect the poems and discern the important facts about Sangam period.

All about 5 Terrains
The five landscapes played a vital role in Sangam period, viz. fertile areas, forests, mountainous terrain, coastal areas and barren lands. I could make out that the food they ate, suited the particular climate where they lived. For instance, people living in high altitudes need to maintain the body temperature. So the food they ate helped them to retain the body temperature, like, for example, adding butter in the food. In coastal climate where it is humid, watery things were taken. The food across all five landscapes was hard-core non-vegetarian.

By this time, I had started cooking non-veg, though I did not eat non-veg. I learnt to identify fish, mutton and chicken. I learnt from my friends and their families, by visiting them again. I researched further and I was soon in a position to find out if a non-veg dish was cooked in the right proportion, just by the smell of it and by looking at its texture.

Beyond Measures
In 2018 and 2019, I did a lot of research on Sangam period and I curated menus from Sangam literature. The interesting finding in Sangam is that they talked a lot about cooking techniques but there were no indication of weights and measurements at all. The poems would say that the king invited people for a particular occasion; they were given some varieties of food and about and how each was cooked but there was no mention of how much of each ingredient like salt or spices was added.

Here again, my CA helped me to narrow down using management-by-exception technique. I went into the ingredients which were available in the Sangam era and correlated them with the cooking technique mentioned in the poems. I eliminated the ingredients that we use in contemporary food but which were not available then. For instance, they had used small onions and tamarind but the large onions and tomatoes were not there. I evolved my way of Sangam cooking. I really don’t know if that is how it tasted then.
Alcohol is dealt a lot in Sangam. There are methods of alcohol serving and how it is to be given. There is also mention in the poems of hangover cure food and how it has to be cooked. The ladies served the food and alcohol and they knew about treating the hangover effects with the right food.

My Current Goals

  • We need to be respected for the food that we have from Southern India. Normally, people associate south Indian food with only idli and dosa, which are not true representations of southern India.
  • I have started curating many menus using millets and ancient rice varieties which have flooded the market. Not many know how to use them. There are four or five millets available in the market. Most millets look similar. I suggest to the vendors to put a label in the millet packs stating how we should use them and include suggested recipes. Many vendors are approaching me for recipes.
  • I want to promote easy usage of ancient rice and millets; ancient rice varieties are not easy to cook. Their soaking time and cooking time are more. We should know why we should use them.
  • To simplify recipes from ancient cookery books.
  • I am launching my cloud kitchen and will be calling it Tekk Five. Tekk in Malayalam means South. Five stands for the five southern states.
  • To bring out ancient foods in ready to eat format.

Some Takeaways

  • We all have mid-life crisis. I went through my own share. Between 2007 and 2009, I was like a rolling stone, unable to stick to one particular organisation for more than a year. I was searching for something and I did not even know what it was. When you want to switch jobs or become an entrepreneur, your family support and their acceptance is much needed. You need financial security. I would always discuss with my children about my decisions and take their opinions. It doesn’t matter if they are too young.
  • In your organisation, if you are asked to try out a new assignment, attempt it. If it not possible, later on, you can always say ‘no.’ It is better to try different things.
  • Even a small idea can be developed into a success story.
  • Sky is the limit. Don’t limit yourself and be a minimum guy.
  • Opportunities don’t happen. You create them.

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