A graduate of the prestigious Cordon Bleu Culinary School, London, Chef Michael Swamy’s career graph covers the whole spectrum of food – from cooking to styling to writing and consultancy. Having worked with several Michelin chefs, his book The East Indian Kitchen won the Gourmand Award 2011-12 in the Best Indian Cookbook (Technical) category. He has also recently directed and handled the food aspects of a video series presented on Yahoo! Cuisines called “[email protected]”, featuring Chef Vikas Khanna. Chef Michael took his expertise further as the food consultant for Master Chef India Season 1 & 2. In a tete a tete, we got him to talk about his passion for food and all things related to it.
What inspired you to become a chef?
Growing up I would watch a lot of TV shows and coming from a family background that was into film and media, I knew I wanted to work with food. It was my mum and cousin who told me to become a chef first as that would add more credibility to my profession. It was at a time when there weren’t that many chefs into television in India either.
Who were your role models?
Raymond Blanc, Delia Smith, The Roux Brothers, Alexis Soyer.
How did the Le Cordon Bleu (LCB) experience shape your culinary skills?
LCB gave us the art of learning and mastering culinary techniques. It gave me the most solid foundation in the kitchen. We did not learn recipes, we learned how to team ingredients, flavours and textures with techniques so that we could create our own recipes. When I was at LCB, two of my professors had worked in Michelin restaurants and their skills helped me imbibe certain values and culinary traditions. The journey at LCB also got me into food media and imbibed enough confidence and habit of research in me that at the age of 27 I could write my first cookery book which is still in print to this day.
How has your journey been so far from Copper Cabana to Nueva? Which of these projects was the closest to your heart and craft?
I have done several restaurant projects in my time. I have dealt with several types of owners. With tentwala caterers who aspire to do fine dining and botch it all totally to owners who love the art of feeding, entertainment and service. My best project was probably Nueva, but I don’t take abuse of any kind so walked away when things got out of hand. Copper Cabana is a new journey of doing what foods I love. The Peppermill Bistro in Bangalore where we created an almost all French menu with a spattering of Italian dishes is another favourite project of mine.
Your insights on culinary tourism?
Culinary tourism is a big deal but unfortunately still not taken as seriously as it should. We eat when we travel and every journey is made richer by partaking of the local cuisines. It’s fascinating to see how flavours, textures and ingredients change with changing landscapes. When I say it’s not taken as seriously as it should I mean that it is only limited to food journalists writing about it or regional authors penning books – and they all are doing a fabulous job! But we also need to make our future chefs and students realise the beauty of our own cuisine and culture and inculcate pride in it so that we are also ambassadors of our own cuisines to other nations.
Is food styling an art in itself? Can hospitality students look upon it as a career especially in India?
Food styling is definitely an art in itself. You need to have an inbuilt artistic streak to take it on. I have worked on all my books from the styling to the photography and it has taught me a lot by way of changing styles and presentations to suit the need. We have done books for clients where we have won 3 Gourmand Awards. We created a Food Media course at a catering college and doing one more now at another college. The reason is that chefs want to learn styling for different reason and for the betterment of their own skills. As a career, it is trending these days and hospitality students can and should look at it as a career option – particularly because they truly understand food.
What do you think of hospitality education in India? What role does the government need to play in making it comparable to international standards?
Hospitality education needs a serious revamp and updating. Yes, the basics don’t change but the approach needs to change drastically. We still follow the subjective textbook approach where a student of hospitality is expected to be good at performing practical tasks but even better at writing 4 page long answers. What we need to understand is when you’re in the kitchen or at the front desk, nobody is going to ask you to recite an essay. The government needs to visit the strategies followed on global scales and begin making small changes. I and my team have implemented a couple of small changes in teaching methodology in the colleges we have worked with and these changes have proven successful in enabling the student to grasp more and retain it. But just when we begin to see the changes, management runs out of patience and goes right back to the old way. Then they wonder why there is no improvement in performance.
Your comments on celebrity chefs like Vikas Khanna, Hemant Oberoi, Hari Nayak putting India on the global culinary map?
There are many chefs whose careers have been more based on PR than real cooking. It’s very important that we learn to filter between personalities and real chefs. It’s important to know that celeb chefs are backed by equally talented and hardworking teams who are fiercely loyal to them. Let’s talk about real chefs, who are doing a great deal for food as a whole and Indian cuisine. Let’s talk about chefs like Vineet Bhatia, Chef Alfred Prasad (UK), Manjunath Mural (Song of India, Singapore). These are chefs who still create and cook in the kitchen and are in touch with their craft. These are the people who are truly working hard to put India on the global culinary map.
What were the takeaways from working with Masterchef India?
Masterchef India was a huge learning experience positively and negatively. Unfortunately the negative overpowers the positive in this case. The show held such promise had it been treated as a serious food show rather than just another TRP generator. But yes, it did show us how much serious talent India holds in its kitchens and how, if given proper guidance, this talent can also prosper.
Your advice to students aspiring to become chefs?
Being a chef is not as glamorous as its made out to be. There is a lot of hard work to be done and fame does not come overnight. Those that get it overnight usually disappear overnight too. To sum it up, I’ll quote what my Mum had said to me years ago… “Become a CHEF first! If you’re worth it, celebrity will follow on its own!”