Long before celebrity chef Ranveer Brar's book — Come Into My Kitchen — came on the scene, he has been a regular visitor to people’s homes, courtesy the myriad television shows (The Great Indian Rasoi, Breakfast Xpress, Thank God It's Fryday) he is a part of and of course, MasterChef India Season 4 (on which he was a judge).
Brar has proved his mastery over his craft over the years. From grinding spices to cleaning charcoal as a newbie, trying to learn each day, he worked in all areas of the kitchen as he journeyed from an apprenticeship at a kebab joint in Lucknow to creating signature dishes at five-star hotels in Delhi (and the popular restaurant Banq in Boston).
In a chat with Firstpost, Brar opened up about his childhood in Lucknow, the pull of the kitchen, being a celebrity chef, and more.
What is your earliest childhood memory of food?
My earliest childhood memory of food is one that has had an everlasting impression on me — of my grandmother cooking. She could create culinary masterpieces out of basic ingredients. I still reminisce about the days when my friends and I would return home from school hungry, demanding food and she would whip up delicacies in a matter of minutes! I think I imbibed my love and respect for food from her.
What drew you towards cooking? Did you know as a child that you’d be a chef one day?
I never knew this would be where I would end up. In fact from the age of five, I would accompany my grandfather to the gurudwara and the only place where there was more excitement and action was where the langar was being cooked. I used to do it as a chore initially, to please my grandfather, but the fragrance of food and its flavours always excited me.
What was the kind of food typically cooked at home?
Our home food was quite basic, but focused greatly on nutrition. Since we had our own farms, we used to grow our produce and enjoyed what you call simple ‘peasant food’. Our diets were high on local produce which included a lot of milk, khoya, ghee. In fact, my parents laid great emphasis on vegetarianism and even though we did eat non-vegetarian dishes, most of our meals were fresh and did not include meat, whilst growing up. Knowing what we were eating was ingrained in us right from the beginning.
Did the fact that you grew up in Lucknow, a place known for its eclectic food culture, also play a role in you becoming a chef?
Lucknow has everything to do with me becoming a chef. Food tends to grow on you and when you are a child, your first interaction with food is probably through your parents or grandparents, then the family and community. Also, Lucknow has a huge folklore when it comes to food and stories around dinner tables... usually, it used to centre around how someone in each family has had that one great home chef who had cooked something unique to impress the nawabs. These stories attracted me greatly and made me aspire to contribute to this tradition someday.
When did you first start dabbling in cooking?
I used to accompany my grandfather to the gurudwara where I would watch the cooks prepare a langar feast in quite a routine fashion. (But) when I was forced to cook my first ever meal (meethe chawal) at the age of 12 at the gurudwara, for 50-60 people, it turned out quite well. The only other meal I cooked then was rajma for my father, who thought it wasn’t “all that bad”.
What role has food played in the different stages of your life — childhood, teenage years, as a young man and as a seasoned chef later?
My relationship with food has been one where it has wholeheartedly given me everything — skill, knowledge and a perspective to life. It is my raison d'être.
What and who have been the key culinary influences in your life?
I think there are two key influencers in my culinary journey whom I cannot acknowledge enough: Ustad Munir Ahmed for his abstract food philosophy that almost always ended up making sense, and chef Charlie Trotter for proving to the world beyond doubt that chefs could be great entrepreneurs.
What was your family’s reaction to you wanting to become a chef?
Their reaction was not very pleasant, as back in 1993, cooking wasn't the most glamorous profession to be associated with. It took them some time to accept my calling, but true to God, they have been my backbone ever since.
How were your initial days at culinary school?
I joined IHM Lucknow after having worked on the streets, hence suddenly a structured, neat and clean environment was something that took me a bit of time to get used to. Eventually I realised that it was my relationship with food that mattered and not the kitchen I was working in. Truly that’s a lesson, I am grateful to have learnt early in life.
Is there any anecdote that you can recount from your early days as a chef which left a lasting impression on you — a mistake that could’ve cost you your job?
[Laughs] I once put leftover sugar syrup that came from a catering function in a fryer, assuming it was oil and created a fire in the kitchen!
How was the MasterChef India experience?
It was a proud and humbling moment to be a part of India’s biggest food celebration on TV. It was also an eye opener to actually witness the huge pool and quality of talent that India has. It was an experience I will cherish for a lifetime. It was a first-hand interaction with the vastness of the country’s amateur cooks and their diverse skills. It was an exciting phase and I was privileged to mentor India’s best amateur cooks.
How has the perception of a chef changed over the years, according to you?
The perception has changed vastly. I feel the last 10 years have seen a more rounded persona of the chef where they are increasingly being perceived as role models and are a formidable brand by themselves — inspiring students and homemakers alike.
Do you think chefs should foray into entrepreneurship? Are they good at business?
I believe kitchens are the best business schools, so definitely. However, being a chef or running your own business is not for the faint-hearted and thus, one must be ready for everything. Chefs are already entrepreneurs in the food ecosystem; at the most basic level they are responsible for a restaurant's profit and loss and business bottom line, so entrepreneurship (at many levels) comes naturally to them.
How did your cookbook — Come Into My Kitchen — come about?
Over the years I have felt a nagging need to express myself through various mediums. My core desire was to say something that would contribute to a reader’s everyday food and make him or her an even better cook. Thus, even the name Come Into My Kitchen... as it is a personal journey about food I make in my kitchen. I want my reader to invite me into their kitchens and cook with me as well.
What according to you are the key culinary trends today?
Sub regional and hyperlocal cuisines are here to stay. Also, food for wellness and health is going to be a huge decision driver. Grains and cuisines of the Far East and South America I reckon will stay.
Mini Ribeiro is a food writer and critic. Follow her blog here.