“Standing on this podium speaking to you today, I can confidently say that the stomachs of tomorrow are in great hands” – Chef Thomas Zacharias said in his valedictorian speech on graduation day at The Culinary Institute of America in 2009. Almost a decade later, a visit to The Bombay Canteen would prove that he had accurately predicted his future.
Zacharias, who is the Executive Chef of one of Mumbai’s most loved restaurant—The Bombay Cantee—has garnered a fan following for his unflinching commitment to discovering unsung heroes of Indian cuisine and bringing them to the limelight. If you are not in Mumbai, and suffering from major FOMO, follow him on Instagram @ChefTZac to know more about desi vegetables, fruit-based curries, indigenous cooking techniques, street-food and more; chances are you will find treasures in your mom’s and grandmom’s kitchens.
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“Growing up, I was exposed to food cooked with a lot of love and care which was evident in the flavours. My ammamma used local and seasonal vegetables as well as various types of fish and meat, so my exposure to food was varied and diverse. I clearly recall the nutty taste of jackfruit seeds and the aroma of fried fish roe waft from her kitchen. My first memory of cooking is by my ammamma’s side witnessing her make people incredibly happy through her food,” reminisces the chef.
Cooking with his ammamma or grandmother, fueled the fire in his belly to be a cook. Straddled with a hotel management degree from Manipal, his pursuit for the finest culinary education led him to The Culinary Institute of America where he graduated with top honours. A year-long stint at the Three Michelin starred restaurant, Le Bernardin in New York followed next. “I learnt about effective and powerful ways of teaching from my professor K Thiru from my hotel management college WGSHA in Manipal. I picked up leadership skills from Chef Chris Muller from working at Le Bernardin in New York,” shares Zacharias.
Thereafter, he joined Olive Bar and Kitchen in Mumbai that primarily focused on European food. “It dawned on me that I was trying to be creative with French, Italian and Spanish food without ever having travelled there or tasted those cuisines at the source. Ever since that first, incredibly enriching #chefontheroad trip through 36 towns and cities in those countries, I have never looked back.” So, 2013 was a year of discovery when he took a sabbatical and travelled across Europe to eat, cook and learn more.
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His gastronomical experiences through travel propelled him towards a deeper realisation. He found that there is scanty information about the extraordinary diversity of Indian cuisine and he needs to set sail on a culinary journey in his home country.
Recalling his first memory of working as a chef, he says, “In a professional setting, my first experience was in the hotel kitchen of a big Indian chain where I was disappointed to see a negative working environment that curtailed passion and growth, which was considered normal for the industry. It left me determined to be part of a team of people that changed the system and become an agent for positive change.”
Realisations can be powerful and life changing. His quest to work in a more inclusive manner coupled with a burning desire to explore Indian cuisine attracted his tribe. He joined hands with Chef Floyd Cardoz, Yash Bhanage and Sameer Seth - the team that launched The Bombay Canteen in 2015. To fulfill his hunger for learning, he continues to chomp his way through the length and width of the country and extensively captures his food finds on Instagram with captions detailing provenance of Indian dishes, ingredients and cooking techniques. He sums it up with the hashtag #IndianFoodMovement - “There are so, so many discoveries I find everywhere I travel, but my biggest take away from each is how little we know about Indian food and how underrepresented our cuisines are.” His food finds are then mapped on the menu at the restaurant – Indrani Rice from Maharashtra crosses paths with the Goan Prawn Bimbli Curry, Aloo Dum and Hara Channa Kachori is hauled all the way from West Bengal and Turnip Soup inspired by Kashmiri Pandit cuisine finds new fans among diners.
Digging deeper into his cuisine philosophy, we found that in the Indian context, he’s inspired not by professional chefs, but by home cooks and cuisine experts from different parts of the country. He meets them when he travels in search of recipes and traditions – “Whether it is Iti Misra in Kolkata or Rajni Wanchoo in Srinagar, I believe that home cooks are the real gatekeepers of Indian cuisines and there is a great deal to learn from them.”
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5 things that Chef Cardoz taught you:
- To celebrate regional Indian cuisines and local seasonal ingredients.
- To take the higher road when it comes to handling situations both good and challenging.
- To stay humble and grounded.
- To take a leap of faith instead of being cautious.
- To be honest not just with others but also with myself.
Recommended reading list for chefs:
- On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee – For the science behind cooking
- Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat – For building flavors
- Kitchen Creativity by Karen Page
Fave Instagram handles:
- @bhuli.art – An initiative in Uttarakhand that aims at preserving tradition through art and design.
- @pbstoryweaver – An open source platform for multilingual stories by Pratham books for kids across India.
- @chefdanbarber – For an in depth look into the life and mind of a chef that celebrates farm to table cooking like no other.
- @deathandcompany – An incredible bar in Manhattan for beautiful portrayal of their beverage program and the thought process behind their drinks.
- @thetiffinclub – An account that showcases Indian food through travel stories.
Cover Image Conceptualised by Vartika Pahuja
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