Growing up in the pink city of India, Sumit Malhotra’s fascination for food began in the lanes and bylanes of Jaipur. From the kulcha seller to the chaat papdi maker to the tandoori chicken wallah, these men dished out the tastiest of food. For Malhotra, now a celebrated chef, the people behind these foods was as much a fascination as their end products in the way they used ingredients, colours and techniques and cooked everything in the open. They would also shape his future.
“I used to stand near these people who were cooking on the roadside and watch them. For some reason, it sparked an interest in me,” says Malhotra, now owner of a trail blazing restaurant Aangan in Footscray. He would then go home and try and replicate in his kitchen whatever he saw on the streets. But being a boy, he was often chided by his mother for being in the kitchen. So when his family members went to sleep Malhotra would practice his culinary skills in the silence of the night. There was no Google then and his recipes were all from memory.
After graduation, he decided to study hotel management, a decision supported by his father. Malhotra was enrolled in the expensive Merit Swiss Asian School Of Hotel Management in Ooty where he recalls being very “focussed on kitchen practical classes”. Soon after he was recruited at the Hyatt, Delhi, as a commi one chef.
“My experiences at the Hyatt were tough,” recalls Malhotra. He was surrounded in a not so friendly environment of chefs who came from non-management backgrounds and resented his professional degree. He was put in the banquet kitchen but was not taught anything. “They told me cooking was not an easy job and that I won’t learn it by sheer acquisition of a degree. There was intense pressure, they used to never allow me to stand near them when they were making anything, and instead send me off on odd jobs such as collecting stuff, getting things washed or to the stores.” This continued for about 8-9 months. “Whatever I learnt,” says Malhotra, “Was by observing. They told me do your own work, don’t try and take our job.” In that time, six of the eight recruits who were hired along with Malhotra left the Hyatt but he stayed on because he was dogged by a determination to break into the coterie. “Those who have passion stick on. I also get an unusual sense of energy from cooking,” he laughs.
The turning point came, when one day at the banquet kitchen where he was posted, a party of 300-400 people was to be held the following day and the main chef did not turn up for his duty at 7 am. “There were four of us and not one who knew about Indian food. After waiting for the chef for an hour, another senior chef came up to me and said ‘you have been here for eight months, you do it’. I said I will try my best based on what I have seen since no one has taught me or shown me anything.” Malhotra took the plunge and finished everything by 12 pm. That day praises about the food was unending and the team received a kitchen tip of Rs 8000. “It was big money 14 years back,” he says.
So pleased was the chef who assigned Malhotra the task that he was next sent to the Café kitchen to handle Indian food such as South Indian dishes. Malhotra couldn’t be happier. At the Café kitchen, the opportunities to learn and work were huge. “There was breakfast in the mornings, after 12:30 pm we had to set up a live tandoor outside. Every week you had to give two recipes of kebabs, you cannot repeat the recipes. But once I mastered the basics I learnt how to create new flavours.”
Food is all about balancing flavours, says Malhotra. “So if you know the Indian spices and how they will react to the food, you know what will taste good. It’s like an ice-cream and knowing what kind of a taste you will get when you add something. ”According to Malhotra, all chefs the world over rely on four tastes – sweet, sour, bitter and salty. “You have to play around with these tastes and then start understanding textures – soft, grainy etc. So we learn about taste, texture, appearance (how the dish should look colour wise), presentation.”
For more than two years at the Hyatt, Malhotra kept learning and learning. It was a place where big parties were held on a regular basis. After the success of the Kargil Operation, when a party was thrown at the residence of the then defence minister A K Antony, Malhotra joined a team of celebrated chefs to host one of the biggest parties catering to dignitaries of the country. “There were chefs from all over who had come to cook and we had to work jointly. It was a mix of talents and great exposure.”
By now Malhotra was in a happy zone. He had no intentions of coming and living in Australia but when one of his close friends decided to further his career to study commercial cooking here, Malhotra was also inspired by the idea as a foreign degree opened bigger doors in India. They both enrolled at the Willian Angliss Institute in Melbourne. “I learnt things which I had never learnt or done before such as cooking crocodile and kangaroo meat. We had a pastry chef who taught us all the useful recipes; I got trained in Australian style of cooking as well. Because I used to take interest and ask a lot of questions, they used to tell me in detail and that really helped.”
After the course, he looked around for jobs in Indian restaurants to enhance his experience. “Everyone was discouraging me. The perception was there is no future and they don’t pay. But I was comfortable with the knowledge I had about Indian food.”
However, it was this experience that actually catapulted Malhotra to an even exciting future in the business of food. “There was ignorance on the part of owners about the kitchen. They treated the kitchen as one area where no investment is required. But if the food will not move from the kitchen, where will the revenues come if the tables are rolled. For quality food too you need quality ingredients.” The scenario was so discouraging that he set about setting up a restaurant where people can experience quality and authentic Indian cuisines. “My only aim is to make Indian cuisine the first choice of all Australians. It will be the growth of a community as a whole,” he says.
Food, says Malhotra, is something that you cannot cook without passion. “If your mood is not right, no matter what style or correct recipe you follow the food will be different, I can bet on that.” He also believes that it takes only a year to learn all aspects of kitchen work in a hotel, “but perfection only comes with experience, so you slowly polish yourself. It’s like giving shape first and then buffing continuously to attain perfection. You cannot stop and say I am a big chef now I don’t need to learn anymore. I am learning today, I will learn tomorrow and day after and so on. That will never stop; it will only stop when I die.”
At Aangan, Malhotra has modernised his kitchen in such a way that that cooking is made easy and takes forward the reputation of the cooking. He says he has a big problem with a ‘chalta hain’ (casual) attitude to cooking. “I cannot ignore the smallest of things such as a garnish and I do not compromise on quality. People have a level of expectation when they come here to eat food so I cannot allow any error. Of course, there is always a chance that something might slip the eye but I am very particular.”
To this day, Malhotra’s inspiration is the small men selling food on the streets of his hometown. “They make their food with love, they are deep into it and they create wonderful things. They don’t have exhaust fans, start from scratch and deliver the right food.” True to his roots!
By Indira Laisram