As I waited in the lobby of Sun N Sand Hotel, Juhu, Mumbai, where Gautam Mehrishi works as a Corporate Chef, I was reminded of all the times I have been fond of watching him on Television. Gautam’s silent yet charming demeanor works as a magnet on the screen while his earthiness can’t be missed by someone who prefers to see through the soul than drool over a chocolate face.
With a background in Army, Gautam chose to become a Chef in the times when people used to mock the profession with words like – “Bavarchi banega kya!” , though, it wasn’t his dream to become one. “I don’t dream”, he tells me with a smirk.
The 20-minute conversation made me to believe Gautam is someone who wouldn’t beat around the bush. With a clarity of mindset to take things head on, his is a personality as smooth as a wine, giving a no-fuss attitude to changes life has thrown upon, live by the day with a heart that wanders…
Here are the flavourful excerpts from the interview –
What do you cook? What’s your specialty?
There’s no specialty. I like to cook everything. I like to get inspired to cook.
What inspires you to cook?
Ingredients. I keep experimenting. There are times when old memories are connected with some ingredients while it’s the freshness of those at times that inspires. Sometimes while cooking, I am reminded of a memory with a hotel, restaurant, senior or junior colleague or a guest I interacted with and that inspires too.
When did you start to cook professionally?
I started in 1995. But I never wanted to be a Chef. I wanted to be an Army officer because of my background. My father was a Paratrooper and retired as a Brigadier. I have spent most of my life in Army cantonments. I have traveled from Mizoram to Leh to Laddakh, covering the interiors of north-east and have visited almost every state in India.
So why ‘Chef’ when you wanted to be an Army officer?
(laughs) Thanks to Mandal Commission! I almost got selected in NDA and was supposed to go for my UPSC interviews and medical entrance but all trains got cancelled during that time and I couldn’t go. I had to travel from Gwalior to Allahabad but it never happened. I didn’t want to lose money on the reappearance. Agriculture & Engineering was Plan B and entering the food industry was Plan C, since it wasn’t really cool in those times to turn a Chef. People used to say things like “Bavarchi banega kya!” (You will become a Chef? Really?) But my parents always supported me. And shockingly, when I went to my training institute, 30% of the students were Males and many of them were kids of Army officers. There was a trend for Army kids to choose this industry then.
But your sibling is a doctor. A child psychiatrist to be precise. Didn’t you feel the profession of Chef wouldn’t be as respectful?
No, I never thought so. There were many of my father’s friends who were also Army officers and they used to tell me “tu Army mein mat jaa kuch aur kar” (don’t go in Army, choose something else.) So I did try something and it worked. If you work hard and dedicate yourself to anything, it does work out.
Remember your first job?
My first job was at Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai as a Management Trainee. I have juggled between Mumbai and Delhi. Taj has been my favourite. What Lord’s is to cricket, Taj Mahal Hotel is to Hospitality Industry in India. It’s the Mecca! Even today when I visit the hotel, I meet the people I worked with. Most of them are still working there and they still remember me. I have very good relations with them. It’s very nostalgic!
Did you ever regret the decision of becoming a Chef?
Never! But yes, I do miss being an Army officer for sure. (rise in voice) FOR SURE. But it’s okay. When I see the news of Surgical Strikes, I feel that even I could have contributed if I were a part of them.
Wouldn’t you be afraid to lose your life then?
No am not! Either you lose your life for your family or country.
What is the aspect of your upbringing that makes your fearless?
My father has fought two wars for India. My mother was also in the army. The valour is in my blood. You can’t teach anyone not to be fearful of death.
What do you like more – eat or cook?
I like to do both. I am very fond of eating something that looks different visually.
How does cooking help you connect with your soul?
It’s the other way around. I think it’s the soul that helps me connect with cooking. It’s not the mind that tells me to cook kyunki dimaag se toh matlab ki baatein hoti hain (because mind gets you closer to logic). Cooking is something that helps me do justice to my conscience and learning.
But aren’t you fed up at times doing the same thing again and again…
No, I am never fed up and always up for it be it any time of the day.
Ok. What is that thing you can give up cooking for?
If am offered to become a commando in the Indian Army, I think I can then.
What will happen to the name & fame then…
Name & fame is temporary. I don’t know why chefs are being called “celebrity chefs”. I am just a chef, that’s all. I cook my food and people like it – that’s just about it. I never relate to that term because I like to celebrate food. You can celebrate food cooked by anybody. My mother is the celebrity chef for me and my grandmother is a bigger one. When I used to see her cooking, I got inspired. Her kitchen was sattvik, spic and span, nobody was allowed with footwear or without a bath. Now that’s a “celebrated” kitchen for me.
(laughs softly) It is my personal view that there’s nothing like a celebrity chef, other chefs shouldn’t feel offended by my view.
But the “celebrity chefs” are on TV… how do you find this culture?
I think it’s very good because chefs are given a platform to show their skills and inform people the importance of food, share the possibilities to cook the variety available and inspire. Chefs on TV inspire the youngsters to turns chefs and enable housewives to become better homecooks. Indian cuisine is being glorified in a big way. It’s attracting international acclaim and our chefs are achieving Michelin status. It’s really good.
Isn’t the glamour injurious for youngsters who may not want to become chefs but will end up doing to attain stardom….
It is good in a way. The profession has turned attractive. Ultimately, the youngsters will somehow know the hard work behind it. Kitchen means hard work, dedication and learning. I have spent 20 years in the kitchen but still feel I haven’t learnt too much.
Where are you found if not in kitchen?
(laughs) Either I am reading or with my kids. I am usually thinking a lot…
So, you are a wanderer…
Yes, you can say that. I am a wanderer but I don’t disclose very easily what I wander about. I keep it to myself and develop it. I may let it out after a point of time only.
And times when you are low…
I talk to myself and if at all I break down, it is with my own self. Luckily, that hasn’t happened. I am spiritual and I follow my good instincts. Cooking is a form of meditation and when one does it for a longer time; he/she automatically turns spiritual.
Has the spiritual force helped all your dreams to come true?
I have never dreamt. I don’t dream. I just wanted to live on my own terms – simple and happy. What I wanted is that when am home, I can hit the pillow and sleep. I don’t get affected by negative worldly things like who’s talking to whom or plan revenge. I get touched by good things.
Have you ever cooked for charity?
Many times. Since years, we make sure around 200 children are fed in two schools in Santa Cruz & Bandra (Mumbai) every Monday and Thursday. Food is especially cooked for them in my kitchen (Sun N Sand Hotel). I am also a part of few clubs for charity.
How do you ensure food is not wasted?
We try not to waste too much of food. Normally, the left over is only 5% in my kitchen. We quantify the stock before cooking and make sure the food isn’t prepared in bulk and reproduce as well. If we have to cook for 100 people, we do it for 70. I strictly against wasting food, water or natural resources
Any plans for opening up a signature restaurant?
There are two restaurants on the anvil. I have recently opened up a restaurant named ‘Vortex South’ at Marine Lines, Mumbai. ‘Vortex North’ is going to come up in Bandra. Vortex South is on the lines of ‘travel & travelling’. It has ‘modern food on an old platter’ kind of a theme. Also, I am already working with two companies in Denmark and we are coming up with another one in Canada, which will take time due to logistics.
What makes the profession of chef an awesome one, a notch above any other?
You can see numerous happy faces, appreciating you, your work, for something they have paid for and that’s because of your skill – what else does one want! You are satisfying different souls. It all starts from hunger – of a poor man or the richest – and if you are satisfying that, there can’t be a bigger profession than that of a chef.