A Quick Bite with Ajay Chopra
From MasterChef India too his own show on Food Food, Ajay Chopra has become an easily recognized face on Indian television. He is also the Executive Chef at The Westin Mumbai Garden City, Mumbai. We spoke to him about what it means to be a celebrity chef in India and his life beyond his kitchen.
Why did you choose to become a chef?
This will sound clichéd but since childhood, pans were my toys. I love food and everything to do with it. If I were not a chef then I would have been an architect.
Which chef do you look upon as an inspiration and why?
Marco Pierre White, Jamie Oliver. White for his immense passion and never ending need for perfection and Jamie for his love for food and how he makes love to his ingredients and the end products say it all.
What has been a great moment of pride in your career?
It was when I received my first black buttons when I passed out of the Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development. Also, when I gave my first salary of Rs 2200 to my mom in 1998.
Which is your favorite cuisine and why?
Chinese because I just love it and also that the complexity of its flavors is in the simplicity of its ingredients and the cooking methods.
Which is that one ingredient you cannot do without?
Green Chillies, I am a hard core Punjabi and I love chillies in my food. Also the beauty and the versatility of this spice is amazing, fry it , broil it, juice it or just eat it like that it gives different flavors to any dish that it goes with.
A childhood food memory that has stayed with you.
As a born foodie I loved my street food. In school we would gang up and bunk classes to go for the Kulcha Chola, go to Murthal for Paranthas or go to Alwar for a typical dish called Khoya Mutter Kaju.
What is your comfort food?
Dal Chawal and fried fish.
Which is your favorite restaurant?
Hakkasan in London, Yautcha and Highway Gomantak in Mumbai and Viva Panjim in Goa.
Which are the hobbies that interest you?
I play the guitar and I do sing. With more spare time at hand I would love to play with my boys.
What does it mean to be a celebrity chef in a country like India?
In a country like ours, chefs were not even known as professionals and artists a few years back it is an honor for anybody to be in that league. Chefs are celebrated because food is celebrated. In a country where people are crazy about food, the craze for knowing the food artists is also increasing. It is a huge responsibility though, as people are emotionally connected to food and it remains to be our dharma and karma. As people on stage and people with food authority it is very important that we impart correct knowledge and techniques for people to follow. Plus who doesn’t like a bit of glamour and lots of love from fans; it is not just good but great to be a celebrity chef in our country
There has been a dramatic evolution in the way we look at food. Your thoughts.
Of course, over the last decade our country has evolved in the way we eat and think about food, primarily because we have started to travel much more than we would some years back. Cross cultural and cross country influence on cuisines have created this inert demand for eating out and hence different food options. A country that is still proud of her Dal Chawal and me, proud of my Rajma Chawal, is creating world news in food. Also, we have started to explore more as we have become adventurous with our food and have broken away from clichéd eating habits. I remember even when as a family we went to eat out our restaurant was fixed, the menu items were fixed and we would only change about 15% of the order in those continuous visits, but now I look for the most uncommon things on the menus and look out for chef’s specials. The trend is changing and it is for the good.