When everyone else is celebrating, chefs are working hard, and that’s tough! It gets difficult to balance your personal and professional life.
If there is a secret to the super-thriving and super-competitive world of Delhi’s fine dine business, it is most likely the magic word ‘Saby’. As any food critic/reviewer/writer/restaurant-goer will tell you, if he’s part of a team that’s opened a place, it’ll have many takers. An effect that’s now spread to other parts of the country as well, including the laidback waters of Goa.
Ai, The Love Hotel, Olive, Soda Bottle Opener Wala and Amreli are a few of Chef Saby’s Delhi career milestones, and he was singled out as one of the “five people to watch out for” in Fortune India’s 2013 list, the only one in his profession. A multiple-award winning chef, one of which includes an honour by the President of India with the “Best Chef of India” National Tourism award in 2012, Saby has also been on numerous TV shows and is known for his affable vibe – a rare quality in his field! His age belies his achievements – at 26, he was running one of South East Asia’s largest entertainment centres as the Youngest Executive Chef at The Bowling Company in Mumbai. Saby now runs his own culinary academy to nurture and mentor young chefs.
What sort of formal education is an absolute essential for your profession? Could you share with us the kind of internship or experience that would be helpful for a young person considering this line of work?
Do a three-year professional chef’s course is my advice, if you can afford it. In India, one of the best chef courses is the Oberoi hotels STEP programme, which gives hands-on exposure. After that, I’d suggest at least three years of apprenticeship in a good five-star hotel or in a fine dining restaurant.
If you simply had to draft that elevator pitch for your profession, what would it be?
Simple. The best thing one can do is cook for a fellow human being!
What are the new trends you notice that are changing the complexion of your profession? How do you see this profession faring 20 years down the line?
The top food trends for 2015 are focussing on local sourcing, environmental sustainability, local/regional cuisine and street food. These trends have been gaining momentum for several years, but have recently hit the food industry.
Today’s consumer is more interested than ever before, in what they eat and where their food comes from, and that is what is reflected in our menu trends research.
True trends – as opposed to temporary fads – show the evolution of the wider shifts of our modern society over time, and focus on the provenance of various food and beverage items, unique aspects of how they are prepared and presented, as well as the dietary profiles of those meals.
For example, people are now tired of pretentious food cooked in butter and flour, all “favorite” cuisines like Italian, Chinese, Spanish etc have been explored and tasted by everyone. So, people now don’t want to taste cuisines from far off, they’d rather taste more of their own country’s regional cuisines.
As a chef, you have to work with a very large team – both the kitchen team as well as the attached teams like food and beverage service, architects, interior designers, etc. It’s all about collaborative team effort.
What do you do when you are stuck with a problem?
I stay calm and composed and I confront the problem straight-on. I then try and come up with innovative ideas to solve the problem. I never get into shouting, fighting and screaming, as that just adds to the problem.
What do you think of “collaborative thinking” with regard to your profession?
A chef’s job is supremely collaborative, I think. As a chef, you have to work with a very large team – both the kitchen team as well as the attached teams like food and beverage service, architects, interior designers, etc. It’s all about collaborative team effort.
How do you overcome roadblocks in your profession?
I tend to map things in my head in advance. I have a strong sense of pre-empting possible concerns – whether it’s a supply chain issue, staff shortage – and I am able to anticipate it in advance, a bit like forecasting! And so I am mostly prepared for the roadblock before I hit it. Hence I can deal with them.
What would your advice be to a young person at the start of his or her career and confused about pursuing passion versus being pragmatic?
When you have found your calling, be passionate about it. Stick with it. If you find something you are passionate about and can also make a living out of it, go for it and never look back !
I tend to map things in my head in advance. I have a strong sense of pre-empting possible concerns – whether it’s a supply chain issue, staff shortage – and I am able to anticipate it in advance, a bit like forecasting! And so I am mostly prepared for the roadblock before I hit it.
If you could do some time-travelling and go back to meet yourself at 17, 25, 35, what would you say to your selves then?
17: Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Everything is going to be okay. Don’t lose heart.
25: Focus, don’t waste time and do not get arrogant.
35: Whatever you do, don’t get complacent. There’s no end to how much you can grow in this profession, so don’t stop dreaming.
What are the pitfalls of your profession and how do you mitigate them? Did you have any fears when you were just starting out about this line of work, and were any of them justified?
Pitfalls: Long hours, challenging working conditions, back and knee problems, no weekends, no festival holidays. When everyone else is celebrating, chefs are working hard, and that’s tough! It gets difficult to balance your personal and professional life.
Fears: I’ve always had a problem of being flat footed, and I’ve had knee injuries, so I really used to fear if I would be able to survive the long hours and strenuous physical work. But once I started, it all worked out. Another big fear I had was I thought I would never ever get discovered, and would always just be one of the many people in a white coat. But with my hard work and my determination, I have managed to make it big.
Do you engage in supplementary informal learning that gives you an edge on the job? Any specific reading or online learning, or TV shows?
I am constantly travelling to learn more. I feel that travel is the best education for food – you get to explore different cultures, cuisines and you get to have a first-hand experience of it all. I am also always reading books to update myself, as this is the one industry in which one you can never say that you know it all.
I really feel cooking for a fellow human being is the noblest thing that anyone can do.
What is most rewarding about your job?
I really feel cooking for a fellow human being is the noblest thing that anyone can do. And the smiles on people’s faces while/after eating the food cooked by me is the most rewarding thing for me as a chef.
How does one network in the beginning to get that initial presence felt, in this profession?
I think in the initial years, in this profession, you need to just keep working very hard – it’s the only way to make your presence felt. Work hard and don’t lose focus.