Interview with Chef Manjit Gill, at Slow Fish 2011
It was hard not to notice Chef Manjit Gill around the Genoa Fiera during the four days of Slow Fish, his bright red turban, white chef's jacket, matching beard and air of calmness in contrast with the flurry of activity surrounding him. A renowned winner of many awards who runs the kitchens of India's second largest hotel chain, Gill has written several cookbooks and been called one of the country's greatest chefs. He nonetheless sees himself more as a culinary explorer than a master chef. "I'm a chef, but I don't create dishes," he said on the second day of the event. "I discover them."
As the corporate chef of the ITC luxury hotel chain, Gill is responsible for 109 restaurants across India and oversees 650 chefs and cooks. Indians recognize his face from his many television appearances, especially as the pioneer of cookery shows in the 1980s. But after three decades of success in the business, he is happy to declare that his inspiration still comes from the kitchens of others.
"There's no need to create anything new when India has such a rich and diverse cuisine," he explained. "Regional cooking has such a large repertoire that you can keep on discovering new dishes forever." And so he does. Instead of spending hours in the kitchen devising new recipes from scratch, Gill and his team head out to discover culinary diversity in villages around the country.
"In India we don't believe that you just have to go to school to learn how to cook," he said, explaining that the best cooks can be found anywhere, not just among professional chefs. "We go to the villages and find fantastic cooks-it could be a housewife or domestic help-and we hire them to teach us whatever they know."
Gill has been credited with taking Indian street food and roadside cuisine and transplanting them into a luxury hotel chain without their losing their authenticity. He doesn't feel the need to explore fusion or molecular cuisine when there is so much untapped diversity on his doorstep.
"When I take on a recipe, I keep the basics but adapt it so it becomes acceptable around India." He uses the example of the mountainous areas of northern India, where the locals cook with lot of fat to provide the high-energy diet they require to live and work in such a harsh environment. City-dwellers in Delhi don't need that much energy, so Gill modifies the recipes accordingly. "In the end the dish will be mine, but the inspiration is theirs."
He is right about the diversity. The small range of dishes on Indian restaurant menus across the western world is just a minuscule fraction of the variety that exists within India itself. With more than 2,000 ethnic groups, a long history of interaction with and influence from other cultures and followers of all the world's major religions and their accompanying dietary restrictions, India's 35 states and territories weave a colourful tapestry of culinary expression, where cooking often varies from suburb to suburb in the same town. Perhaps this is why Gill calls himself the "eternal student".
On the Sunday night of Slow Fish event in the Theatre of Taste, Chef Gill cooked a vazhapoo meen, a southern Indian dish of grilled fish served on a banana leaf. He used fresh Mediterranean sea bream from the Slow Fish market, though, despite being sustainable, tasty and easy to cook, the fish is not commonly used in Italy.
"Fish will soon be scarce," he worried. "I don't believe we need to stop eating them altogether, but we need to leave something good for the generations to come."
This is an important issue for India whose 7,000 kilometers of coastline and a network of backwaters, rivers, reservoirs and ponds provide an extraordinary array of fish and crustaceans for the country's regional cuisines. Around two years ago, Gill started working on fish sustainability, collaborating with his chefs to source and experiment with local fish, organising workshops for suppliers and introducing a ‘say no to the wrong size' policy whereby only fish of a certain size are acceptable.
He is adamant however about the responsibility of the chef. "Chefs are often role models for many and so they are capable of encouraging sensitivity to fish sustainability." India is rich in freshwater fish species, but there is little awareness of them among professional chefs, he explained. He argued that if local fish are identified and promoted, then a repertoire of dishes would evolve and help take the pressure off marine species. In addition, it is the chef who decides the quality standards of a restaurant's food, he said. It is therefore imperative for the chef to demand the same standards from suppliers.
In the end, of course, it all comes down to taste. "We can promote the local fish, but we chefs need to understand each species and cook it well," he said, adding that tradition has already found an answer for this too. "When the fishermen sell their catch on the markets, the most popular fish go the restaurants. But where do the rest of the fish go? They go to the villagers, and the locals have learnt how to cook it." They are also the ones who teach us how we can continue to fish in the future, he says, explaining how certain religious taboos and folk traditions ban eating fish eggs or prohibit catching fish just before the monsoon when the waters are low. "We need to believe in the practices of the past and follow them. They are based on sustainability."
That's what appeals to him about the Slow Food philosophy. It's not just a movement for tasty food, he said, but a movement for food that is good for the person eating it, is sustainable and maintains traditions. India may be starting to follow the western world, but Chef Gill takes comfort from the fact that many traditions are still very much a part of everyday life. "I am confident that we will never abandon our traditions," he assured in his gentle but determined tone, "It's the only way we can survive. Our future lies with our history."