Do you think cooking is an acquired skill or does one just ‘have it’?
I think you either have a knack for making good food or not. I truly believe you need to have a good “hand” for cooking. No two people will ever make the exact same dal even if they follow the same recipe. That said, technique can always be learned and honed.
Who are your food heroes?
My nani. She’s such a strong, sharp lady who cooks a meal for her family even at 86.
What’s the recipe book you can always rely on?
One of my favourite restaurants is The River Café, and whenever I want to cook a special meal, I know I can rely on their books for something simple yet stunning. For pastries, my Pierre Hermé (as seen in the photo below) books are indispensable.
Is there any philosophy that you live by in the kitchen?
Start with the best possible ingredients you get your hands on. That’s the only rule in my kitchen.
How has your life changed since studying at Le Cordon Bleu?
Studying at cooking school coupled with living in France changes your perspective to food. In France you are surrounded by quality ingredients. Producers are passionate about what they grow or make. Once I was at a producers’ market and there was a farmer selling only apples and pears he grew. Lots of different varieties with different flavours and textures. And alongside the fruits he sold a whole bunch of different products he had made from apples and pears: jelly, juice, jam and something which doesn’t quite have a name but is basically apple juice that has been cooked down from 4 litres without any added sugar to fit into a 500ml jar that can be spread on toast or eaten with foie gras. It’s this specialisation and obsession with taste in France that changed my life.
What is the biggest lesson you learnt while at culinary school?
I can’t point to one lesson as being the biggest… they built on each other progressively. At LCB, it was about learning the classics and at Centre de Formation d’Alain Ducasse it started with the classics then turned into modern French. I actually blogged parts of my cooking school journey http://purplefoodie.com/category/le-cordon-bleu/
How did you enjoy living in the food lovers paradise that is Paris?
I loved every minute of it and I keep going back whenever I can. Living in Paris is like living in culinary heaven. There is good food everywhere. You don’t need to look for it. When I lived in Paris, I had 3 boulangeries within a minute’s walk from my apartment. Outdoor markets set stands twice a week that were teeming with fresh produce. On Friday evenings, a lovely lady would setup by the corner of the street in the winter selling oysters.
Now that you’re working in London, does this profession come with a lot of pressure?
When I was working at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, it was 17 hour days on the feet. Everything is made to order to exacting standards so when the bookings are full – which they usually are, the pressure is on! Thankfully, I’m done with my training and I work for myself so I decide the amount of work I take up. I don’t believe that you need to kill yourself to get somewhere. I like the balance my life has – where I get to write, work in the kitchen and travel whenever I want. If I were to only stick to one thing, I’d be very uninspired. (Side note: I’m working on my own business http://mirabellelondon.com/, my upcoming cookbook and India classes annually)
What are your thoughts on the way we as Indians think about and enjoy food, versus Londoners or Parisians?
Parisians are very strict about not snacking between meals, whereas we love our deep fried-everything! Londoners enjoy the pints and are binge drinkers, Parisian are pleasure drinkers.
A restaurant or chef that’s really impressing you back home in India?
I really like what Bani is doing with Miam in Delhi!
A food trend that you wish would just go away?
I don’t want it do go away… but I don’t really care for it – ‘tasting menus’. It’s a great way for a chef to showcase their food with several small courses and I get that, but as a restaurant-goer I like to enjoy my meal and get out of the restaurant feeling happy and satisfied. Often I go for tasting menus and the whole meal is a blur punctuated by a few stand-out courses. I’d rather eat one big bowl of pot au feu or plate of burrah kebabs than sit through an 11 course tasting menu I’m not going to remember the next day.
What’s the most important meal of the day for you?
Breakfast and lunch are quick, so dinner is usually the most substantial meal of the day, and one I look forward to most.
Something you’d like to change in the food industry?
Working hours. It’s a thankless profession, and my heart goes out to those slaving in the kitchen 17 hours a day. I did those hours too while I was training – but it’s unhealthy and it’s a pity that there are no laws to protect those who don’t have a choice.
A recent food pairing that really impressed you?
Pork and pineapples in the classic Al Pastor taco in Mexico.
The one thing you regret eating?
I don’t regret eating anything, because I am very curious and want to taste everything. The one thing that left me underwhelmed though, was sea urchin.
Read more from Shaheen here, and sign up for her baking classes in India here.