Restaurants should be spaces of calm, an oasis of quiet where you can decide on a treat for your senses. A good restaurant would please you with the right amount of lighting, a comfortable dining chair or booth, a lucid menu card, patient wait-staff and of course, delectable food.
This is a simple checklist for a satisfactory restaurant visit. However, when it is a celebrity chef at the kitchen counter you expect more than just the meal; you expect history, innovation and magic. The reason why a Michelin star, makes a huge difference to the reputation of a restaurant, is the chef.
The expertise attached to the chef draws the crowds to the tables. And so what he stands for only adds or subtracts from that magic. Atul Kocchar, the London-based chef associated with the Rang Mahal restaurant in Dubai, reacted in a tweet to an episode of
Quantico with anti-Islam remarks.
He later apologised profusely, but the tweet left a bad taste in the mouth for some of
his fans, and the management of the hotel chain promptly terminated his contract to operate the restaurant.
But it is not always bad news or bigotry. The other
desi celebrity chef, Vikas Khanna, recently spoke of his encounter with a Muslim family who saved him from a mob during the 1992 Mumbai riots.
He has been observing one-day
Roza, a fast, every Ramzan for the family, and has been doing this for the last 26 years. His sharing of this tale of harmony adds another feather to his cap.
Though not intentional, it reflects on his celebration of diversity. An inclusion that goes beyond political discussions of country or state borders, religious choices, and even our simple preference for the kind of food on our plates.
Food influences us all, and celebrity chefs are top influencers. Despite being told several times to “stick to their lanes,” chefs have always been vocal about issues.
Like the celebrated chef, Anthony Bourdain explained, there is nothing more political than food.
“Who eats? Who doesn’t eat? Who is cooking? Why are we eating the things that we eat? What got us to this point that we are eating a lot of pickles or dried and preserved food? What does this tell us about, you know, ourselves? Who is picking the produce? Who is cutting the meat? Who is shipping the meat? Who is putting it in the boxes? There is nothing more political than that.”
In the United States, there are many instances of chefs voicing their opinions against Trump’s anti-immigrant comments. Back home we may still not find voices rising out from the restaurant kitchens to make a huge political statement, but what we do see is a lot of bonhomie, an easy mix of insiders, outsiders, regional cuisine, haute cuisine all of it being made by a staff that rises from several parts of our country.
The wait staff, the accountants, the cleaners at a restaurant, they all reflect our society. The next time you sit down for a meal at a restaurant, try to spot what it says to you.
There is a message not just in the food but also in the way the staff treats each other. The kitchen banter may be in Hindi, English or other Indian languages. The staff headed by a good chef will always get you a well-balanced meal.
Sharon Fernandes is a journalist based in Delhi.