Anne Zwahlen spends a day with Balakrishnan, Head chef of Hotel Sunshine and discovers rather surprisingly that being a chef is more about supervising and managing a team than actual cooking!
The talent with which chefs combine passion, creativity and an impressive resistance to pressure, while constantly looking for innovation, has led me believe it must be one of the most demanding professions.
I was therefore curious and excited by the idea of spending a whole day with one of these masters who are able to satisfy customers’ requests without forgetting that cooking is also an art in itself.
10.00am: Volunteer Ariane Lecuyer and I step into the rickshaw outside our office. Suddenly, without any warning, the driver decides that it is the moment to go, with or without our Projects Abroad staff member. After saying several times, “Sir, stop! Please!” he finally notices that someone is missing! Venkatesh, Journalism Desk Officer, joins us and we leave for Hotel Sunshine where we will spend the day with the restaurant’s head chef.
11.00am: The rickshaw stops in front of the hotel were we are cordially invited to sit in the lobby and offered mango juice. We meet A.Dhilip Bernard, 30, the manager, who shows us the different types of rooms at the hotel and a nice restaurant on the roof. He then let us get into the kitchen.
I’m rather surprised to notice the calm and quiet atmosphere that reigns in this place. My views of a typical restaurant kitchen are perhaps influenced by what European kitchens are like. I have always imagined them full of people shouting and running everywhere, their arms overflowing with dishes and trying to meet customers’ requests. However, here, the workers seem peaceful and organised, each of them taking care of a precise task.
12.00am: The chef arrives while Bernard is showing us different spices. He seems as peaceful and confident as his employees, and far from the stressful person we imagine when we think of a head chef.
Smiling, he wipes his hands on his apron before shaking ours. His name is J.Balakrishnan and he is 35 years old. He has been cooking for 13 years with experience in almost all cuisines. Before Hotel Sunshine, he worked in Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Here in India, he has also worked in Ooty, Chennai and Kerala as a sous-chef.
His frequent travels in Asia give him a thorough knowledge of different styles of Asian cooking. Balakrishnan has also been cooking Continental food for six years. He confides in us by admitting that he really likes cooking and eating Italian food.
Now in his third year at Hotel Sunshine, his impressive culinary experience allows him to serve whatever the customer expects. Nowadays, the customer’s satisfaction is most important: more and more people ask to talk to the chef to know what a dish is made of and if it’s healthy or not.
Balakrishnan’s hours are quite flexible. Everyday, he comes to work around sometime between 7.00am and 10.00am, whenever the restaurant needs him. We learn a surprising fact: the chef usually doesn’t cook.
His role is to supervise. Every morning, he takes care of the work space: he inspects the kitchen to see if all is clean. If anything is dirty, he calls the cleaning service. After that, he verifies all the ingredients to see what is available, what they need to buy, and if any food such as milk, meat and vegetables is spoilt.
A normal day for him lasts seven hours. Sometimes, he takes a break in the afternoon and works, for example, from 10.00am to 3.00pm and from 7.00pm to 11.00pm. He usually takes advantage of his break to go home and see his family.
The fact that his hours aren’t fixed doesn’t necessarily make his job easier. Indeed, Balakrishnan has to always be available. “Sometimes, if the breakfast is very busy, I will come at 7.00am. Whenever they need me, I come,” he explains.
Everything depends on the number of customers. Though his job demands a lot of him, the chef affirms that it isn’t a real source of pressure for him. It’s only during peak hours that the work starts to be more intense: usually during breakfast, lunch and dinner and sometimes for parties. The problem is that the peak period can also come at anytime. Otherwise, he says it’s quite a peaceful job for him. He even has the time to answer to our questions in the restaurant, seated at the table.
1.00pm: We come back in the kitchen and, this time, we can feel the activity. I think that the rapidity with which the rush came is impressive. Ten minutes ago, we were still quietly interviewing the chef in the restaurant. The staff seem more focused than nervous. The kitchen itself seems to be buzzing with energy: steam is escaping out of saucepans full of boiling water, a man is peeling a mango and, on the table, a huge papaya is waiting to be cut. I can hear someone sharpening knives and the heat is intense.
Written on a white board is a list of the food items that are unavailable for the day. Very few compared to some other Indian restaurants where half of the menu seems to have disappeared. Orders start to come to the counter at an incredible speed. The chef tastes one of the dishes and explains to us that if he sometimes tastes the food, he confirms his confidence in the skills of his employees. Indeed, he compares his relationship with his junior team members like that of father and son, and with the older team members, he says they are friends. No doubt this contributes to a great atmosphere based on mutual respect.
Balakrishnan ensures each of his team members are capable and teaches them himself. He takes the time to introduce us to each of them. One by one, they come to us, smiling, and don’t seem annoyed at all to have been disturbed during their work.
“Now in his third year at Hotel Sunshine, his impressive culinary experience allows him to serve whatever the customer expects”
Karthick, 23, has two years of experience and cooks Indian and South Indian food. Shankar, 21, from the West of Bengal, has been cooking for two years and prepares North Indian food and Tandoori. Finally, Raja, 23, has been here for a year and cooks Chinese food.
While his juniors are cooking, a man brings the customer orders to the chef, who checks them and shouts out the contents of the order to his employees. He explains to us that he can guess what kind of customers they have just by reading the orders. Showing us one of the orders, he says, “That’s South Indian people.” The activity grows more and more intense and I am clumsily taking my notes while trying to not disturb their work and avoid the coming and going of waiters carrying hot plates full of gravies.
Looking at the food in the kitchen, we are suddenly intrigued by a yellow liquid mixture. We start trying to guess what it could be. “Maybe it’s a mango lassi,” I say. The chef informs us that it is in fact mayonnaise. That’s indeed kind of different, and not something we’ve come across much during our time in India.
2.00pm: Being surrounded by food makes us hungry and so we decide to have our lunch there. Before we leave, the chef comes to say goodbye and we thank him for the delicious food and for the opportunity to discover a little of what a typical day in the life of a head chef is like.