Yeah, it has been a while since I wrote for this series. Much water (sigh..time) has flown under the bridge and there is nothing like starting it all off again with good ol’ apna IHM. Life was good then and you believed nothing could get better. Even though, when I do go back to IHM once in a while, I do not see anything there that would create the wave of nostalgia.
The thatched buildings have gone and, as I suspect, even the innocence. Today, IHM is a well oiled machine, a system fully evolved, working on a set routine and, possibly, not subscribing to the constant change that was the order of the day in our times. The fun then was the temporariness of it all, not knowing what you would wake up to the next day.
The beach and the sea continue to be the only constant factor and it’s almost as if it’s affixed as a post of reference inside me. The days were fresh, we were raring to go, the salty tang was in our eyes, ears and serviettes and also rendering our chef knives a darn less sharp than what they were. The kitchen practicals still rule my memory, without doubt, and I remember that I secretly dreamed I would be a celebrity-chef someday. Now, I know I have let some smiles loose amongst those who read this, but yes, I did fancy that in a very hideous sort of way. Before I could spook myself and others with this secret fancy of mine, nature took a very strategic turn of its own in ways I only know (na, no way am I telling you!) and this dream of mine just fizzled out even before the 3rd and final year in college had begun.
The kitchen was a veritable bedlam of activity and some situations I came across there are even stereotypical in content but, nevertheless, worth mentioning.
1. I was told in my very first year that the Kitchen was everything about how competitive you could be in swearing. And if you thought that was enough, you were also told that you had to do it in Hindi, possibly to reach a pan India audience wherever you worked in the future. I do not know what my chef mates in the Cayman Islands and Timbuctoo do to reach their audience today, but it was über-cool in those days to sting the F&B Service weirdoes (hopefuls as decent people call it), unsuspecting as they were, with a string of invectives the moment they placed the order and to deliver a third-degree fragging when they returned later to pick up the order. You felt really important those days when you had just made somebody’s day with your skin-trimming vocabulary.
2. The morning practical briefings that dealt severe blows to my self-esteem and my celebrity-chef dreams incessantly. By the time I had figured out all the ingredients, mis-en-place and the cooking method, my mates had already finished the practicals and gone to their afternoon theory classes after lunch. This confusion continued to my 3rd year and I never really figured out how there could be a method or a work plan for this simple art of cooking. As I realized, it wasn’t an iota easy, work plans were meant for more intelligent chef hopefuls and stealing bits and morsels from their cooked fare was the easiest way to ace the practicals.
3. Showmanship was an acquired art and there were a few amongst my batch-mates who aspired to it. Now this bugger, my best friend too, thought he was Escoffier’s cousin and decided to embark on a self-glorifying act. Funny guy walks to the stretch-griddle, whips the fly-swatter kinda implement from an unsuspecting lady student and decides to take care of the rotis sweating on the griddle. All is fine as he turns them over and just then the chef instructor walks out. Perfect moment. Our man proceeds to flip the rotis with an increasing flourish and everybody sees him convert the same to flying saucers, going up high in the air and landing on the griddle with smacking thuds. The chef instructor walks in, our man is caught in surprise, but his fly-swatter has already launched a roti into orbit, its trajectory altered at the last moment by the unexpected arrival and as a result, it flies across the room and promptly lodges itself perfectly inside the chef cap of a student. Junior Escoffier cooled his heels in front of the Principal’s office for a week.
4. I never got my bread rolls right and I would have died with embarrassment if not for some antics of my batch-mates that qualified for the super-duper stupid chef trophy. One of them, ingeniously put the yeast into her dessert mix and gelatine into the bread dough. The final session of the day, when the dishes are evaluated, was a rocking one. Never before had anyone seen a dessert that threatened to acquire various monstrous shapes by the second and I heard that the chef-instructor’s teeth cracked on the bread roll as he tried to make sense of what hit him in all of his teaching career. Some of us had the unique ability to send our instructors into a never ending spiral of ever-lasting depression.
5. My first vacation from IHM, Onam of 1992, is something worth remembering. Fresh from my newly imbibed cookery skills, I decided that I would cook to impress my folks and not let them feel they were wasting their hard-earned money on their son’s new career ambitions. Chefs are creative, no doubt, and I decided to emphasize this point. My mother was cooking a shark curry that day and she left some shark liver on the counter to be processed later in some distinctive style of hers. Now, my creativity acts up, and I decide to make a pickle out of the liver. Withstanding some sane-minded opposition from my mother, I set about sinking loads of chilly powder, various masalas, garam and ungaram and finally, temper it with a bursting intensity. I tell everyone, this needs to cool first and when it does, I ask them to taste. There is no telling about the extreme negative body language I faced that day from my folks post-tasting. They have not forgiven me till today. The story doesn’t end there – since nobody bothered to touch the pickle, it was promptly set in front of our dog, Robin, along with his usual lunch. After that, Robin took a long time to trust my mother again when it came to his food.