Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Food, Music And More - Some Memories

Yesterday we said goodbye to Chef Prashant, at Windsor Manor.  Low key and efficient in a very quiet way, he produced memorable meals for us and churned out buffets and banquet meals with ease.  We will miss him!

This got me thinking today of all the years we have been frequenting the buffets at the Windsor coffee shop and all the chefs with their diverse styles that we have met there.  How long has it been?  It's hard to say, for time slips by unnoticed.  A decade perhaps?  Certainly a long, long time but it seems like just a few years.

It began when I got a call asking if I was interested in a card offering discounts on the ITC hotels.  I unhesitatingly said, "No."  Why would I want such a card?
"Well, it's a very good deal," said the very persistent lady at the other end.  I said I would think about it, and my husband and I did.  Finally we decided to try it out for a year as the hotel is very close to where we stay.

That's how it began.  For people interested in trying different kinds of food, it was a good deal, especially the buffet, which we stuck to.

The hotel business in those days was booming.  Tourism was still doing well.  The buffet was large and lavish.  It's been cut down now but it still meets all our requirements and more.  There was an accordion player who would play wonderful European folk and dance music.  (Thus began our friendship with Prakash - a talented musician, one of the few accordion players left in the country, who plays just because he likes to.)

The chef in charge of the buffet at the time was Chef Mazdiyar, a genial, sociable Parsi, who would flit around, chatting with whoever caught his fancy.  We would get tons of Khow Suey and a clear soup with lots of vegetables, in those buffets.  Also prawns in some kind of sweet orange sauce, which he seemed to like.  I got a recipe for vegetable stock from him, which was very handy (as it's tricky to make a flavourful stock with just vegetables).  When he left he organized a week long Parsi food festival, using old family recipes - including everything down to pickles and chutneys.  It was an interesting and new array of food for us.

The next chef, Gaurav, specialized in Indian food, and so we saw a change in the menu style.  A lot of new and different curries, pullaos and biryanis were made.  One that I remember vividly was a prawn biryani from Odisha.  The orange sauce had been replaced by  a spicy tomato one, for the prawns.  A particularly memorable meal we had at this time was on the eve of the Bangalore marathon.  We sat surrounded by Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, who stuffed themselves with carbs (mostly noodles and white bread) while we were eating a very delicate Awadhi chicken curry made with almonds along with traditional breads.

Gaurav was a very spontaneous and enthusiastic chef.  I remember calling him once to request for a birthday cake (part of the 'card package'!) and instead of giving what I believe chefs are instructed to for these occasions, he suddenly launched into a description of a cake with nougat and cream and what not - and proudly produced it!  I was a bit embarrassed but very happy to receive this quite different and delicious cake.

The next chef we met was Prashant.  He specialized in Western food, I think with a generally European slant.  I remember the first time we had the buffet at this stage, there was a white gazpacho soup, which I had never tasted or heard of.  The spicy tomato sauce was now changed to a cocktail sauce, which was terrific.  A new chicken and green papaya soup showed up, which was also very nice.  What I like most about Prashant's cooking was the simplicity of style combined with the high quality of ingredients.  He also reintroduced many of the classic combinations.

In this day of innovation where creativity is greatly rated, I think people forget that classics are classics for a reason.  There is a timelessness about great recipes that must be respected.  Pastry may be painted in different hues and food may be garnished fancily but ultimately, the proof of a pudding is in the eating.  Commercial food establishments (and perhaps buffets) are particularly susceptible to these changing styles, but through many of the years that Prashant was around, I'm glad he didn't yield to this view and served many basic, delicious things like home grown sprouts (mustard sprouts in a green salad, which was tossed with lemon juice and olive oil was one of his simple and delicious dishes).  His stint at the coffee shop was the longest of all chefs when we were around, hence my descriptions also contain more about this style of food.

After this, budget cuts increased.  The hotel embarked on a green policy, wherein they said buffets were wasteful and a fixed buffet like menu would be offered but people could select what they liked and it would be freshly made and sent from the kitchen.  This was the time that we had several nice stir fries (especially with pork and lamb), prawn fried rice and so on.  We were also thankful for Prashant's unabashed joy in cooking with pork, which is one of our favourite meats and is not easy to cook just right. In fact it rarely appears on most menus.

This phase did not last long and we were back to the regular buffet and some nice grills.  A hot stone sizzler option appeared, which was also a terrific new addition.

Then one day, my husband found himself in charge of organizing a banquet to celebrate a special event - the golden jubilee of the Ramachandran plot (a path breaking calculation conceived by Professor GN Ramachandran that was worthy of a Nobel prize, which it never received).  A host of notable scientists from around the world had been invited.  Our thoughts turned to the Windsor poolside, with its charming ambience, and to Prashant, who was still around, and in charge of banquets.

The Windsor managers were too busy to meet us in our personal capacity.  "You are just footfalls in this hotel," they said, with a (charming) smile.  We shrugged and let it be.  Perhaps it was not destined.  A little enquiry from Prakash set the ball rolling again.  And this time, we managed to negotiate and book and meet with Prashant, who offered (and produced) an outstanding and truly elegant buffet at the poolside.

Many people remember this with happiness and satisfaction.  Everything was wonderfully presented and served.  The final flourish came from Prakash, who began playing some Russian tunes when an elderly Russian scientist came up.  The scientist was so moved that he spontaneously broke out into song; his joyful notes reverberated down to the lobby, making people smile.

So, here's to all the people I have known in Windsor, who have worked behind the scenes, handing out happiness through food, music and more.

No comments:

#Header1_headerimg { margin: 0px auto }