CHEF CHAAT – ALFRED PRASAD
In the first of our Chef Chaat series, we meet Indian food legend Alfred Prasad
Curry Leaf Cafe: You seem to have a lot of projects and events lined up. Tell us about them…
Alfred Prasad: I enjoyed my demonstrations and time at Taste of London, which I have been associated with from its inception. I’m doing a supper club at Kew Gardens as part of Kew’s ‘Spices Season’. Each course will highlight a spice hero; for example, the seafood course is ‘mustard’, the meat course is ‘pepper’ and so on.
Earlier this year I was cooking in Sri Lanka in February and at the Sani gourmet festival in Greece in May; both were incredible experiences. I enjoy teaching and sharing. When I can, I run master classes at the Divertimenti Cooking School and School of Wok and for other groups.
I'm also involved in the Cobra Training Initiative, where I go to curry houses all over the country that are struggling and advise their chefs on culinary basics, planning their menus, understanding customers, how to evolve in the current market space etc. It’s my way of saying thanks to the mostly Bangladeshi restaurateurs that built the platform for Indian sub-continental cuisine in this country, popularised our food and paved the way for chefs such as myself to take it to the next level.
In addition to this I am also writing my first book which I’m hugely excited about and I’m also working towards launching my own restaurant, which will be pan-Indian. Think minimalist decor with lots of texture, just like my food.
Tell me about your childhood, particularly in relation to food
My father is from a vegetarian Tamil-brahmin family who settled in Mysore. And my mom is Anglo-Indian and from a hardcore meat-eating family from Hyderabad. So I was lucky to have had the best of both worlds at home: great vegetarian as well as amazing meat and seafood dishes.
I moved around a fair bit when I was young, having been born in Wardha (Maharashtra), lived for two years in Kathmandu and then a short stint in Hyderabad. I did a big part of my schooling in Vellore, which borders Andhra and Tamilnadu – two culinary giants of Southern India. I then studied and worked in Chennai, New Delhi, and did a short stint in the beautiful Andaman Islands before moving to the UK.
Is there a particular chef you look up to or take inspiration from?
My biggest inspiration is of course my mother, as is the case for most chefs. Other than that, for me it’s unsung heroes like the cook in Chennai who’s spent his entire life making consistently amazing dosas at the side of the street, or the 60-year-old Hyderabadi who shops for his baby lamb at 6am, has his biryani cooked by noon and sells out roughly 100 portions by 2pm –something he’s been doing for the past 40 years. These are the kinds of individuals who continue to inspire me.
Your wife, Sunita – is she head chef at home, and if so what kind of food does she like to cook?
Sunita didn’t do much cooking growing up as the family kitchen was very much her mum’s domain. When we married, everyone thought she was really lucky to have a chef as a husband, but she quickly realized that wasn’t the case as I hardly ever cooked at home. I taught her a few basics and encouraged her to experiment, showed her how to use a knife properly and so on. We eat a lot of different cuisines at home and she’s reached a stage now where she doesn’t rely so much on me, on books or on shopping lists any more. She can make great food out of whatever’s in the fridge and kitchen cupboards. For me that’s the sign of a good chef.
What dish of hers do you enjoy eating the most?
Bisi Bele Huli Anna, a decadent vegetable, lentil and rice dish from Karnataka. She’s really mastered it. Also her dark chocolate cake which is often consumed before she can think about frosting.
What do you do with your spare time?
I love science and design. I watch a fair bit of Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Animal Planet etc. whenever possible. I also love art and architecture – if I weren’t a chef I’d probably have been an architect or designer. I also enjoy playing tennis, gardening and photography.
You’ve travelled all over the world in your career. What's your favourite place to visit?
That’s a tough one, but I’m going to say Cambodia (so far). I also love discovering more about the country of my birth and spending time with my parents and mum-in-law in India.
So, when's the cookbook coming?
It’s in the planning stages at the moment, but watch this space.
Do you have a message for ambitious young Indian chefs taking their first steps in the industry?
I’d like to quote the Dalai Lama: “Enter love and cooking with joy and reckless abandon.” This sums it up for me. My own mantra is of the all-important five ‘T’s: Time, Temperature, Texture, Taste and Technique.
What do you look for when interviewing someone for a chef’s job? Experience? Passion?
Attitude. This job requires a lot of sacrifice, hard work, discipline and physical endurance. Passion can wear off and experience might not help. A lot of stuff can be taught but having the right attitude is definitely key.