CHEF C’HAT – ALFRED PRASAD
In the first of our Chef C'hat series, Chef Kanthi meets Indian food legend Alfred Prasad
I still remember reading in an Indian newspaper in 2002 that Atul Kochhar was leaving Tamarind, and that Alfred Prasad was taking over the kitchen. My first thoughts were about the restaurant’s Michelin star; when a chef departs, the star usually goes as well. Was Alfred – then aged just 29 – skilled enough to keep the accolade? A few months later, I read the headline ‘Alfred Prasad, the youngest Indian Chef to be awarded a Michelin star’.
In 2007, when I had moved to the UK to pursue my own culinary career, I flicked the TV on to Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. For this episode the British chef had called in Alfred Prasad to help rescue an Indian restaurant in Nottingham. As I watched, I was surprised to see how humble and down-to-earth this award-winning chef was. In the hope of one day meeting him, I have followed his progress in the media ever since.
Fast forward another eight years and Alfred has parted ways with Tamarind and is working towards his own restaurant project in London. One morning I started a conversation with Alfred on Twitter and he replied to a chef he has never met before, who runs his own South Indian restaurant called Curry Leaf Café in Brighton. I’d also recently appeared next to the South Indian-born chef in the pages of Good Things Magazine, in an article about lentils. When I asked if we could meet sometime, he suggested I come to London at the end of June and join him for a coffee. Given that he’d only just finished a busy weekend of live cooking shows at ‘Taste of London’ and had his hands full with plans to open his own restaurant, I was struck by his generosity.
I don’t mind admitting that I was nervous. But as I walked in to the cafe in Oxford Circus he immediately pulled me in for a hug and said in his characteristically soft, perfect English, “Kanthi! So good to see you! Thank you very much for taking the time to meet me.” I’d gone from nervous to overwhelmed in three seconds flat.
I learned a lot in that one hour with chef Prasad, a man who has done so much to elevate Indian food in my adopted home, Britain – not just about cooking but life in general…
Chef Kanthi Thamma: You seem to have a lot of projects and events lined up. Tell me 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.
As Alfred paid for our coffees – at his insistence – I sat there in silence thinking about what he said. This last point is definitely something I intend to keep in mind while interview prospective chefs for my own cafe. Before parting he gave me another hug and said, “let’s do an event together sometime”. I spent my entire journey home to Brighton dreaming of what form this might take.