"Oh I am trying to selling the world on healthy, authentic and fresh cooking with fresh ingredients and today it was "Chicken 65" which I just finished demonstrating and recording", he says with a faint smile.
I am tempted to ask him if I can stay back for lunch. He eases my discomfort.
"Would you like to stay and get a taste of the fiery Chicken 65?" he volunteers.
The "Sure" came out faster than I intended.
We walked past a sound engineer lost in adjusting what seemed like a million dials on a computer monitor and sat down to a simple meal of white rice, yellow dal, Egg Pulusu and a very large tub of Yogurt. I later found out that this gourmet likes to eat simple food with his trademark generous scoops of yogurt.
"Why so much yogurt?" I ask.
"Oh, we grew up on it at home" he volunteers. It turns out that the home of this fantastic cook has roots in yogurt-lovingwww.vahrehvah.com Hyderabad in the Southern, Deccan plateau of India. In the heat of Hyderabadi summers where he grew up, yogurt pretty much starts and ends lunch and dinner I find out.
"So where did you get your inspiration to cook?" I gush. I want to know what makes this man – or any great chef for that matter, to devote a entire life and what they do to a passion such as what goes on over a hot, burning, uncomfortable stove.
"That would be my mom", he says. It turns out that Sanjay eagerly jumped into the kitchen at a tender age of 8 when his favourite person and his mother - the chef in his life; was hospitalized for a month. He jumped right in and took over. I was amazed. I learned that he was learning how to make rice, basic dal, vegetable preparations and even chappatis at 8 years of age!
It naturally led to a passion to make it to Culinary school. In 1989, the Indian Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition" – a large name for an institute I must admit – was a rather difficult place to get admission. Approximately few 100 thousand aspirants all over India battled a written exam and then went through the coals by a very determined, famed and respected author called Thangam Philip who was one of many on the selection panel who in the midst of squinting, analyzing and grilling youngsters, decided on 900 of them that would make it to go through a gruelling culinary course and join the glamorous profession. I somehow felt that in the depths of a kitchen or in the nooks of a hotel room all glamour becomes work. How else would you explain the passion of the hospitality crowd?
"So tell me more about life at Culinary school?" I am eager to know.
"3 years of basic, quantity and exquisite, specialized cooking eventually in the final year" I learn. That is amidst hard and long hours with hands-on field experience in 7-star kitchens across the country. The whole thing is administered by the Ministry of tourism which at that time was nudging the Hotel Industry to churn out world-class products to put Indian hospitality on show at the world stage.
Sanjay was an amazing product of the Food-production lab. A friend and old time colleague who was watching his production unfold on the set tells me that Sanjay was a bit of an extrovert - jovial, enthusiastic, hard working academic who not only went on to win the gold medal in 1991 at an All-India competition for culinary arts with a dazzling array of original recipes but then also managed to come out right on top when he got selected from among thousands of campus and other applicants to join the prestigious "Welcome Group Management school" with its haloed portals and training labs located within the revered portals of the 7-star "Maurya Sheraton" in New Delhi.
Much of what he teaches the world and dishes out as fare at his restaurants was learned at the feet of renowned Chefs and tried and tested on elite guests that frequent Delhi′s Maurya Sheraton (Bill Clinton was apparently a fan….all presidents from G8….wow!). he quiet calmly tells me that the high point of his career was making the simple and humble omlette – for none other than 7 heads of nations at a G15 summit in New Delhi. Whew! And later at the 5 star property of the group at Park Sheraton in Chennai. A lot more got added along the way when he moved to other properties within the group like the Rajputana Sheraton in Rajasthan and the Moghul Sheraton at Agra. The last pit stop was at the Welcome Group property at Vadodara. Moving to Chicago in 1997 set Sanjay up on the ramp to much bigger things when in 2 short years he wowed Chicago with what would be billed as the most authentic taste of India in the chain of restaurants that he set up. He decided to elevate his status from chain restaurateur and decided to take an early retirement.
I could have laughed. Geniuses do not retire. They take long business-plan vacations. One lazy morning he woke up to put his dreams into a studio of all things. Complete with camera, lights, wires and plenty of action.
Restauranting is limiting to an extent. It takes every moment of your waking day leaving very little time for new things. So I am not very surprised at Sanjay′s shift to something much bigger on the world stage.
The dawn of the internet has made a few stars out of ordinary people with access to a decent camera, and bandwidth to the great www. The sprouting of YouTUBE and the social network has every enthusiast searching for answers out there.
It was only a natural progression to see this gourmet hit the airwaves with all guns blazing. On September 10, his gourmet site went into a soft launch. Vahrehvah.com has the potential to shake up the Internet food portals like no other Food site has.
We were interrupted (TWICE!) Once by an international phone call. It was an excited young desi viewer from Germany who called to tell him that she loved his show. I was not surprised. Then he gets a call from Dubai. I smile. "Move to Hollywood" I tell him. It would suit the lifestyle. He shrugs it off.
I spent a couple of hours on the site this afternoon and the layout and design is built intuitively with allocated space for recipes classified by their origin and place on the food chart as well as by course on the menu. So for instance if you were to have a craving for Shahi Nizami cuisine and had some Chicken in the freezer and felt like making a lip-smacking entree out of it, all you have to do is access vahrehvah.com and search by chicken for an entree and Voila! You not only have the detailed recipe and cooking method and ingredients listed out but the amazing thing is you also have a video demonstration of the dish being prepared in Sanjay′s chirpy and laughingly humorous manner. That is what is interesting too.
I am an amateur cook myself who loves experimenting with odds and ends in the kitchen and sometimes I fancy walking into my kingdom and churning out a Nizami delicacy. What I like about Sanjay′s site is that the video actually takes me through a step-by-step process to explain exactly how to go about a www.vahrehvah.com acomplishing this. For someone like me-and for you too I am sure, looking at it being prepared tells you exactly when to throw onions into the pan or why does mustard have to crackle or even what exactly goes into the Tandoori Masala you go and buy at the store. To me that rocks! It quite simply allows Mr. Nobody to impress friends and family with learnings from a gourmet. Suddenly I am chef somebody and my kids love it. I dare say I even have my wife talking about it with her girlfriends.
"So what are the plans for the future?" I want to know. "Are you going to be on Oprah?"
He smiles. "A long way to go", he tells me . The plan is the way most websites go. It′s a free lunch for now. Literally!!! His pal having lunch with us said "Well free for now". But Sanjay shot me a glance. "I will keep it free for always he says". I have my doubts. It is a large venture with real costs for electricity, ingredients and manpower, hosting and development for the website and constant maintenance. Its a tall order to keep it free. Sanjay wants to eventually do DVDs next year to generate a revenue stream. But for now, you are in control. You want your lunch free, log on, register and enjoy it while it′s still free out there. Sanjay hopes to perhaps get food majors and constituents interested enough to allow him to keep the venture free.
His true passion is to get the word out about how we can cook and eat healthier with fresh food and authentic recipes. What I truly like about the site also is that it is participative. It does not lock the user out. In fact it locks them in. They register, they get hooked on his easy style and humor and ability to laugh at himself. Before they know it they are enthusiastically commenting and he is inviting them to post their own recipes on the site. A separate section on the website allows the user to claim their own spot of fame by posting recipes and videos that contribute to even more participation from fellow users. "This is going to be a food community soon" I inform him.
"I know", he says.
It was irresistible. I had to go back and see what was being made today. So here I am. I am going home to try and make the Dum ka Murg tonite. The aroma on the set got to me. It looks good on the site when it was uploaded. Maybe I need to pick up some Dalchini on the way home. Thanks to Sanjay I know it′s not going to be authentic without these seeds of Cassia. And now this amateur chef is empowered!
Go check it out yourself. And you will be too!
2/12/2007 by Joseph R Lima