Jun 28, 2016
A young wide-eyed boy, straight out of the Culinary School of America, joins Le Bernardin – New York’s most famous French seafood restaurant. A few years later the same young chef is heading the kitchen at one of Mumbai’s most successful restaurants, The Bombay Canteen. Chef Thomas Zacharias talks to us about the experiences at his first job and the learning that helped him become the person and the boss he is.
What was running inside your mind when you entered the kitchen on your first day?
Le Bernardin is a huge three Michelin starred restaurant. Unlike most Michelin starred restaurants, Le Bernardin is very busy and caters to 300 people every day. That’s about minimum of 4-7 dishes per person, which translates to 1200-1700 dishes a night. To be in the kitchen, where the standard and quality of food is at that level and that pace, it was unbelievable. I was a newbie with no experience and here there were 30-40 chefs who came with an experience and were way ahead of the game, I had to prove myself. I was also the only Indian guy at the pre-dominantly white kitchen, but it was exciting. It doesn’t matter what kind of experience you come from, at Le Bernardin you start from garde manger (the vegetable and cold appetisers section) and then work your way up through different stations.
There I was on my first day with dreamy eyes, somewhere between being excited and intimidated. Le Bernardin also has a book called In The Line, which talks in depth about how the kitchen functions, what do you do to be a chef there, how the progression happens among others, and I had already read the book about 100 times. Still, the first day was about keeping my head down and doing things as neatly and as quickly as possible; trying to learn everyone’s name and trying to get along.
Did you get to cook? What was the first dish you prepared?
For the first few weeks you don’t get to touch any fish or even add salt. You start with garde manger and the vegetarian part. They have a market salad, which is made with seasonal vegetables with truffle vinaigrette, and that was the first dish that I made. The seasoning had to be perfect, it had to look perfect so the pressure was huge but it turned out good. It was a simple salad and that’s what I loved about the restaurant; for them simple didn’t mean average, it meant great.
Eventually I was taught how to season; I started working on raw fish dishes, hot appetisers and so on. At times I was in charge of making staff lunches, which was fun because you’re cooking for all these talented chefs and the restaurant is very particular about the staff food as well. I would make something as simple as meatloaf or tandoori chicken, which was a clear winner.
Any interesting memory from the first day or first few weeks?
Well, I was sent home once.
I had to make a cauliflower couscous salad one day, which had vegetable chips with it. I had to take a long peel of the zucchini and deep fry it. It wasn’t easy because the chips had to be pristine and uniform every time. This one particular day I just couldn’t get them right so I was sent home, no questions asked; it kind of puts you in your place very quickly. At that time I was quite upset with myself and started questioning myself but in retrospect it was kind of funny and I have done that too at The Bombay Canteen.
What were the lessons that you learnt during the first few days at the job?
That there are always two ways to run a kitchen and treat your staff – the abusive way and the more productive mentoring route, which is what I have taken. Basically the philosophy that happy cooks produce great food and nothing comes out of fear. I sit down with my cooks every now and then and talk to them about what they are doing and what they should do. This practice is usually not followed in India.
I also learned that great food doesn’t have to be have 10 components on the plate with dots etc. It can be really simple and focus on clear bright and bold flavours, good ingredients, great seasoning and letting the ingredients speak for themselves.
One learning from your first boss that you follow even today.
Chef Eric Ripert, the owner of Le Bernardin wasn’t around all the time. The chef that I looked up to was the second-in-command, the Chef de Cuisine, Chris Muller. He was a tough guy, but not short tempered. He would channelise his energy and use it in a productive way. I have kind of developed my philosophy and demeanour in the kitchen based on him. You have to have a sense of humour at one moment and be stern at the next, that’s what I do as well. He was really welcoming of someone who had never worked in a kitchen and mentored me.
The author is a freelance food and travel writer and shares her stories on Foodchants. She is on a perpetual quest to learn about the history of regional food.