I strongly believe that every food, every dish, every cuisine, every flavour, even every spoonful has a story to tell. The only prerequisite is that, like a journalist, you need to have a ‘nose for the news (here read ear for the story)’. And so is with me. I look for stories whenever I taste a dish.
Was in Guwahati this week for a day. I love the Assamese Cuisine and, as usual, was trying to sniff if there was a story in the lunch I was having. Did I get it? Of course yes ! However, in few hours another story unfolded which I thought was much more powerful and I must write my this fortnight’s piece on that one. The Assamese cuisine story can certainly wait (yes, it’s there in my notes and shall soon see the light of the day).
So, having done with the day’s work, I came back to my hotel. Attended to some mails and then took it easy for a while thinking about my food story to be this week. Then my friend and colleague Rajeev Goswami walked in and had a drink with him. Even during the chat, tried to find out more about the lunch we ate in the afternoon. After seeing him off, while returning to my room, I don’t know how and why ,on my own, I got pushed towards the coffee shop where they lay the dinner buffet (normally dinner is a no-no for me albeit sometimes a light fare). Mechanically, I walked in and occupied a little table in a corner. Had a soup and some little servings of 2-3 dishes (will talk about those some other time). Interestingly, my eyes were searching for ‘someone.’ Couldn’t locate him anywhere and so asked for him from a server around. Since I had not come to this place in about last few months ( during last one year had quite a few trips to Guwahati) so was unable to recollect the name but the face was well registered in the mind. I asked the server, perhaps gave a wrong name or two but the server said no one with these names were there. Any ways, quickly finishing my stuff, walked out with a feeling of something amiss. Kept thinking but to no avail. Something was not complete.
A past incident that happened in that coffee shop a few months ago started running in my mind like a film. In the same coffee shop, I was alone sitting in a corner sipping beer. Felt like eating something and asked for some snacks. Was quickly served Chhicken Tikka and Fish from the buffet. Now who eats North Indian Chicken Tikka when you get best of those back home? Why not some fish? Well, reluctantly still the Punjabi me picked a piece or two of chicken. Was feeling hungry so quickly cut off bite sized pieces and kept in my mouth. Ahh. Well, as expected, it was cold, dry and nothing great about falvour. Fish was still a better choice. As it is, I eat controlled portions so signalled the waiter to take away the rest of the tikkas. He didn’t ask any question and took away the plate. Moments later, a young Chef came to me and introduced himself and asked me that I had sent the chicken tikka back half eaten and what was it that I didn’t like. I told him that it’s not that it was bad but that somehow not to my taste. I was being polite and said there was nothing wrong with the dish. He still insisted that why it was not as per my taste and according to me what would have made me happy in the tikka. I explained to him. Having got the feedback, he gave me a smile, thanked me and went back. In few minutes I got a plate full of freshly made chicken tikkas, piping hot, mildly flavoured with spicy, high on garlic, juicy inside and of course laden with love. I enjoyed the taste and the treatment given to me. After I was done, went to him and profusely thanked him for taking care of me. Thereafter, once or twice I met him and he would smile at me and ask me if I would want something of my choice. Then for few months I didn’t visit Guwahati.
Today, after a gap of few months, I expected to see him but couldn’t. That was the feeling of something amiss today.
Next morning I went for the breakfast and didn’t try to look for him. Served myself a mix veg vermicelli, some herb roasted potatoes and my favourite pongal along with a strawberry smoothie. That was enough for me to start my day to get going. And then suddenly, behind the huge live counter, I spotted that familiar face. I asked the waiter nearby that who was that. He told me he was Chef Gautam. Ah, how could I forget that name. So stupid of me. The waiter asked me if knew him? I told him this was the person I was trying to find out last evening. The waiter went to him and showed the Chef where I was sitting. Gautam, having seen me, had a big smile on his face and instantly left everything and came to meet me. I asked him if he remembers me and he briefly reffered the chicken tikka story. He informed me how the restaurant was doing good business, how they had a punjabi food festival lately and that I missed it just by two days. But then quickly informed that on Sunday they have a lavish brunch and that I must come. I told him that I was going back the same day. He expressed sadness. And then asked me if he could send some omelette or scrambled eggs for me. Don’t know why, I said no. He insisted that I must have something. I had seen Aaloo Pranthas on the buffet in the morning. So, told him to get me Aaloo Prantha with curd. He smiled, shook hands and went back. After few minutes, freshly made Aaloo Prantha (which certainly was not picked up from the buffet) came with a bowl of fresh curd (the curd was set in that bowl itself and not poured in it). He very well knew my preference for non-oily stuff so it was with minimal oil and yes no butter served with it. It was mildly flavoured parantha, crisp and hot with a cold curd and lots of love. In normal circumstances, I would have eaten a quarter or at the most the half (I mind my portions, enjoy the flavours and manage calories) but today I ate the whole. Having finished, I went to his counter to thank him. He was, as usual polite and humble. Insisted that I come back with my family some day and that I must stay there on a Sunday and savor the brunch. He has that sense of warmth and politeness in him. You get connected to him and that’s the reason that I was looking for him the last evening. I requested him for a selfie before I said bye to him. He shyly agreed.
Even now I am forced to think what is it in him that he is connected to me? Would he be the same to every guest ? May be yes. Here is a chef who loves his profession and is passionate about it and is passionate about food (way to man’s heart is thru stomach). He goes beyond his call of duty to make the foodies like me happy and attached to him. And of course is doing a great service to the brand of that hotel. One can see him working passionately in Radisson, Guwahati, with always a smile on his face. Well done Chef Gautam, you are a gem of a person !!