Two time Gourmand Award winner and leading food stylist, Michael Swamy comes from a family of food lovers. The author of several cook books tells Abid Mohammed about his latest experiments in the kitchen and wanting to become a vet, among other things
As a child, were you fussy about food?
Absolutely! I think every kid is fussy about food. Our taste buds evolve as we grow up. However, the fussiness reduced because at a certain point my parents stepped in and taught me to try new things and appreciate new flavours and textures in food. There came quite a shocking, frustrating stage during the early growing up years when suddenly Mum would say “If you don’t like what you’re eating, tough luck! This is what you’re getting.” It became easier later though, as both she and Dad would coax me into trying something new by telling me that it was the most delicious thing ever!
Is there any food item that you do not like?
I do have a very strong dislike for anything overly sweet, overly greasy or overly spicy – particularly dishes where the vegetable or protein is masked completely by spices. I like to be able to taste the vegetables or meat without it being hidden under a mountain of spice.
When did you decide to become a chef?
I think it was around the time school life was coming to a close and we started seriously thinking about what I was to do for a living. I grew up watching and hero worshipping Martin Yan (Yan Can Cook) and Keith Floyd (The Floyd Series) and wanted to be a TV chef like them. So Mum insisted that in order to be a “TV” chef, I needed to become a real chef first and know food in and out – the best advice anybody ever gave me.
What was your family’s reaction to your wanting to be a chef?
As I said earlier, it was my Mum who insisted I become a chef, so there were no qualms about it. My family never followed the typical “doctor-lawyer-engineer” chain of thought. Plus, I think they were happy about me undertaking culinary training because they all love food and a chef in the family meant something new coming out of the kitchen all the time!
Was there anything you wanted to do before starting on this culinary journey?
I always wanted to be a vet. In fact, the only reason I did not become one was that in order to study medicine, one’s Math and Science scores were considered and my math was pathetic. So when I realised that I’ll have to brush up my Math, I decided to go with dream number 2, which was equally important – TV chef! But my love for animals and wildlife lingered too and so as a chef, I do my bit by conducting workshops where I fuse cooking with wildlife conservation.
Given a chance, which talent would you most like to possess?
Singing, and the ability to be able to tell people that I can read their eyes and know whether they are genuine or out to use me. I believe in helping people so I help them regardless of their intent towards me, but yes, it would be nice to let the other person know right at the onset that I’m no fool.
You are also an author and a photographer. Tell us more about it?
Books have always been an important source of knowledge, entertainment and solace – particularly cook books as the pictures within would make me hungrier! But I always found many cook books to be complicated.
When I got the opportunity to do a book myself, I decided now was the chance to make cooking simple for people. This need to simplify food drove me to writing more books. That’s how the author in me grew. And photography, well… I have always been fascinated by the camera. Somehow things have always seemed more beautiful when seen through a good lens. I walk around noticing the various shades of light. I love capturing images. They record moments that tell a story and this then translates into words that get penned down. Writing for me, is also a medium of telling my stories to the world. Putting my food on a plate tells a short story. The words and images leave behind a legacy.
Do these skills help and overlap with your culinary work?
They do in many ways. As a chef-cum-photographer, I don’t have to rely on photographers and stylists, when creating my own books. It’s all done in-house. Not only have I photographed and styled food for my own books but also for many others – all of them award-winning.
In fact, I recently won a Gourmand Award for food photography of a cook book called “Rare Gems, a non vegetarian gourmet collection from Maharashtra.” Most importantly, it helps me plate my food better. I’ve also recently launched my own restaurant, NUEVA and we are already receiving tons of great feedback about how much the people love how the food looks, apart from the taste, of course.
Where did you train as a chef?
I learned my basic culinary skills at Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai and then went on to do my advanced diploma at the Le Cordon Blue in London.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
It’s very much French, but adapted to local ingredients. My cooking is based on a combination of technique, flavour and look rather than ingredients.
Do you have a signature dish or favourite dish you enjoy cooking?
I have many! I love cooking with alcohol and beer. They are already well-flavoured liquid mediums and add lots of flavour to the food. My most recent favourite is lamb cooked in beerwith a touch of mint. I’m still perfecting it, but it’s definitely my new comfort dish.
What trends are you seeing in food today, and which are you most excited by?
The current trend of pairing cocktails with food rather than a single wine or whisky excites me. Many Michelin restaurants are also following this trend of making mocktails famous – alcohol is no longer the fashion statement in the beverage industry. The purpose is to encourage people to enjoy themselves without getting drunk. Another trend I like is of the fine dining space doing away with tiny portions. Again, I’ve applied this at NUEVA because I believe in giving great food and value for money to people in a way that they don’t have to go home and eat a second meal because they’re still hungry. But my most favourite is the farm-to-fork trend where people are growing microgreens and baby greens or vegetables in their homes and eating them literally farm fresh.
Are there any ingredients that have fallen out of fashion for you?
Caviar and Foie Gras. They harm animals and if you look at the larger picture, they are harming the environment too. The use of endangered species and genetically modified food is something I abhor. I don’t get enticed by vegetables or fruits that look huge and picture perfect (despite my being a stylist) because they lack flavour and nutrients. Not to mention that people get sick eating them.
Tell us about your projects that are currently underway.
My restaurant NUEVA is the newest project as of now and is keeping me super busy. It’s the first restaurant in the country serving South American cuisine – not just Peruvian, all of South American. It also has a take on my signature dishes. Plus there is one more book in the pipeline.
Who are the other chefs you admire?
There are many – celebrity and those who have not yet seen the limelight. However, if I were to list my favourites, I would say Marco Pierre White, Heston Bluementhal and Paul Bocuse because I have been able to learn a lot from them.
What should people ideally eat in summers?
I would say, cooling foods like salads, plenty of fruits and greens and some rice. I feel meats should be avoided not only because they take longer to digest but also because there is a certain risk factor – particularly in Indian summers.
What’s your favourite street food?
Corn on the cob. For one, I love having it during the monsoons. Two, over the years, my stomach seems to have grown old and quickly reacts to the stuff I loved as a teenager like frankies and kebabs. Corn on the cob smeared liberally with lime juice, rock salt and chilli is currently the safest street food I can have.
Which is your favourite city when it comes to food?
Every city I travel to has offered something unique. However, the food scene in London and Miami is something I love. And I would love to go experience the Paris food scene first hand. Someday soon hopefully.
Feelings March 2017