The interminable lockdowns and work from homes have spawned myriad chefs all over the world. Social media is flooded with pictures of delicacies prepared by these budding chefs. Getting your cookbook out, and dishing up something fancy is a great way to beat the lockdown blues, nevermind the waistline. Just like visual and performing artists need an appreciative audience, food artists need connoisseur patrons. Not being blessed by the muse either in performing or culinary arts, I try to redeem myself by being a good patron. The problem these days is, it is much harder to beat the blues by the memory of comfort food. Be that as it may, that is what I must do—remember good food times, and derive my comfort from that warm memory.
Every culture celebrates its food with enthusiasm and vigour. Actually, food is culture. I sometimes get the opportunity to take out some time during my travels, from my work engagements, and sample what the host state or country has to offer. My only (some might say, huge) limitation is that I am a ‘pure vegetarian’, which limits my sampling to a large extent. Folks, everywhere that I have been in the world, have made special efforts to tweak their native cuisine offering to accommodate my food preferences. Purists may laugh at me, saying I have not tasted the real thing. Maybe so. But I have succeeded in accumulating a treasure trove of memories, both for my taste buds, and my affable soul.
One such sweet memory is from a trip to France a couple of years ago. We were on a learning trip, understanding the institutional and regulatory system for food safety. Every meal that was offered clearly showed the effort that had gone into serving a balance of tastes to the not-so- adventurous Indians. After all, cooked and presented the way the French do it, the humble eggplant assumes the epicurean stature of the ratatouille!
The icing on the macaroon was a brief visit to the city of Lyon. The historical city was a visual delight. We were treated to a dinner made and presented beautifully by celebrated chef Christian Tetedoie. While his signature dishes involved lobsters and heads of calves, I was happy with the asparagus and mushroom creation he artfully presented as our entrée. The restaurant itself was perched on a hill, and provided a magnificent view of the entire city at night. The chef’s fame was such that the ‘gastronomique’ restaurant itself was named ‘Tetedoie’. The greatest indulgence of the evening for us was the chef himself, who came and chatted with us. He mourned the loss of his guide and mentor, Paul. He searched my face when he mentioned the name. I expressed my condolences, but had the sneaky feeling that I am supposed to know of Paul, and about Paul, and I am just not getting it.
The next day, after our official engagements were over, we rushed to the train station, our host urging us to make haste, as the town was shut due to the demise of some celebrity. We managed to catch the train, just in time. After I settled down in my seat, I courteously nodded at my neighbour. He was a distinguished gentleman, dressed in a flamboyant grey suit of the highest quality. His leather-trimmed fedora, resting casually on his knee, and his checkered green scarf seemed to have been homed, recently until then, in a high-end store on the Champs-Élysées. As the train sped smoothly towards Paris, we struck up a conversation. He was in Lyon, he told me, to attend the funeral of the celebrity chef, Paul Bocuse. “Ah! Tetedoie’s Paul,” I realised. “Are you in the food business yourself?” I asked. “No,” he replied, a little taken aback. Turned out, he was a successful businessman.
My neighbour pointed to the colourful pin he was sporting on his lapel. The pin had the figure of the chef himself and the French colours on a banner in the backdrop. By now, I was intrigued. I asked him if Bocuse could be the same person who Tetedoie was alluding to. Of course, he said, the whole nation is in mourning. The whole country was mourning the passing away of a chef? He then handed me a small booklet. It was the schedule of the funeral service of Paul Bocuse, with an obituary published by the Unesco, with tributes from heads of states, distinguished personalities from all walks of life, and chefs from all over the world. I realised that our visit coincided with a truly momentous occasion in French history. The restaurant where he exhibited his art, and the culinary institute founded by him serve as a pilgrimage site for lovers of food from all over the world.
I left the country with a deep appreciation for a culture where food, and its creators are accorded the same reverence and appreciation as those in the performing and visual arts. To be celebrated, replicated with due credit, not plagiarised, and cherished for generations.