The Canada-based photographer specialises in nature and wildlife
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OT: You were associated with the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). How did you transition from fashion to cooking?
Sumeet Nair: My wife Gitanjali Kashyap was into fashion and I also got involved in the business of it. I had my own manufacturing unit and was exporting to Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and others. That is when we decided to have a council and, in 1998, FDCI was born. I was the executive director and continued with the council till 2007-08. But even though fashion was work, food has always been a passion. I am a Punjabi and grew up in a family which was obsessed with food. I always wanted to take this passion to the next level.
OT: How did that next level come about?
Sumeet Nair: I have to thank my cook on the farm for that. I realised that if I wanted good food, I would have to cook it myself, as I didn’t like what was being cooked. I have a collection of 600 cookbooks and they were my bedtime stories. I enjoy trying new food. I am a food junkie.
OT: What made you write the book The Bangala Table: Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad?
Sumeet Nair: A friend suggested that we go to Tamil Nadu on vacation. There, we explored Madurai, Rameshwaram and other places. Then we reached Karaikudi, where we stayed at The Bangala. It had this long table and food was served on banana leaves. The flavours, the textures, the juxtaposition of sweet flavours with sour and more, made it a mindblowing experience. I had to document this cuisine. I had never written and it took a while to convince Meenakshi Meyyappan, the person behind the hotel. I have co-authored it with her and Jill Donenfeld. It took about three years and extensive sessions with the cooks to finish this book.
OT: Tell us about those cook-out sessions at your farm in Chhattarpur?
Sumeet Nair: I was cooking for friends. My friends, Inder Duggal and Shanti Kohli, run an inbound tour agency, Amber Tours. They had international clients and wanted to give them an Indian experience. They asked me to do a cook-out for them. I was quite apprehensive about it, as I am a fairly private person. But it turned out to be an amazing experience. They loved the home-made meal.
OT: You also did a cook-out for a group which had come for the Tasting Symposium, which was held in Delhi. Any other groups you are associating with for this?
Sumeet Nair: I wouldn’t like to go to a lot of groups for this. It is a lot of work. I like to do my sessions in the open—so they are seasonal. It’s not the same experience indoors. Normally, we start at 11.30am with masala chai and snacks, and sometimes the session finishes at 8pm. We have had the CEO of Netflix Reed Hastings with his vice presidents over. The Tasting Symposium had journalists from 12 countries. The cook-out sessions are exciting. I always offer Indian stuff such as drip coffee, masala chai and rice beer. We grow a lot of veggies and herbs on the farm, so we are sure of those flavours.
OT: What’s next?
Sumeet Nair: I am working on a book on Creole cuisine. I was approached by Kiran Rao, who runs Amethyst in Chennai, to document this cuisine. This was popular in Puducherry and is a mix of the local and French cuisine, but it’s dying and I think the time is ripe to preserve the regional cuisine.
OT: Which places are you going to visit in the future? What do you usually bring back?
Sumeet Nair: I am going to San Sebastian in Spain and will experience its regional cuisine. We travel to all parts of the country. I had the most amazing fish curry in Gokarna in Karnataka. I collect mortars and pestles from all over.
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