Chef Neel Kajale has worn many hats. He holds a degree from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and has worked at the celebrated 3 Michelin starred restaurant, Eleven Madison Park located in the heart of New York. He has been a part of the opening team for UK chef Atul Kochhar’s NRI - Not Really Indian, and worked with chef Floyd Cardoz’s The Bombay Canteen. Right now he is the Test Kitchen Manager for Haven’s Kitchen, a cooking school, event space, and cafe based out of SoHo, and founded by chef Alison Cayne, who runs the podcast “In the Sauce” on Heritage Radio Network.
Haven's Kitchen is for the nerds who want to cooking demystified. An attempt to enable people to cook more effortlessly without getting stressed, they make a wide range of globally inspired sauces which minimise ingredients, prep time and cooking time. The sauces are vegan, gluten free, keto and paleo certified, non-GMO and made from the freshest ingredients available. Along with managing the new test kitchen that was just set up, Kajale also develops and writes recipes for Haven’s Kitchen, and develops food content for all their social media websites.
We had a chat with him about the life of a test kitchen manager, developing recipes entails, and more.
Tell us more about being a test kitchen manager. What is it all about? Do you have to have an intuitive sense about making things really flavorful and adding the right kinds of flavors?
Being the Test Kitchen manager involves being abreast and up to date with the buzzing trends in the food industry and always trying to develop cool, innovative, and fun content around food for avid foodies to consume. For example, if mac n cheese is trending on Pinterest or TikTok, it would be my responsibility to know about this and work with our content creation and marketing team and write a recipe for mac n cheese using our sauces. Once the recipe is drafted, it would be my responsibility to source the ingredients and click pictures of the dish with the best prop styling and food styling. You cannot be in this industry and hold a position like this without a good knowledge of food, flavors and a formal culinary knowledge or restaurant training. Hence, a large part of this job involves using experience more than an intuitive sense to make the food flavorful and look super appetizing. However, I will not deny that sometimes you do need to rely on your intuition and instinct in the moment to whip up delicious food. Not everything can come from recipes. Sometimes, you just need to trust your gut.
Test Kitchen managers work in the food and media world solely responsible for the content creation around food. Test Kitchen managers are very different from research and development chefs who work on menu development and menu trials in commercial and professional restaurants. Test Kitchen managers don’t influence what you will be eating when you step out for dinner but can definitely impact what videos will pop up in your YouTube suggestion feed for you to learn a new recipe or pick up a new cooking skill.
How do you decide what will make for a good recipe? How do you run it through the test kitchen process before it lands as a final dish on menus? And what has got rejected, and why?
A good recipe must have three essential criteria: Beautiful: The recipe or the dish must look aesthetically stunning and beautiful. After all, you always eat with your eyes first. Delicious: It goes without saying that the dish must be really delectable with robust flavors and great ingredients Meaningful: The recipe written, or the dish cooked must have some purpose and meaning. It cannot be a bunch of random ingredients that have been cooked together and put together on a plate. The final dish must have an intent with a story to tell. Once a particular dish or recipe hits all the criteria, I feel confident that this recipe is good to make it to the social media pages and can be read by other people to try out as well. The rejection for a recipe usually occurs when a particular recipe does not meet one of the three criteria. None of the above-mentioned criteria are compromisable.
Think of test kitchens to be like playgrounds for playing around and trying out new flavor combinations and flavors. But it’s not all fun. Many a times, a recipe that is conceptualized in the head does not turn out to be as beautiful or delicious when you get to cooking it. In that case, it is my job to keep tweaking and modifying a recipe until it is perfected. This usually takes hours or even days to try all possible permutations in getting a recipe to look and taste the way it should be or as it was imagined.
What is a day at The Haven's test kitchen like?
It is a lot of organized fun! Nothing that happens in the Test Kitchen is spontaneous. A lot of thought and planning goes into what we will be writing, cooking, filming, shooting and finally uploading to our social media websites. The day usually starts with me sourcing all the ingredients for a particular day of filming and then going ahead from there on with the process of filming the method of preparing a recipe. Once the recipe is filmed, we have professional pictures taken off the recipe and final changes and edits are made to a recipe before it is finalized and ready to be put out there on the internet.
Recipe development is a thoughtful process. Everything that we do in the kitchen is a result of careful planning and careful anticipation. All the recipes that we develop are all in tandem with what’s trending in the food industry and constructing recipes around seasons and big festivities. For example, since easter is around the corner. The next whole month will be used to develop recipes and content around Easter recipes. Easter is predominantly known for grand and
royal preparations of lamb. My task would now be to develop and write recipes that would use lamb or fall in the theme of Easter using our sauces. It would make no sense to write summer salad recipes during the Easter Holiday season. My job would be to write recipes that the readers would enjoy reading in that season.
You have worked at Eleven Madison Park. It recently turned vegan. Could you tell us more about that? How does a restaurant transform its menu to vegan? And how would it impact the clientele?
It was a proud moment for me to be a part of the reopening team at Eleven Madison Park as we made our big transition to a completely plant-based menu. We had to constantly believe in ourselves and be reminded that what we are doing has not been done before and it is truly the way for fine dining to move ahead. Changing the menu to a plant-based one, that too at a restaurant like Eleven Madison Park was a monumental challenge. Only when you decide to cook with purely plant-based food, is when you realize how much you are completely reliant on animal byproducts. The only way we were able to achieve what we did was because of the amazing research and development for all the menu trials that were conducted in the Kitchen before the reopening of the restaurant. Deciding to go completely vegan or plant-based can impact the clientele in many ways! Suddenly your doors open for the vegan population, and you can now cater to a larger crowd of diners.