White House Top Chef on Michelle’s Kitchen Garden & Justin Trudeau’s Chef of Indian Origin Talks Sustainability Over Late Lunch with Le Club des Chefs des Chefs at Bukhara
WHEN Cristeta Comerford became the first woman and member of a minority community to be appointed Executive Chef of the White House, the media reported that she got her job because of the way she handled the state dinner that George W. Bush had hosted in honour of the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005.
If Comerford has an Indian angle to her story, her counterpart in neighbn ouring Canada, the ponytailed Neil Dhawan, has a family tie with India — his father is of Indian origin and a graduate of the prestigious Dadar Catering College (now known as IHM Mumbai). Dhawan was appointed earlier this year as the personal chef of his country’s charismatic Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who does yoga, breaks into bhangra in ethnic clothes and digs Asian food. The offices they hold entitle them to become members of Le Club des Chefs des Chefs and they are in New Delhi for the general assembly of their super exclusive club, which now has a membership count of a mere 22
A Laura Bush appointee, Comerford, who had studied Food Technology at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, moved to the United States with her family in 1983 when she was 21. Today, she lives in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Columbia, Maryland, which has been rated by CNN Money as one of the ten best places to live in America. Columbia also has a substantial Indian population and Comerford’s neighbour is an Indian restaurant owner.
We were sharing a table at Bukhara, ITC Maurya’s iconic restaurant, where they had come from Khari Baoli, the spice market at Chandni Chowk, to dig the kebabs dished out by Executive Chef J.P. Singh and his team. Dhawan said he joined the Trudeau residence earlier this year after working at the British High Commissioner’s official home in Ottawa, and at Farm Boy, a chain of upscale grocery stores selling organic and sustainably farmed produce, where he presided over its kitchen serving home-style to people who wish to eat on the go.
Sustainability therefore was on top of Dhawan’s mind. Chef de Cuisine Manisha Bhasin of ITC Maurya explained to him how the hotel was committed to local sourcing and zero-carbon footprint menus. She said that the surge of interest in sustainably produced, locally sourced ingredients was parallel to the growth of restaurants serving regional cuisines. Every Sunday, her team visits the organic produce market at Malcha Marg and buys stocks paying cash down, letting go, just to give organic farmers a leg up, of the mandatory credit period that the hotel insists on when dealing with its top suppliers.
At the White House, too, it’s literally farm to table. Thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama‘s Let’s Move initiative to promote healthy eating among children, the White House Kitchen Garden has become the talk of the world. Initiated by the First Lady in 2009, the 2,800-square-foot garden produces 2,000 pounds of vegetables, herbs and fruits for the White House. And Comerford is happy to report that the Obamas are very good eaters and fresh garden vegetables, from squashes and okra to carrots and kale, figure in a big way on their table, even if they ate with visiting dignitaries, other influential people and their personal friends.
Comerford was loving the food at Bukhara (Dhawan had to move to another table to talk to a journalist, so he missed the meal) and she wanted to know more about each item — the size of the ajwaini prawns surprised her and she asked for the recipe of Dal Bukhara, even as she watched the constant stirring of the dal in a massive deghchi with a look of awe.
Comerford passed on the extra prawns on her plate to the Le Club President, Christian Garcia, Chef of Prince Albert II of Monaco, and he accepted them with glee — the prawns were clearly the stars of the evening. She spoke about her love for Indian food and said she looked forward to her meals at two famous Washington, D.C. restaurants — Ashok Bajaj’s Rasika and K.N. Vinod and Surfy Rahman’s Indique Heights (lately reborn in a new location as Indique).
Dhawan, meanwhile, got photographers clicking away as he took a bite into Bukhara’s famous family naan — Chef JP, in reply to a question from the Canadian chef, said 1.3 kilos of dough went into make it. Needless to say, the naan was much photographed — as were the chefs, who were in high spirits. The colours, the aromas and the crowds had clearly left a visible impression on them.