Michelin-Starred Chefs Share Life Stories at Master Classes on Eve of CSSG Charity Gala
DELHI has been exulting in the company of Michelin-starred chefs from Europe and their hated counterparts from Australia. They have been brought together by the inimitable Anand Kapoor, who heads the non-profit Creative Services Support Group (CSSG), which has been spotting young people from underprivileged backgrounds and giving them their first career breaks.
Four of these chefs, who’ll be preparing a 12-course charity dinner for American Express card holders tonight at The Leela Palace, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, spent an entire day conducting master classes for 22 members of the Delhi Gourmet Club on October 2. It gave us the opportunity to find out more about their amazing stories. What I thought was most striking about the four chefs was their choice of career. In the case of all four of them, it was certainly not what they had wanted to do since the time they were growing up. What, then, were they doing before the kitchen lured them into charting out a career and achieving fame?
His Marque restaurant in Sydney’s hipster suburb, Surry Hills, has got just about every accolade in the business (including three hats from the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide), but Mark Best started his working life as an electrician in the gold mines of Western Australia, “living in a tiny town with nothing around it for 800 miles”. After working underground for four years with “a thousand smelly miners”, at age 25, Best decided to become a chef and started an apprenticeship with a restaurant named Macleay Street Bistro at Potts Point, a gentrified suburb of Sydney, whose list of famous residents reads like a who’s who of Australia.
Best’s Australian counterpart, Ian Curley, who’s as famous for his charities and his rugged humour as for Melbourne’s European, where he oversees four venues and three kitchens, was “getting into trouble” with the police by the time he was 16 in home city Coventry in the West Midlands, England. Restaurant kitchens in Australia, as he lightly put it, offered him a chance to get out of Coventry, get a job and meet “lovely girls”.
Having grown up in the hard knocks school of life (“it took me 30 years to become an overnight sensation,” he said), Curley has no patience for young chefs “who watch Masterchef and think they are pop stars”, but he has all the time for the homeless and young criminals, for many of whom he has successfully found employment in kitchens across Melbourne. I was also impressed by his very down-to-earth view of charity. “You give some, you get some back,” he said, pointing out how his charities get him TV time (you’ll see him in a couple of weeks as a celebrity judge on Masterchef Australia Season 5), which is turn gets him customers and keeps his till busy.
From the other side of the world, Frances Atkins, who was the first British woman chef to get a Michelin star in 2003 (since then, just five other women have joined her exclusive club), started cooking when she was a child because her mother, a pianist, had very little time for the kitchen. When she grew up and announced her desire to become a professional chef, her father insisted that she should first get a real education.
She enrolled in management school and got a degree just to satisfy her father, but immediately thereafter plunged headlong into a career in cooking. Today, she runs six restaurants, but it is as head chef and co-owner of Yorke Arms, a restaurant with rooms in the picturesque village of Ramsgill-in-Nidderdale, Yorkshire, that she has attained her celebrity status and won accolades for her style of game cooking.
And then there was Roger Pizey, who looks somewhat like an absent-minded professor and has a natural warmth that draws you towards him. The celebrated pastry chef of the legendary Marco Pierre White, who hired him after falling in love with his tarte tatin at Le Gavroche, has appeared in the famous television series, Hell’s Kitchen, and has just written his brilliantly informative second book, World’s Best Cakes, which is being distributed in India by Penguin.
Pizey finished school when he was 16 and went to work at a farm a little outside his home city, Manchester, where he was a herdsman tending to 500 cows. He was inspired to change tracks by his nearest neighbour in those sparsely populated parts of England, who was devoted to the late Keith Floyd’s first television series for the BBC, Floyd on Fish, and a pretty decent cook himself. The pleasure the neighbour took in cooking rubbed off on Pizey, who enrolled in a City & Guilds re-training programme for young people and got a kitchen knife and chef’s whites at the end of 12 weeks.
He applied for a job at England’s ten best restaurants, but got an answer only from Le Gavroche, the prestigious establishment run by the Roux brothers. The letter said the restaurant had a two-year waiting list for job applicants, but a position had come up in an Albert Roux restaurant. It was there that Pizey finally found a direction for his career, even though his L67.50 a week apprenticeship made it necessary for him to walk back home, because he could not afford a bus ticket.
Pizey can now afford to look back at those days with a sense of nostalgia. The most placid man I have met in the cooking business, Pizey is into fly fishing and, yes, building rockets — he can make rockets that go up to 6,000 feet, which means he’s quite a pro at his pastime. His first love, though, remains baking. His advice to his students: “If you’re in a good mood, you make a good dessert; if you’re in a bad mood, don’t bother.”