Ever wondered what is the most important person of the country is having right now? Not that you can ever know the complete details, but in my interaction with chef Machindra Kasture, first chef For President Of India, I learned that it takes hours of planning to present just one meal on the table. The President is not always dining alone, he often has other VVIPs from other countries for company, so the pressure doubles, but there is hardly any time in the kitchen to sit and mull about it. You have to be prepared with EVERYTHING in your pantry to make sure every special request is catered to. There is no choice but to deliver, the stakes are as high as they can be. In a career spanning almost 40 years, chef M Kasture has served a gamut of high-profile guests from former US President Barrack Obama to UN secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon. He is also the recipient of Nation Tourism award for the Best Chef of India in 2016. He started working in Rashtrapati Bhavan as Executive Chef in 2007 on deputation from ITDC and served Ms. Pratibha Patil and Mr. Pranab Mukherjee. He is currently the executive chef of The Ashok, New Delhi. We sat down with the chef extraordinaire for a freewheeling chat and some inside secrets. Excerpts...

Q. What kind of special instructions did you operate within the Rashtrapati Bhawan and the Parliament?

We had plenty of special instructions. Everything was screened and double-checked. We were entrusted with a huge responsibility. For each dish, we had to give our personal touch but also be mindful of special diet, personal likes, dislikes etc. Those sorts of things we kept into account while planning.  

Q. You have cooked for some of the highest dignitaries. Did you have a fan moment

It is not possible to have a ‘fan moment’ as such. These VIPs are under strict security, there is limited time to interact, they place the order and you have to swing into action immediately. This is standard practice, and there are reasons for the same. So, we have to be on our toes, very attentive to their requirements; their special meals, preferences, their colleagues and family members’ preferences, etc. Many times you think you would be preparing for one or two people, but they may have VVIP guests over so planning ahead is key.  

Q. If you could recall any bizarre or unusual request you ever had to cater to?

Unusual requests never because everything has to be planned in advance. So unusual requests are very rare to come by, something that would take us by surprise. I had to take care of all the formal banquets at the President’s house, so once a King was visiting and our president would always tell us that whenever we go abroad, we are taken care of very properly and hence we should also serve as the perfect hosts. If we serve Indian food, if required it could be modified in a way that it caters to the palate of person who is used to eating continental. So for this King, we have planned an Indian menu, with a few modifications of course, but it was conveyed to us that the VIP, who happened to be a chief guest at an event, does not eat Indian food at all. So, at the last moment, I had to plan a continental meal. So sometimes they can make a demand that is out of the ordinary, but you have to be prepared in all the aspects.

Q. When did you start cooking and decide to be a chef?

If you take into account all the aspects, then I started cooking in college. That was when I made my first proper meal, but before that also, I would love to help my mother in the house. She would send me to market for buying vegetables, spices, and other raw materials. That time I could hardly process why she was so particular about all the ingredients, where to buy, how to buy, how to cut, how to store whole grains, rice, veggies etc. It was only in a matter of time that I figured out why all these things are important. I used to help her in cooking also. Like in Diwali, we would prepare sweets and namkeen at home itself, or in certain functions where we would prepare special mutton curry, that would be a collaborative effort. So consciously or unconsciously, she was helping me reach closer to my dream. I did not plan on becoming a chef, back in the day, only women used to cook in the house, but I used to help my mother with basic things like tadka. She would tell me that if you go outside to live or study, you must know all of this, and that I believe is so true. Everyone must know how to cook, regardless of gender. Not to show off your skills, but for your own survival, it is critical.  

Q. What is your comfort food, something you would cook very often.  

I enjoy various cuisines. I like Chinese, I like continental, chicken, fish, mushroom cooked in a good sauce... I don’t have special preferences as such. I am very rooted so I am often cooking Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati food also, I basically cook everything. I feel balance is very important. So, if you ask me, in terms of what evokes a sweet nostalgia, then it would be Marathi food, since that is what I ate the most growing up. Vadas used to be a very common feature in my house, so I find myself gravitate towards that a lot, but every state has its specialty, and I enjoy them all.  

Q. How often do you cook for your family, and are the expectations always high?

Yes, because almost all my experiments whether it was a new entrée, dessert or main course were tried on them first. So, it was a two-way association (laughs). So sometimes both my son and my daughter who are very foodie, would make demands, like I want continental today or something ‘new’, and I had to oblige.

Q. We have not heard much about Ms. Pratibha Patil and Mr. Pranab Mukherjee’s likes and dislikes when it came to food. What did their meals look like?

Both the presidents ate very differently. Madam was pure vegetarian, she would not even have eggs, whereas late Mr. Pranab Mukherjee was a non-vegetarian and he used to love his fish a lot. Being a Bengali, he knew his fish, he used to love all items I would prepare using fish, it could be any kind of preparation, dry, gravy. I cooked something with caviar once, and he seemed to like it a lot. Even when there were restrictions from experts, he would try to insist and convince them if he could have even one slice of fish. Madam was a hardcore vegetarian, so any vegetarian item from any part of the country whether it was North Indian-based or South Indian-based would work for her.  

Q. What are the challenges you have had to face as a chef and something all chefs, new and old should keep in mind  

First of all, I am eternally grateful to ITDC (India Tourism Development Cooperation) for all the opportunities. It has been a long journey, but so fulfilling.  

As far as challenges are concerned, you know everybody is a critic and everybody is a fan when it comes to food, I wish they could be more articulate. If you don’t like anything, what is it that is bugging you. Simply saying the dish is not good doesn’t help the diner and certainly not the chef who has prepared so much before presenting that one portion of food. Being a chef has its share of challenges, we work on holidays, on weekends, for hours. Unlike in regular office, you cannot postpone today’s work for tomorrow. We have to plan in advance, procure ingredients, execute it. The job looks very glamorous, but sometimes, it is a thankless job.  

Q. Do you have any particular advice for budding chefs?

People are showing a lot of interest in cooking nowadays, everybody is a chef now, especially in this pandemic. In my view, the best chef is an excellent cook first, he/she who can conceive a complete meal. There should be a purpose of every ingredient you use, whether it is for taste, colour or texture, you should try to retain its beauty. While I have nothing against, this new trend of fusion food, it is a good idea for authenticity to take center stage. An authentic butter chicken and dal makhani and Bengali fish curry will always have takers. Of course, play with food, be creative but do not tamper with it. For example, in a butter chicken, you need a set amount of ingredients, if you are using all of these; you should expect the same charm and magic of butter chicken and not a completely different dish.

Today, chefs have more support, there’s modern equipment, social media etc. There’s pressure, I understand, to be innovative, but the soul of the food should always remain intact.

I believe food is medicine. A balanced meal can do wonders, and there are plenty of ways you can ensure that. Simplicity is underrated here but never undermine its value. I would suggest everyone, even if they don’t cook personally if you eat well and stay active you can save up a lot on those hospital and chemist bills.