He’s a chef who believes in creating not just dishes but essence of life. Unsurprisingly, his love for “creation” has found him donning a variety of roles that range from a food stylist to a writer to a photographer and off lately, a restaurateur. Chef Michael Swamy was #InTheLounge and our chat couldn’t have got more interesting!
He was pleasantly undiplomatic and had no qualms in calling spade a spade. Swamy had almost no inhibitions to share the behind-the-scene culture at the cook-off reality shows in India and how Indian chefs don’t see eye to eye as, according to him, there’s stiff competition among them.
In our 40-minute talk, I could feel it hasn’t been a cakewalk for Michael. He’s somebody who isn’t just name and fame but also a simple person who hides a child-like curiosity to explore and do more, not just for his own self, but also for the industry and most importantly, humanity.
Excerpts from the no-filter conversation:
What made you love food so much so that you wanted to turn your passion into profession?
The ‘tea’ culture at home and popular TV chefs Keith Floyd and Wan – made me fall in love with food. I wanted to be a TV Chef like them. I am from a family of documentary filmmakers and was always surrounded by camera, sets, studios & crew. My mom said, “If you want to be a TV chef then learn how to be a chef first.” And that began my journey.
So you wanted to be famous?
(Changes tone and facial expressions) No! I didn’t want to be famous. I just wanted to be a chef on TV. The want to be famous wasn’t there that time. I got into food styling, photography and setting up restaurants. I used to meet a lot of chefs during work and because of that I developed the interest for food even more.
You’re a Chef, writer, food stylist and now a restaurateur, what role do you enjoy the most & why?
(Takes a pause, thinks) Creating. I love creating dishes! When you’re in the kitchen, you can’t really create. When you’re outside it, sit with your team and discuss creations – that’s when I enjoy the most, the time I am creating an atmosphere around food.
You have worked with an array of brands, which has been your favourite and why?
My favourite has always been the BBC team. They are very professional and exact. When I worked with Masterchef, it was really haphazard. They had outsourced the production and production houses are usually very unprofessional.
One experience with your client/customer you will never forget…
We did a shoot for Badshah Masala and the owner is a Jain. I asked him, “How come you, being a Jain, make meat masala, fish masala…” “But we have to make money, no!?” was the reply. That day my whole perception for business changed. It shows that people are in the business not for their passion but money. Passion is secondary. And there are a lot of like those in the industry and that is where one loses out.
Would you choose money over passion?
(Vehemently) I doubt. I doubt I can do that. See, food is about passion because you’re dealing with customers, relationships and if it’s about the money, your restaurant will never do well. If it’s about the passion, the money will come.
But isn’t Nueva, having Latin American cuisine all about playing around on the USP?
Yes and No. The South American food is also chilly-oriented and we, Indians, love our spices. So am not giving them something which is alien to them in a way. The style of presentation and cooking is different. So it still is about the food.
Has there been a moment when you lamented being a Chef?
(Promptly) Yes, there was. When I was doing Masterchef for Star Plus, I questioned my decision. We took two unknown chefs and made them famous – contestants who came out of the show thinking they were chefs but they never were. I realized that it was a false world that we were creating. We literally taught Pankaj Bhadouria how to boil eggs on the show! Shipra Khanna made Batata Vadas in the auditions. Throughout the show we groomed them and at the end of it they come out of the show saying they are “chefs” but they are not, they don’t even know the meaning of the word ‘chef’. That’s the time I asked myself what I am really doing. We worked and slogged but nobody looks at the real chefs.
Okay, so does it hurt to not be in the limelight, seeing the undeserving ones get it?
Yes, most of the chefs do feel hurt about it. They have slogged so much yet not getting recognition. In my line of work, I make sure that they are given recognition.
You think there’s a certain level of competition among chefs in India?
(Loudly) Yes! The competition is very high. They are very envious of each other. It is very bad! There are moments when you question the worthiness of all the glamour. I don’t think I will let myself become selfish.
What do you like to cook the most?
I love doing pastas, desserts and ice-creams.
Sweet! Is it because there’s much sweetness in you? A connection there?
(Laughs) I guess so. But Pastas are my favourite, I love doing a variety of sauces.
What’s your idea of me-time?
Every couple of months I go into the jungles. Either I go to Kanha, Corbett or Bandhavgarh. Corbett is by far my favourite. I love to look for Tigers and birds. I take one week of relaxation and come back.
How do you make an effort to keep yourself grounded?
I try to get rid of the attitude. Even when I go out, I try to be nice, kind and gentle. You can’t feel superior to anyone because tomorrow if you are left with no restaurant or books, you’re a nobody! The day you realize it, that’s the day you become a better chef or a celebrity.
What satisfies you and what doesn’t?
I am satisfied with things that make me happy. I am unsatisfied about the fact that progressive Indian cuisine and our own local home food is still not on the global map and I want to see it there.
What is that one thing you want to change about the food industry in India?
We have to stop giving into the customer. As chefs we should be able to say, “This is my creation and here it is on the plate. Whether you like it or you don’t like it, it still is my creation.” Why should we change Indian cuisines to suit a mindset?
Hmm… What gives you poise in life?
Working for a purpose and taking other chefs along with me.
But what if they don’t want to come along, do you feel bad?
I do feel bad because I see their talent but they don’t see it.
Do you feel lonely at times?
(Emphatically) Yes. 60% of the times. Everybody is in their own little world and you are in a world where you are trying to get them out of their comfort zone. You help people but sometimes they don’t reciprocate. That’s the time it really hurts!
What’s your food for the soul?
When I was young, it used to be pea and potato curry. Now, my go-to food is Brun Pao or Kadak Pao. You only get it in Mumbai or Goa.
What’s that thing about you that you don’t want the world to know?
I am a very shy and introvert person and I like my own private space but at the same time I can’t let the world know that because they expect you to be available, attend events and do social things…
Why, you think they’ll take advantage of you?
Yes, they may.
Can you describe the feeling you get when you indulge in writing?
It is a kind of a release because you are stifled on a routine basis due to work pressure. So when I go to home in the evening, sit down and write, it acts as a stressbuster.
What are those moments when you want to be left alone…
When I am in my creative mode, I’d probably go and sit down to a café next door because I don’t want to be disturbed. If there’s a thought I want to work on and I don’t want to lose it, then I just want to be by myself.
I have read your poetry on social media, I find them very intense and interesting… So, you’re a poet at heart…
Yes (smiles). My experiences inspire me to write. There was an old lady who came at the restaurant once and she was quite drunk and her mannerisms weren’t okay in first place and on the contrary, her husband wrote a nasty feedback later. It miffed me and I turned that entire incident into a poem.
Is pain inevitable for poetry?
No. You just have to have experiences.
Your most heartfelt personal achievement and why?
That I live in now. I recently had to see my friends after 30 years and I drove all the way to Kasauni. It was impromptu and unplanned. I like to live that way!
One thing about India that West can never emulate?
The passion and love we have for people. If someone comes to your home, you welcome them here in India but it’s not like that abroad. Family is secondary there, unlike India. You need emotions otherwise you become lonely.
Does glamour around food excite you?
It does. Glamour around food excites one simply because it is about emotions and feelings. For me, it happens to an extent as I’m an introvert.
Do you fear change?
No, there has already been tremendous change. When guests used to visit our house, I used to run to some corner and hide because I didn’t want to meet anyone, not even my cousins. My mother and her friends were my only closest friends.
Do you think there’s a contradiction here. You’re a public figure today and yet you say you have been an introvert. How did you pull it off?
Yes! I don’t know how (takes a pause and smiles) It’s just… (pauses again) I think I managed it. Earlier, it used to be an emotional stress to step up and talk to somebody. I was scared of people judging me when I used to speak publicly. Eventually, I got used to the drill with regular workshops, interactions and I realized we are all just same.
Did you change yourself for your profession or it happened on its own?
I had to change myself.
Were you comfortable changing yourself?
Yes. I was very comfortable but I still like my quiet moments. Probably go on a date but then too, I end up at a restaurant where people know me! (laughs)
Have you ever come across a moment when you realized your work changed someone’s life?
A noticed a young spot boy in the production team of Masterchef. He wasn’t educated. I groomed him for four years and today he can handle shoots on his own. It’s an achievement for me.
Do you like to eat more or cook?
Eat because I can try out new flavours, creations of new chefs.
Who do you want to be in your next birth?
Any unfulfilled dreams?
Yes, I want to be a TV Chef. I want to own a show. It has been my childhood dreams and remains unfulfilled.
Quote you swear by…
Dream something big and live it!
Interview originally published for The CEO Magazine.