The Making of a Celebrity Chef

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Former model Aditya Bal has hosted popular television cookery shows and even has a recipe book to his name. But guess what: less than a decade ago, he did not even know how to cook

Aditya Bal, model-turned-television chef, makes you believe in the notion that anyone can cook. As a student of English Literature in Delhi University—“because I did not make the mark for a B Com”—a career in food was never on the horizon. How could it possibly be when he didn’t even know how to cook?

During his university days, in fact, life took him in a completely different direction—he got a modelling assignment, his first, from fashion designer Ashish Soni. Without any specific plan in mind, he accepted, and soon, he was walking the ramp with the likes of Dino Morea and John Abraham.

Incidentally also designer Rohit Bal’s nephew, Aditya’s modelling career spanned eight years, during which time he worked on campaigns for brands such as Liberty, Maruti and Levi’s. Like any other model, he then tried to make a transition to Bollywood. “I did it because I didn’t know where I fit in. You want a career, but nobody really takes you seriously cerebrally. You want to do what you know best, be in front of the camera. So you kind of just go with the flow until you can make your own path,” he says.

In 2005, he bagged a film called Mashooka alongside Meghna Naidu, but it sank without a trace. On a particularly frustrating day when he felt nothing was working for him, Aditya turned to some recipe books. Eventually, he found himself spending more and more time in the kitchen, and before long realised that he had an aptitude for cooking and that this is where his true passion lay.

“In the end, it’s all about how badly you want something. Bollywood was not something that I really wanted. I was very fortunate cooking happened,” he says, sipping on beer at a Gurgaon restaurant. Aditya moved to Delhi a week ago to prepare for the launch of a world cuisine restaurant that he will now be heading. “All I can tell you right now is that it’s going to be produce-based and totally fresh and exciting,” he says.

Now that the 37-year-old has made the shift from modelling to being a television chef, that too one about to head his own restaurant, he feels that his career transformation has been odd but not altogether unbelievable. He had no formal training but so what?

Spontaneity has always led him in life. After he decided that he wanted to cook, he took off for Goa, where he worked at a friend’s restaurant for two years, honing his skills in Continental cuisine and also understanding the dynamics of the restaurant business. At the end of his apprenticeship, he found himself back in Mumbai looking for a job. Hotel kitchens did not bother with him since he had no formal training. “Being a chef is almost like being in the Army. You need immense discipline; there are no 20 ways to work your way up.” In any case, Aditya had by then realised that restaurants did not pay too well.

He was right back where he started. That is when he turned to his friend, the celebrity television chef Marut Sikka, for advice. Sikka told him to approach a television network. Three months after he auditioned with NDTV, Chakhle India, his own show, made its debut.

The show—part travelogue, part guide and part cookery—involved his travelling across the country. The only glitch was that he had never cooked Indian food before. “I thought to myself that since I was a cook, I should be able to cook anything. So I taught myself how to work with Indian cuisine,” he says.

Aditya is now so confident of his skills that he has started going with his own instinct while creating a dish. “My time on Chakhle India and Kaccha Raasta was invaluable because it taught me how to watch and learn, to go with my instinct and follow my palate to come up with a dish.” Of all the cuisines that he experimented with, the ones he found most tricky were Mughlai and Chettinad since the flavours were alien to him. “But with time and patience, I taught myself well,” he claims.

Of the 200 odd episodes of Chakhle, for which he travelled across the country, his most memorable was the time he spent at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. He’s never likely to forget the images of the community kitchen, with its huge simmering cauldrons of dal and thousands of rotis, even as people sat around waiting and helping.

Though being a television chef looks fairly easy, Aditya says it is a job that requires a certain level of skill and spontaneity that is not for everybody. ”Not only is it a lot of work, we shoot in schedules, invariably in the summer months. Cooking and demonstrating [how to] on television requires discipline and method—it needs to be slower and less instinctive. Everything needs to be thought through. From the way you are going to tilt the pan at an angle to what you are going to say next,” he says.

The arrival of international channels and availability of options has also made the world of TV cookery shows somewhat competitive. “There is an influx of shows from across the world and to compete with them is big pressure. Food shows serve multiple purposes—they are travelogues, guides, help you learn to cook, introduce you to new cultures and places,” says Aditya. The culmination of his travel experiences while filming his shows are now part of his first cookbook, titled Chakhle India.

A Kashmiri who spent the first 13 years of his life in Srinagar and Gulmarg, the kitchen and kitchen garden were his natural haunt. His fondest early memories of food are of his grandmother, a skilled cook and baker. “I remember hovering around her in the kitchen, helping her around or just stealing a bite of something she had just made.” His favourite dishes from home are tabahk maaz and yakhini, both mutton dishes, but with contrasting flavours, the first mild and the other spicy and pungent.

“But what I love most are Asian flavours. They are clean and simple. They keep your taste buds alive without slaughtering them with spices, and as a chef I really need that. I could literally have sushi every day for the rest of my life.”

However, his obsession with cooking is such that he now spends most of his time in his kitchen at home, shunning the restaurant experience as far as possible. Still, he admits that he does admire the impeccable fusion at The Indian Accent and Masala Art done by Chef Hemant Oberoi for The Taj Palace in New Delhi.

Having lived in six different states in his life—Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, where he studied, and later Maharashtra and then Goa, where he learnt to cook, and even Karnataka and finally Delhi—Aditya says that this is the first time he has relocated for work. “Every other time I moved, it was for love… or when I went to look for food in places no one had explored. Not only was I made aware of our diverse culture, I was also exposed to the country in ways I couldn’t imagine. The language of food is universal,” he says.