Author, chef, restaurateur, teacher – these are just a few of the hats Michael Swamy dons. We caught up with the multi-talented powerhouse to discuss his latest projects, where he designed menus for several forest resorts across the country.
Among one of the most celebrated names in the food industry, the prefix chef does little to reflect the full scope of what Michael Swamy actually does. Aside from being a chef who has graduated from the world-renowned Le Cordon Bleu, London, he has, across his career spanning decades, set up some of the country’s finest restaurants, overseen production for major TV shows such as MasterChef India, curated food festivals and authored a number of books, aside from regular columns and contributions.
He’s also a lecturer, a photographer, and the recipient of numerous awards. His passion for nature and wildlife, has recently culminated in him designing menus for a host of wildlife and mountain resorts across India, and we caught up with him to talk about this in greater detail.
There are many considerations when designing a menu that is not only thematic but also looking to provide a connect between diners and the location. “Regional cuisine is getting increasingly diluted. Wherever you go, the usual fare is Punjabi food or Mughlai food, there’s hardly any variation. And it’s a shame, given the depth and variety of our cuisine and culture. My idea is to highlight local ingredients through regional cuisines. Where I add a twist is to use international techniques in plating and presentation, so that people remember the meal long after,” says Chef Michael.
Of course, the same kind of menus don’t work everywhere. It depends on the kind of clientele the property usually hosts and also, is tailored to be in sync with daily schedules, especially important in forest resorts where safaris are the prime attraction. “There has to be variation in the kind of fare the diner can choose from. If I’m serving regional cuisine for lunch, I’ll probably plan continental or Asian for dinner. Overseas tourists really love Indian regional cuisine. Their exposure to Indian cuisine is limited to the usual suspects such as butter chicken or palak paneer, so this is an entirely new and different experience for them. Domestic tourists, on the other hand, understandably want a bit more variety. The other thing that has to be factored in is the day’s activities that are scheduled. If somebody has an early morning safari or a trek lined up, we’re not going to serve them a spicy, heavy meal for dinner the previous night. Similarly, weather or climate conditions also have a role to play. If it’s hot and humid, the food should be such that it can be easily processed and leave the diner feeling satiated but light. When it comes to food, health has to be given priority.”
And while most travellers who are looking for a simple break or a family outing might be more comfortable with known dishes, there are a few discerning ones, with wider exposure and evolved palates that want to try something different. “Those who are usually well travelled and want to explore new flavours are often fascinated by some of the traditional recipes India has to offer. For instance, I use some of the hunting spices that Rajasthan is famous for in some recipes. The other thing I use often is coal cooking. With modern tech and methods, some of these traditional ways of cooking have all but died out. But I’ve always found coal cooking to add a unique dimension to flavours.”
It’s not just local ingredients or cuisines that the chef focuses on, but also local talent. “Whenever I am associated with such projects, where it’s my responsibility to train the staff, I make it a point to employ people from the local community.” The focus on local sources, be it for staff or produce, is part of Chef Michael’s larger sustainability approach. At any of the properties he’s involved in, he visits local markets, growers and vendors to identify the freshest produce. Sourcing directly from these local communities not only keeps these smaller economies alive and well but also reduces the carbon footprint of all involved.
“We find locals who grow the kind of produce we want and buy it from them at market price. It gives us great quality and at the same time, cuts out the middleman, getting the growers the best returns for their efforts. Our milk comes from local dairies, our wheat is ground at local facilities, there’s an enormous amount of involvement of the local community in nearly every property. Most of the properties also have some space where they grow organic produce such as tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, among others. I make it a point to source as much as possible from these integrated spaces.”
Chef Michael is as strict about material usage and kitchen waste, balking at the idea of getting juice in tetrapacks. “Wherever we can eliminate packaging materials, we do. In the kitchen, I ensure all the trimmings and excesses are used in some other preparation. There’s hardly any food wastage because our meals cooked in certain quantities, but even if there’s any excess, there’s always somebody to eat it.”
The menus designed by Chef Michael Swamy are now available at six resorts of the Pugdundee Safaris chain, Jim’s Jungle Retreat in Corbett, and Te Aroha in Dhanachulli, Uttarakhand, among others. While we might still be some time away from safaris and treks, when it is safe to travel again, indulge in a bit of wild cuisine for an insightful glimpse into India’s many cultures, cuisines and of course, wildlife.