New Delhi, Jan. 22 (Reuters): The lights sputter and die. Over gas flames, four chefs keep working through a typical Delhi blackout as the pungent spices become eye-watering.
After 12 years, Scottish-based culinary entrepreneur Tommy Miah’s annual hunt for the world’s best Indian chef has finally come to India.
Miah’s contest has become Britain’s top curry competition since then health minister Edwina Currie launched it in 1991 and victory can turn the winner into a millionaire almost overnight.
But a cook-off has never been held outside Britain and India’s leading chefs and culinary experts believe this week’s first will give a much-needed boost to the country’s under-rated food scene.
“We need to show the world that we can do this,” said Shyam Longani, a 27-year-old chef at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel who won the Delhi event and will join seven more finalists to be named in London tomorrow.
A 43-year-old superchef and restaurateur with a flair for promotion, Miah began the contest and its accompanying annual Curry Ball to push innovative South Asian cuisine and raise money for charities in Britain and his native Bangladesh.
It has been given colour by the involvement of high-profile personalities such as Currie and the fact it is open to anyone, not just professionals.
Each year, the eight Indian Chef of the Year finalists, drawn from more than 5,000 hopefuls, feature a grab-bag of top class chefs and colourful amateurs.
The title has been won by secretaries, housewives, a North Sea oil rig cook and, in 1994, a Bangladeshi facing deportation.
“Anybody can enter. It’s genuinely open to anyone who has good ideas,” says Miah, dressed in a blue suit and grey tie, as he keeps a watchful eye on the three-hour Delhi cook-off. It’s a challenge to professional chefs.”
Miah, who cooked for former British Prime Minister John Major’s 50th birthday and owns Edinburgh’s popular restaurant, The Raj, has no formal training himself.
After landing in Britain from Bangladesh three decades ago as a 10-year-old with no English and no education, he started out washing floors and dishes, but was quickly drawn to cooking.
“I never wanted to study. I got interested in cooking from day one,” Miah said.
Like Miah, his contest is slightly unorthodox. Finalists are chosen entirely on their proposal of a menu of two vegetarian and two non-vegetarian dishes to be cooked and served in three hours.
Taste accounts for half the marks in the final, presentation 10 per cent and the menu and its degree of innovation 15 per cent.
The offerings from Delhi’s finalists — three five-star chefs and a part-time food writer and housewife — ranged from Longani’s spicy prawns with peppered crab to an achari subzi (spicy vegetables) in a zucchini parcel.
The first prize in the competition is £1000, but just having a chef in the final can boost a restaurant’s turnover, lead to job or partnership offers or create a millionaire — 10 so far.
But what makes a winner' For Indian food expert Jiggs Kalra, one of the Delhi judges, it’s simple.
“You have to see a balance. It’s the total package,” he says. “At the end of the day, the only star is Indian food and that must come through.”