It certainly is food for thought that most people who excel in creative callings do so without much (or any) formal training, and are usually self-taught. Their training ground is the field of action itself. Innate talent, experimentation, hard work and the ability to learn quickly count for the rest.
Sometimes, to be gifted in a particular field is the hallmark of a specific community of people. In culinary matters, for example, it is widely accepted that for generations, the traditional Bengali wedding feasts could only be made magical by thakurs from Orissa. No going to catering college involved here. Just skills and secrets handed down from father to son.
In a similar way, Calcutta’s Continental cuisine had for decades been largely in the hands of Bengali Christian cooks who hailed from Bangladesh. Mr Vincent Gomes was executive chef at the Oberoi Grand till the late 1970s. He had been with Great Eastern Hotel in its heyday as well. His father worked for Jawaharlal Nehru. Mocambo restaurant for years had Mr Andrew Gomes as chef, and Messers Robin and Paul Gomes were chefs at Skyroom. These gentlemen have passed on; some have retired, while others have emigrated. They’re a vanished breed.
Almost. Mr Pradip Rozario is still very much with us. He set up Kurry Klub, which serves Italian cuisine. Calcutta’s first — in the heart of south Calcutta; a daring move at the time. Recently, he has set up KK’s Fusion. His father and grandfather were Continental chefs.
Also very much in the saddle is Mr Gracious Mritunjoy Perris who started at the age of 20 as cookmate in the kitchens of the Oberoi Grand. Then to Saudi Arabia to work in another Oberoi hotel; back to Calcutta for stints with Taj Bengal and New Kenilworth and at present with One Step Up! on Park Street, which has established itself as a happening Continental restaurant where a new set of Calcuttans is enjoying all-time favourites from the menus of Prince’s, Firpos and other institutions on Chowringhee and Park Street from the good old days.
I shall describe a few of Perris’s greatest hits. The first is Imperial Chicken, which I am told was one of Uttam Kumar’s favourites from the Prince’s menu. It is a simple enough preparation and success or failure depends mainly on sleight of hand. Chicken breast pieces are patted with seasoned flour, pan grilled and set aside. A brown mushroom sauce is made by sauteeing onions and garlic in butter till browned, and adding flour and chicken stock and fresh chopped mushrooms, simmering this and adjusting proportions and seasoning till consistency and taste are just right. The sauce is poured over the grilled chicken and the dish is served with boiled carrots, beans and potatoes.
Fish Diana is a bit more elaborate. Bekti fillets are rolled around a stuffing of shrimps, chopped mushrooms, green pepper, celery, onion and garlic. The rolls are coated in an egg-flour batter and poached. A sauce with a white bechamel base plus tomato concasse and the ingredients of the stuffing are poured over the poached fish. The dish is garnished with chopped parsley before serving. A personal favourite.
Prawn Meuniere is another rocker. Prawns minus the heads but with the tails on are coated in batter, deep fried and set aside. The sauce is made by slowly simmering together fresh cream, chopped mushrooms, parsley, salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. When thickened, butter is added and the sauce is poured over the fried prawns just before serving.
All three items depend on the excellence of the sauces, which are each of a distinct character. There are many other old favourites on the menu as well as some new-age fare such as Cajun Prawn, Chicken Mexican and Paprika Chicken. There is an Indian selection also, but not unlike Mocambo, the ratio is about four to one when guests eat at One Step Up!.