Sajeev Nair enrolled for a hotel management course with the aim of getting a front-office job. But during his studies, he realised his true passion - cooking. It dawned upon him that a foodie can be creative in the kitchen. Sajeev Nair is today an executive chef at Trishna, a Michelin Star restaurant in London. The Keralite talks to Onmanorama about pursuing his passion and the life in the kitchen.
Why I chose to be a chef
I was brought up by my grandmother in Palakkad. My father, mother and younger brother were in Delhi. My elder brother and I stayed back at our native place as our grandmother had been alone. Those were really good times. That period helped me to know more about my land, its people, and the Malayalam language. I left for Delhi when I was 11 years old. I really did not want to leave my native place. Even now, I like it best when I am travelling back to my native place.
I became a chef quite fortuitously. In my childhood years, I never helped out my mother in the kitchen. But I was a foodie even then. And my mother cooks really well. During my school days in Delhi, we used to share our lunch. Most often I would not get to have my food as all my friends really liked the tiffin prepared by my mother.
I joined a hotel management course in order to get a job in the front office or food and beverages service. While doing industrial training at the hotel after one year, I realised that I was more interested to be in the kitchen. Simply because we can get creative in the kitchen. Nowhere else one gets that inspiration. Then I worked hard for it. I decided to become a chef in 2001. And I have not looked back since. I was able to participate in a national-level chef competition twice, while I was in college. I won accolades too.
No pointing fingers in kitchen
I faced challenges right from my early days of becoming a chef. During management training, I had to learn the tricks of the trade from chefs, who had 20 to 30 years of experience. Most of them saw me as an adversary. Because what there were not able to achieve in all these years, we will be able to get to that position in like 1.5 years. I had to do 12-13 hours of shift daily. And every day, I would not be home before 1am (even now, it is like that). I have worked without an off day for nearly 2 months. Despite all this, I was really happy to go to work.
Currently, those in my team have been with me for 6 to 7 years. They are another family to me. I do not allow any politics or accusations, which are quite common in the kitchen.
When I arrived in London in 2006, most of the restaurants here served Bangladeshi food in the name of Indian food. Only some restaurants served authentic Indian food. Even among those, fewer restaurants offered south Indian dishes. My ambition to work in a restaurant that offered authentic Indian food prompted me to join Trishna in 2012. Even now, I work here.
Difficult to retain Michelin Star
I joined Trishna in March 2012 and the restaurant was awarded Michelin Star in September 2012. The restaurant has been able to retain the coveted tag for the past 10 years. It is more difficult to retain Michelin Star, than earning it. The Michelin inspectors make unannounced visits to the restaurant 3 or 4 times in a year. Along with the best service, they also check food consistency, taste and portion size. Therefore, every guest at the restaurant is treated as a 'Michelin inspector'. My main job is to ensure that food served at each time has the same quality. Similarly, it is important to balance the food cost, labour cost and profit in tandem.
Lockdown only for a month
The lockdown was imposed in London in March 2020. All establishments were shut down and we were left pondering on the future course of action. Then Tuk In Foods, an Indian packaged food concept, contacted us. Recipe design and menu makeover were done. Three of my own dishes - prawn molee, Malabar chicken and vegetable kurma - were included in the menu.
Trishna opened on May 20, just with food delivery. Thus, I had been in lockdown only for a month.
No wedding proposals for a cook!
Chef is a respected profession in America and European countries. For the last 10 years, this job has been gaining respect among the common people in India. That is probably because of the influence of social media. It could also be due to reality shows such as Master Chef. Some families had rejected my marriage proposal, while citing that my job was that of a cook. Today, I am really happy to note the achievements of those in the field, including that of chef Suresh Pillai.
Best food experience
I love homecooked food the most. While eating out at a restaurant, I like south Indian, pan-Asian and Thai cuisines.
To those who aspire to be a chef
For those who want to pursue this career, I have to say that hotel and restaurant sector is not as glamourous you deem it to be. There is lot of hard work, patience and effort behind this. The sector gives you the opportunity to achieve your goal.
Probably, everyone who completes hotel management studies may not get a job as a management trainee. Some will have to start at the bottom of the ladder. After spending lakhs of rupees on studies, it is not easy to work for 12-hours a day for a salary of just Rs 5000-7000. But if you stick to the profession and work hard, you can forge ahead. This sector can open up a lot of opportunities, especially abroad.