Bhootra shares with us the secret ingredient to a perfect cheese board, her experience working under Michelin star chefs and her ambition to open a fresh pasta factory so you never have to buy store bought pasta again!
How would you describe yourself?
Passionate about food and culture, positive about life, doing what I love and loving what I do. 😁
What's your favourite memory of food from childhood?
My love for tomatoes!
As a child it was a sandwich made with ‘ketchup’ and bhujia, and tomato soup with dosa. I loved tomato soup. I would just have a bowl and a half of tomato soup when the family would go out for dinner.
As I got into my teens, an Italian joint called Fire and Ice opened and life got better. I remember the first time I had spaghetti al pomodoro—it was love at first bite.
When and why did you decide to become a chef?
Everything in my life happens as a eureka moment! This was the same. I didn't like to cook anything, never even thought I ever would. I would, however, love watching Nigella Lawson cook. I saw her making Puttanesca, and that somehow made me want to cook! So I took out one of my mom's cook books, a tarla dalal pastas and pizzas, and made a simple arrabiata. That's when I fell in love with chopping, cooking, everything! It was therapeutic. I would measure everything to the T. I knew this is what I wanted to do. Even during my ISC board exams, I would cook in the middle of the night, just to relax and unwind.
Going to a culinary school was the next obvious choice! 😁
You've been trained in Michelin star restaurants: Your best and worst memories and some valuable lessons you learnt and unlearnt?
I've worked at two 3 Michelin star, and one 2 Michelin star restaurants. Before joining Piazza Duomo, my first experience at the world's 15th best restaurant, I was super nervous. I genuinely didn't know how I landed that internship and thought that I wouldn't match up to their standards...I thought that all the chefs there would be so haughty and snobby and that I'd end up leaving in a week. Once I got there however, I was proved wrong. The people were unbelievably humble and kind. They had more humility than the chefs I had worked with before! They made me feel so comfortable, a part of their family.
The biggest lesson I learnt at these kitchens was that discipline, cleanliness and organization were the basic needs of a kitchen. Contrary to the image that I had of angry chefs abusing and throwing pans and plates, my chefs all were very calm. The kitchen at Piazza Duomo was completely silent when the service was on. If someone dropped a spoon, everybody would turn back and look. Working there was almost meditative.
At the other 3 Michelin, Geranium, the chefs would play loud music while we would do the prep for the day. Everybody would do their work, make coffee for themselves whenever, listen to their music and work calmly. It made me realize the importance of working calmly and stress-free. Of course there would be those days when some chef would be angry, but they always apologized later. It was a super healthy environment.
I unlearnt the way of working I had seen before, running around at the last minute, shouting at someone for something not done well, which was how the kitchens I had worked at before were like. I learnt to be calm, kind and do my work quietly, without creating unnecessary drama and angst.
One chef you would like to train under and why?
Chef Enrico Crippa!! There is so so much I still want to learn from him—the discipline, the simplicity, how to make each and every ingredient shine! And I would love to work at the farms again! It's amazing to be able to sow something, watch it grow. Getting your hands dirty is the best way to get connected to the earth.
Tell us about your new indie venture, Alba 18. What drove you to pursue it? Why in Calcutta?
Alba 18 is my ode to Italy. I used to make pasta by kgs in Italy, and the time I spent in Alba was truly the best time of my life. Making pasta is almost meditative for me and eating fresh pasta is something I missed in Calcutta. In Italy, you can buy fresh pasta at the supermarket and cook it with your own sauce. I wanted Calcutta to have that too. Thus, Alba 18 was born!
Your future plans with Alba 18? Are there any exciting things you are looking forward to trying?
I want to open a pastificio (a pasta factory) and make lots of fresh pasta so that it can replace most of the store bought pasta. I'm working towards it slowly.
One thing I am most excited about (something I'm already doing with Alba 18) is a series of pasta dedicated to Antonio Vivaldi’s concerto Four Seasons. I have already introduced the Autumn pasta, Pumpkin and Parmigiano Caramelle, and am looking forward to the upcoming Winter special pasta! Hope it is as loved as the Autumn inspired Caramelle.
What's your favourite photo of you?
Show us what you cooked last?
Gondhoraj and basil panna cotta!
An unforgettable dish you've had.
A salad at Piazza Duomo. Insalata 21, 31, 41… It's a salad which has about 100 ingredients, in spite of which, you can still taste everything! It's a true masterpiece.
What is one kitchen equipment closest to your heart? Why?
My rotella tagliapasta. Pasta cutting wheel from Italy.
Your food philosophy?
Make it slow, keep it simple!
If not cook, what would you do with your time?
Food and travel writer.
What's the secret to a good cheese board?
Whisper *truffle honey*
What is one dish you just cannot cook.
Aloe Vera achar! A lost recipe of my late grandmother. She was using aloe vera as an ingredient way before it got ‘popular’!
When can we come over for some pasta?
You know the answer.
Your website where our readers can see your work:
On my Instagram page — Alba18_calcutta