Chef Lata Tondon, who recently created a Guinness record by cooking for the longest marathon, wants to explore cuisines from lesser known regions of India. By Team Viva
It seems nearly impossible and exhausting even as one starts to imagine cooking for 87 hours and 45 minutes at a stretch. How would you describe your experience and the entire journey?
It was a gruelling but at the same time an exhilarating experience for me. I was allowed only a five-minute break every hour and my limbs were heavy and sore halfway into the cooking marathon. I remember, after a point of time I was at the peak of exhaustion but my drive kept me going.
In my journey, yoga and meditation have helped me a lot to prepare for the process. I also led an active lifestyle and worked out regularly, which allowed my body to build up resistance and endurance for such a long cook. This was not just a physical but also an emotionally-driven experience for me. The love and support I received from my family, friends and everyone who came and cheered me at the event, helped me cross the finish line.
How challenging was it to cook for 20,000 people and maintain the right flavours simultaneously?
Cooking in large batches is always a challenging task for any chef. There are multiple factors one has to keep in mind, be it selecting the right ingredients, pre-proportioning them and scaling recipes properly to maintain the flavour profiles. It is a mammoth task. In an outdoor cook one has to also take extra precautions to maintain proper hygiene standards to avoid food contamination. And I had to do all of the above and make sure no one goes hungry at the same time.
My aim was to use hacks that I have picked up in my years of training as a professional chef that made the entire process more efficient and allowed me to achieve my goal as per the Guinness specifications.
Vada paos and sandwiches are very common meals. Why didn’t you experiment with some specific cuisine?
Because it was such a long cook, I had to strategically plan a menu which would enable me to endure the pressure and withstand long cooking hours. It is not possible for anyone to continuously stand for the entire duration which it takes to cook. I included some simple options like vada pav and sandwiches because they allowed me to sit during the prep time and gave my legs a much-needed rest. I also designed my menu keeping in mind that I had to single-handedly prepare food in bulk. Complex dishes with multiple components would have required more labour and hours of food prep.
You have plans to open a restaurant in London that will offer cuisine from India’s lesser-known regions. Do you think Indian cuisine will ever become a world favourite?
Indian cuisine already enjoys a cult status worldwide. However over the years, a common misconception has been built that Indian food is simply about curries and spices. I want to change this perception. Through my new venture, I want to offer cuisines from India’s lesser-known regions with a twist that appeals to all palates. There is an immense diversity in Indian cuisine and a lot still needs to be showcased. I want to explore lesser known regions of Indian food, and showcase cuisines from our country’s more remote territories and borders at a global level.
What do you have to say about the current food culture in India?
Sadly over the years due to a hectic lifestyle, the concept of eating out today means surrendering your taste buds to fast food. Everyone is looking for a quick bite and the added convenience of getting a meal delivered on your doorstep has only added fuel to the fire. However, I do notice a welcome change in the eating habits of millennials. Young people these days prefer places with strong food ethics. They want to know how fresh or organic their food is, where their food is coming from and if it is ethically sourced or not.
Food is subjective to different people. Some may like a dish and others won’t. How do you deal with negative criticism to your food?
For me, food is like art. Everyone will perceive it and connect with it differently. I am always open to views and suggestions that can help me evolve as a cook. However, I will never let criticism dictate my true style of cooking. Having said that, at the end of the day like my dishes, I take all feedback with a pinch of salt.
How do you adapt your dishes to local ingredients while travelling?
I am a passionate traveller and love exploring authentic ingredients and forgotten recipes. I draw deep inspiration from local spices, vegetables and styles of cooking and I love fusing local ingredients with authentic Indian dishes. One of the dishes that is close to my heart is a fusion of red wine sauce, Inderher ki Sabji in authentic Vindhya dish. Another one is using different Indian flours and creating a healthy version of beetroot and chocolate brownies. I have also created Kerela stew which is smoked with maple wood chips.
What shaped your food logic while growing up? What are your inspirations? Any anecdotes to share?
My childhood revolved around food and that really helped shape me into the cook I am today. I remember my visits to the local vegetable and meat market with my grandfather and how he taught me to rely on my senses to pick out the best ingredients. I was exposed to different Indian cuisines courtesy my mother and my extended family. My aunt cooked Sindhi dishes for me, and I developed my love for Punjabi cuisine due to my mother-in-law. All these instances have helped me develop a strong sense of identity and that is what I try and reflect in my cooking today.