Thomas Zacharias is executive chef of The Bombay Canteen, a restaurant in Mumbai.
As a kid, Zacharias was inspired to cook by his grandma. But to get to the professional kitchen, he had to journey across oceans.
"Being a chef was something that wasn't looked up at [in India] — it was more like a side job; everyone was forced or encouraged to become doctors or engineers. And I wanted to take that leap."
Zacharias' parents were unusual, he says: They supported his ambition, although the options for training were limited. There were few high-end culinary schools in India. So he entered a course in hotel management instead. A professor spotted his potential and encouraged Zacharias to make a more dramatic jump, and study at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), in Hyde Park, New York. Zacharias agreed. "It's widely regarded as the best culinary school in the world, and I wanted to learn from the best."
"For someone who's passionate about food, the CIA is a magical place. There's 52 kitchens on campus, and five restaurants completely run by students. It's basically an entire campus that revolves around food — it was like wonderland."
"I'm very competitive, so I ended up valedictorian and editor of the school newspaper. [They were] some of the best years of my life."
A photo posted by Thomas Zacharias (@cheftzac) on
Impressive credentials from the CIA meant that Thomas Zacharias could seek his next opportunities at some of the world's finest restaurants. "I wanted to work at the best restaurant I could possibly get to, and for me Le Bernadin in New York City stood out. Not only is it a 3-star Michelin restaurant that serves world-class food, but it's also a really busy one — close to a thousand dishes a night. So it was interesting to learn how to put out really high quality food in volume and still keep up with it."
After a year at Le Bernadin, Zacharias decided that he wanted to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. So he decided to move back to India. He found a Mediterranean restaurant run by an Indian mentor who'd also trained at the Culinary Institute of America and "rose up the ranks until I was finally running the kitchen."
But Zacharias noticed something, too: New fine dining establishments in India tended to be focused on French or Italian fare. They rarely offered high-end Indian cuisine. So when an opportunity arose to join a new venture that promised to buck that trend, Zacharias jumped at it.
The Bombay Canteen seeks to celebrate and refresh Indian ingredients and regional cuisines, marrying local flavors and family-style dining to some of the techniques and approaches drawn from restaurant traditions elsewhere.
Zacharias himself has been refreshed by the experience, he says. "When I first heard about this concept, I decided to go up to the local market. And I was amazed and ashamed because I saw local vegetables that I'd never seen before, let alone cooked with or eaten. That's something that's changed by perspective on a lot of things, and it's been amazing since."
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