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Cook-offs: An unconventional hunt for the best at culinary skills - Rohini Dey, Founder and Owner, Vermilion – New York City and Chicago

Bearing in mind the sole objective of finding two specialist chefs for her signature Indian restaurants in the USA, Rohini Dey, Founder and Owner, Vermilion – New York City and Chicago, has traversed continents to conduct cook-offs in Mumbai and Delhi this month. She shares with P Krishna Kumar the rationale behind this one-off exercise

Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 11:30 Hrs  [IST]

Rohini_Dey.jpgQ. How did you come up with the idea of conducting a cook-off in India for your US restaurants? Have you undertaken similar exercises before?
Rohini Dey:
The aim is to unearth the next wave of senior culinary talent from India to lead our kitchens in Chicago and New York (NY), and to continue to represent Indian cuisine with a unique twist on a global platform. We are looking to recruit two senior chefs - one for each restaurant. I’m eager to see what comes out of this exercise. There is no dearth of culinary talent in India, and there is no more an avid ambassador of our cuisine than me. We have two amazing global platforms to promote Indian talent. So this exercise meshes two perfectly allied interests.

Although we have conducted cook-offs earlier, this will be the first for a leadership position in our kitchens. So far, we've applied the conventional methods of recruitment, namely interviews, tastings, trials, etc. Earlier this year, James Beard Foundation (regarded as the Oscars of culinary in the USA) and Vermilion NY conducted the Women in Culinary Leadership Cookoff to choose scholarship/internship recipients. Entrants had to submit a resume, essay, and a recipe of a contemporary Indian–Latin dish. There were eight finalists in the event.

Q. What is the schedule for the cook-offs in Delhi and Mumbai, and what are the traits you are looking for in chefs? How has the response been from the chef community to this selection process?
The Mumbai cook-off will be held on April 23 at Hotel Indigo, and the Delhi cook-off on April 30 at Q’ba hotel. We are looking for people with the ability to innovate in a global playing field; work ethics and discipline; skill sets to lead a culinary team and kitchen; and the excitement to grow with us.

While contestants will be primarily judged on the dishes they prepare, the selection of winners for the kitchen leadership positions at Vermilion NY and Chicago will take into account the contestants' background, experience and kitchen leadership skills. Leading a lauded kitchen with a corresponding promotion is no mean feat. In fact, it could be a career-boosting opportunity. We are talking about employment positions with a minimum three-year term.

With regard to the response to the exercise, I am very gratified by the support of the culinary industry, our judges, and the media.

Q. Do you have plans to conduct more cook-offs in India?
Currently, there are no such plans.

Q. Your Vermilion brand restaurant is an Indo-Latin one. How do the two diverse cuisines complement each other?
I chose to meld Indian and Latin culinary worlds at Vermilion for four reasons:
  1. The deep, historical cross influences of Arab and Persia on both India and Spain; and Portuguese on India and Latin America;
  2. The commonality of ingredients across the two tropical zones. For example, the heavy use of tamarind, coconut, plantain, saffron, rice, beans, corn, cilantro;
  3. To celebrate the warm, effusive, family-oriented, late-night, and rich dining cultures in both regions;
  4. To create an intellectually provocative, bold and unique cuisine, clear of both Indian dining stereotypes and the French overhang; and
  5. To celebrate the vibrant flavours of both Indian and Latin cuisines.
Examples of our melding go well beyond the stereotypical Mexican cuisine that most people know about. Therefore, we have done away with tacos, burritos, chimichanga, and the like. Our unique offerings include Peruvian ceviche or a Brazilian seafood caldeirada broth enhanced with our spices and seasonings, classic Venezuelan street arepa done in the Goan vindaloo style with pulled duck, and classic Argentinean steak in a Tandoori marinade-seared.

Q. What are the activities of the Women In Culinary Leadership (WICL) Program? How do you plan to expand the activities to India?
Having worked at the World Bank and with McKinsey & Company, I am not unfamiliar with the glass ceiling and an absence of women on leadership positions. As a restaurateur, I can say that the culinary industry is far worse. WICL is my initiative to redress this imbalance.

WICL was founded last year by Susan Ungaro, President of the James Beard Foundation, and me. The initiative seeks to examine the role of women in leadership positions in the culinary industry, and to identify ambitious female chefs and restaurateurs and help them develop their leadership and culinary skills.

To help us in our endeavour, we have roped in ten celebrity chefs (Chefs for Women). The industry has rallied tremendously - the National Restaurant Association will showcase our work at their annual convention in May this year. We hope to continue to grow the programme and inspire women to enter the field and strive to lead.

At present, there are no plans to expand WICL in India. However, I very strongly encourage women to apply to our contests and aim high.

Q. In spite of being known all over the world, Indian cuisine is yet to receive global acceptance. What needs to be done to change this situation?
Much needs to be done to take Indian cuisine to the level of success that the French, Italian or even Japanese cuisine have achieved. Currently, Korean, Vietnamese, Nordic and Scandinavian cuisine are the rage in the West, and Chinese and Thai are considered mainstream. Indian cuisine is still very much on the fringe. The world is increasingly open to bolder flavours and experimentation, so the timing couldn’t be better. We can take the right steps in the right direction, without neutering our vibrancy.

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