The Masterchef began to cook right after his dad died. It was just as sudden as his dad’s death. One day, his dad was there, and the next, they were packing away his stuff and making believe their lives didn’t have a huge void. Of course his mother didn’t believe that, she put on a brave face, at first for her three kids. But, within a month, she was sleeping all day and waking up only in the late evening to drink some tea and eat a few scraps and then back to bed it was for her.
Although, another solution was possible, he found that he really missed his mom’s cooking. The tastes, the clean aromas and the simple pleasure it afforded him. He went through a series of cooks, who his brother and sister were quite fine hiring, since they were already working. He was still in his last year in college and had some time on his hands and nothing much planned for his life, yet. Soon, he realized his best bet was a maid to help him with buying stuff and doing the mise en place, while he did the actual cooking. He had stumbled into the masterchef mode, quite by chance. Once there, he quite liked it and made the kitchen his domain. Again, his siblings were quite fine about this, too since they were really supportive of him and understood there was something happening here, which was for life.
For those who can’t cook, the realm of a regular cook is a mystery. The masterchef’s universe is actually incomprehensible, since it’s about imagining combinations, methodology, speed, accuracy, precision. The more he delved into this place, the masterchef realized that he was very much at home here. He was not at any point or in any way imagining this would heal him of the tragic turn in his life, he was much too practical for that. He merely saw something that challenged him on many levels and satisfied him deeply on many more levels and he could see himself making a living and getting around to the life he’d always wanted. The more ‘mainstream’ professions that most of his classmates aspired to, that other parents crowed about had always made it seem, he would never be able to achieve that, since he would have to sacrifice all his dreams on the altar of convention, dos and donts and appeasement.
So, when this particular crisis turned into an opportunity, or maybe when he changed his perspective about it, it all fell into place. He finished graduation, enrolled in a catering college. He learnt his craft, and then, he went on to doing a number of internships with very well established and well known cooks many of whom were not on the radar of hotels and many who never had a formal degree and the advantage of a well equipped kitchen. But, since that choice was deliberate, he learnt a lot of things and cooking takes that can only be described as the ninja way.
While all this was happening, his brother got into marketing, his sister got into travel and tourism and his mother began to stay awake a little longer, each day. However, she never went back to the kitchen. She tried, since she felt obliged to it, but her heart wasn’t in it. After a point, her kids just took it for granted she would never cook again and were glad to have her back in some form, at least. His brother married a very competent, sensible woman really quickly and she took charge of the kitchen at once, since for her it was the best way to get the keys of the kingdom.
The masterchef now chose to wander a bit, and even travelled with his mother at times. On one such trip, while his mom and he were rattling around in a rickshaw in Haridwar, he met her. The rickshaw was already spilling over with him, his mom, two sadhus,their dreadlocks and a family of four, when the driver stopped to let her in. His mom covered up her nose, since the girl was scrunched up really close to her and smelled really bad. That of course didn’t stop the girl from being friendly and chattering with his mom till they got to their destination.
The next time they met was at the Hidimba temple in Manali. This time, he was alone. She was offering the devotees food and water outside the temple and seemed all set to stay on the whole day. Again, she looked as if she’d not bathed in a while. Still, he found out where she lived and took her out for dinner that very evening. There was no thought in his mind about a relationship. It just didn’t seem possible with someone as weird as her. She was an amateur wildlife photographer and was currently shooting for a project on the birds in that particular area. She didn’t think, she would pay her bills this way, but then, there were so few to pay anyway. By the end of the first evening, he knew better than to discuss anything of a practical or regular nature with her. He knew better than to imagine she would look at him in any way that would suggest something romantic. He recognized someone who was traumatized and trying to create a world for herself, while alienating people in the real one just by being herself.
That was five years ago. Currently, the masterchef is handling the chef’s table for high rollers in a floating casino, off the beaches of Goa. He stumbled upon this assignment, when a banquet manager from the casino ate hakka noodles he’d cooked on a windy evening at Rohtang Pass, Manali.
The shift from mountains to the sea, came with other changes, too. The girl was no longer in his orbit. He would have to either tell her to change her orbit or include her in his own. But, offering a ring didn’t seem to do the trick. She didn’t believe in the institution and he knew, he didn’t need to bind her to him to get her undying love and support. It was always there, in her own weird way. That weird way was causing a lot of problems, specially for his mom, who wanted the girl to settle down and accept that her life would be limited by other people, duties, responsibilities. The girl believed her life was to be governed by her dreams and beliefs and she wasn’t going to sacrifice any of it, for a lifetime of what seemed like people pleasing. So it was, that just like that, they got together and soon found a space where their orbits coincided. She was still wary of sharing a space with him together and so they met each other in out of the way locales, and caught up on the phone.
The call came, as he’d expected it to. The masterchef had the night shift, and was going in at 2am. He was already wearing his clothes, as he answered the call.
G: Hey, you. What’s going on?
M: At 1 am? Not much, ya. Just thinking of what to serve at chef’s table, today. What did you eat today? Or, did you eat today?
G: Yeah! Of course I did. Duck egg omelet and sesame prawn toast.
M: Wow! I hope you’re climbing enough hills to work that off.
G: Well, certainly climbing enough trees. We are shooting orchids in the North East.
M: So did you like the duck eggs?
G: They smell, very strong. I mean, like really strong, you know? Chicken eggs seem almost like vegetables in comparison.
M (chuckles): What about the prawn toast?
G: Oh, God! It was so crunchy! And fried sesame is even better than bread crumbs, you know!
M: I know. So, you liked the Diwali gift mom sent you?
G: She didn’t send it. She landed up at the shack and gave it to me.
M: Oh, no. Who told her about the shack?
G: I don’t know. She just landed up there, one day, looking really elegant and with this really cool basket crammed filled with goodies and done up so beautifully, I didn’t want to open it.
M: Ah, her daughter-in-law’s handiwork, I bet. She’s really good at it.
G: Yeah, she is. Anyway, I offered her tea and food.
M: Food? What?
G: I had cooked.
M: You cooked?
G: Yeah, aloo poori. I always make that when I’m down or when I can sleep in.
M: Okay, so, did she like it?
G: I don’t think she liked the multi grain dough. It’s too healthy, I suppose. But, she was very nice about it and well, I’m glad, I had that around.
M: So, did she ask you to marry me?
M: What did you say?
G: No, thanks.
M: Just like that?
M: Maybe something a little ambiguous would be nicer. You know?
G: Actually, she seemed relieved.
M (chuckling): Well, I can understand that, too. So, what’s new?
G: I cut my hair, I had a bath, today..
M: What? Don’t tell me! You actually did all of that? And shot orchids too?
G: I had to do both. My hair was too tangled after a month of no oiling. And I fell into a field, of mucky water, which I thought was solid land.
M: Okay, I get it. Business as usual.
G: So, what’s on with you, today?
M: Oh, the usual. Cooking for some high roller at the chef’s table. He’s requested, get this, indigenous Indian cuisine.
G: Wow, that’s rare. So what are you cooking?
M: Well, he’s mentioned a liking for game, rather than domesticated poultry and meats so, I thought, I’d try out some quail dishes, pickled venison and a wild rice and mushroom pulao. There’s also a take on a Singhaada fish chop and I’m using the mustard liberally in the sauce. I don’t know about dessert, yet. But, I think, he may like the steamed rice cakes with sweet coconut stuffing. That’s my guess. And of course, I’m trying out the Mahua with the other local wines.
G: That’s sounds like fun. Okay, got to go. See you.
M: Mm. Goodnight. Love you.
He disconnected, and headed for the door. Out in the corridor, he bumped into GN, the on board entertainment guy. GN used to be a former talk show host and had relocated to Goa when he lost his spot on the channel. He used his skills at schmoozing and getting people to know what they didn’t want and ran a pretty impressive entertainment set at the casino. He was always wooing the high rollers hoping to regain his lost onscreen telly glory but that hadn’t worked out so far, although he could never be faulted for not trying enough. He latched onto the masterchef with all the eagerness of a lovelorn octopus.
GN: My boy, my boy! Just the person I wanted to see!
M: Oh, hello. And who are we, today? I’m detecting Elvis the pelvis.
GN: No way! We are fabulous and completely in love.
M: Nice. Anyone I know?
GN: Me! Anyway, moving on to the real business of the evening, a rather overweight birdie told me that you’re going to be meeting with a majorly loaded HR, tonight.
M: HR? Oh, high roller. Yes, seems to be so. Why? You interested?
GN: Only in his money, darling! But, yeah, I mean later, who knows? Things may just happen you know. I live by the kindness of strangers.
M: That is way to twisted for me to handle, right now. I guess, you should drop by the table and I’ll introduce you. Okay?
GN: Lovely! Ta!
The masterchef entered the chef’s table kitchen. It was a world apart. It worked at top precision with the silent proficiency of a well tuned machine. The masterchef flexed his shoulders, unconsciously and walked in, taller. His work always brought out the best version of himself and high rollers or not, he sent out each offering to the chef’s table with equal diligence and good feeling.
After an hour of solid work, it was time to welcome his guest at the table, since the perks of being at chef’s table included an audience with the chef and his introduction to the food he’d offered up. Most of the invitees to the table treated this opportunity with pleasure, but, they ended up being rather too nervous by the end of it all, since they weren’t able to keep up the right mix of admiring without being complete pushovers. They tried to figure the protocol out, and tipped high, but somehow he had gotten resigned to never meeting anyone who would get it just right.
Which is why, he was pleasantly surprised to see his high roller for the night. A really thickset man of medium height, who seemed completely at ease with himself, with a powerful forceful personality which was emanating from him. He was balding and made no attempt to hide it. But, the masterchef was most struck by the high roller’s hands. They were fleshy, with thick hair on the backs and almost like the paws of a beast. The slightly longer nails reminded the masterchef of the talons of a bird of prey. All of a sudden, the masterchef had a feeling of being in the presence of something primal, made by nature in all it’s pitiless, terrible glory. He shook the feeling off and walked forward with a quick smile. A brief handshake where his workman’s hand was engulfed by the fleshy paw. A deep searching look followed, while the high roller sized him up. The masterchef knew that the man already had him neatly slotted. Within the next few minutes, he would figure out the details and know the masterchef’s weakness and try to use it to his own advantage. The masterchef smiled wryly, he knew high rollers never stopped rolling. They were always looking for that one advantage, a gamble, an opportunity, an advantage. Where others noticed stuff, they moved in and used it to get more stuff. But, now with the silent exchange done, he had to speak to the high roller.
M: Good evening. *** here. Lovely to have you with us, today.
HR: Hello! Very nice to meet you. So, please, sit down. Let’s have a chat, before you send me your lovely meal, today.
M: Of course. May I offer you something to drink? We have some very nice local beers.
HR: Oh, no, no, no local brewery stuff. Do you happen to have some rice beer?
M: Japanese or Indian?
HR: Indian, of course.
M: Right away.
HR: Would you join me?
M: Of course, but with some juice, if that’s okay with you.
HR: Very good. Cheers, then.
The meal progressed quite well. The HR was actually a perfect connoisseur and the masterchef found himself quite impressed. This man was the right mix of admiring, knowing and deferring, but only just slightly. Other than that, he was completely in control of the conversation, himself and was drawing out a lot of info about the masterchef, through very light, casual and chatty questions. The masterchef was essentially private, but didn’t mind being worked over since he could see that the HR would do this to most people anyway.
HR: So, cooking, hmm? Never thought of the business of it? Maybe your own restaurant?
M: That involves so much more than just cooking. It’s about clientele and other stuff, which I don’t really think I want to do. I want to cook, and feel free to live my life and add to my craft, bring in new experiences and incorporate it into my work, the presentation, the finer touches.
HR (chuckling): Ah, an idealist, I see.
M: No, I just know what’s right for me. I don’t think, I should do it any other way.
HR: Come on, don’t make it so easy! That line should come at the end of maybe 15 minutes of keeping me guessing, you know! You don’t just let on who you are, within the first five minutes of a conversation. Keep it mysterious, draw people in, lure them in and then, when you’ve got them where you want them, use it.
M: I think, I just got a million dollar lesson in business management, completely free.
HR: Ah, but nothing is free. Not with someone like me. When it comes to resources, I’ve got plenty. I am always looking for the one thing that I can invest in and believe me, they are few but they are worth their worth in gold. Tell me, what’s your goal in life?
M: To live my life.
HR: Oh, come on! Be more specific.
M: Actually, I’ve told you it all. I want to live my life, not the one my parents wish I had, not the life others who don’t know me would like me to lead, not the kind of life I’m supposed to live, given my temperament and capabilities. I want to live the life which is bliss in every moment. Not flaming joy or heart rending sorrow, just bliss, involvement, and being there in every moment.
HR: Oh, my God. Not a philosopher.
M: If the shoe fits, I guess. No, not a philosopher, I just have my own philosophy in life and I really wear it well, you know.
HR: Hmm, yeah, it seems so. So, tell me. No hidden desires, nothing you hanker for?
The masterchef was hit by a pang that made him fifteen, again. He remembered a wedding banquet in Kolkata. His mother was resplendent, as was his dad. They were celebrating a friend’s 60th birthday and his reaffirmation of vows with his wife. His mom served her famous Arvi tuk and Sindhi Kadhi and fluffy Basmati rice. After they ran out of Arvi or colocasia to fry, she was quick to replace it with tuk made with potatoes. Double fried, golden brown with a crunch that didn’t end till you got almost to the heart of the soft, flaky potato. Coated with dry mango powder, a hit of red chili and the slightest touch of salt, since there’s nothing worse than over salted Tuk. He did hanker for that with all his heart. He wanted his mom to get back to being the woman she had been. Filled with love, brimming over with the desire to feed her brood and her man. Knowing that each murmur of satisfaction from the guests would make her man fall more in love with her and thank his stars, for her presence in his life. He hankered for the beauty she exuded when she wore her saris with swag, and all the embellishments, since you didn’t disrespect the outfit. You gave it it’s due, right from the right bindi, the kohl, the perfect muted shade for naturally luscious lips, ornaments, beautifully painted nails and the right shoes to mount the outfit and give it all the height it needed to shine. He hankered for the way, his dad used to hold her around the waist, like a tango dancer, securing her to his side, unabashedly, while he spoke, gesticulating with his cigarette in the other hand. He hankered for them both at this chef’s table, savoring his food and wondering where did he learn all this? While his smile would tell them, it was all them, just packaged in his unique style.
HR: Ah, I see I’ve hit a nerve. My apologies. Well, let’s move on. So, what’s for dessert?
M: Well, we have a little tray here, and it has samples from our dessert selection. You can sample it and I would be glad to have your choice sent out to you.
HR: Oh, no dessert for me, thanks. Actually, send the dessert out to table 15. That’s my daughter sitting out there, with her mom. They are the dessert lovers, though you can’t tell by looking at them.
The masterchef glanced at table 15. A statuesque lady and a very beautiful, stylish girl were sitting at the table. The girl looked nothing like her dad. In fact, she seemed to have hit the genetic jackpot with her mom’s looks. Still, there didn’t seem to be any vestiges of her father and that puzzled him. He looked back to see the HR smiling at him, knowingly.
HR: She’s my stepdaughter. I married her mother 15 years ago. I took over her ex-husband’s company, I got control of my wife’s shares. She came on board completely and helped me create the life that I live, that others aspire to and it makes enough of the right people curious, which is why, I never run out of resources. Marrying the right woman, is the difference between a great life and an exceptional life.
The masterchef grimaced, despite himself. When had he not heard that before? Like almost every day of his life and from everybody he ever knew. Somehow he never quite fell for that philosophy for unfathomable reasons.
HR: You know, there is so much unspoken good that the right woman can do. It’s like that secret ingredient that just brings everything together and makes it work. You know, click?
M: Yeah, I guess love is the right ingredient.
HR: No! Not love! Oh, please, don’t make it murky by adding love into the mix. Who said anything about love? I’m talking duty tempered by resilience, caring but with the right touch of control, governing everything to make it to the right conclusion.
M : Which is?
HR: Power. The power to live your life, on your own terms.
M: Which most of us have anyway, if we didn’t give in to our fears.
HR: Oh, that’s a fine thing to say, but manipulation and using someone’s fears is the best way to get things done! Happy people don’t see any reason to make life changes unless you lure them with the right bait or stoke their fears with the right fuel. And that’s something you learn to hone, over the years. How much you can push, how to back off, appear cold, create insecurity, but never back away from your prey.
M: Well, that’s very enlightening, sir. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed our chat. Is there anything else you’d like?
HR: Yes. I’d like you to consider a proposition. Marry my daughter, and I’ll set you up in any property you want, anywhere you want. You won’t worry about anything, but the cooking and just live the way you want. What do you say?
M: I’d say, it’s like a million dreams coming true at once. But, may I ask what brought this on?
HR: Well, as I said, I always look out for an investment and you seem to be an extremely sound one, since you are warm, talented and a man of integrity. I can’t think of a better way to use and expand my resources. So, anyway, take your time and call me.
The masterchef took the card. It was very tasteful, with a stylized forest view and the name of the high roller inscribed on it in an old world italic.
He went back into the kitchen, card in hand. The rest of the crew turned to him and nodded. The shift was almost over and they were treating themselves to the leftovers and packing the rest to be sent to a list of schools that the masterchef sent meals to on a regular basis. The TV was on and it seemed to be an interview of sorts with a man and a woman talking. A graphic on the screen appeared and the masterchef started. It was the exact same stylized forest from the HR’s card.
M: What’s this about? I mean, what are they talking about?
Sous chef: Oh, it’s just this guy who decodes the ancient Indian epics and texts and you know describes and explains them to a modern day audience. Very engaging stuff.
M: Okay, but what about this forest thing? What is that about?
Sous chef: Oh, it’s the nature sprite story. You know, Yaskhas? They’re not technically gods, or goddesses and even their gender can be indeterminate.
M: You mean transgenders?
Sous chef: No, almost inter sex, you know? They could be either, male or female, depending on their propensity. Like the earth is considered female. A tree is considered male. A holy basil plant is considered female, and you know something like that. The spirits inhabiting nature, basically.
M: So, they can take on human form?
Sous chef: Sure, but they can’t help giving away their natural aspect. They give you a sense of what they may have been in life. Like this Yaksha here, who is questioning a prince in return for offering him something precious. So, his hair is like tree roots, see? Generally, they had a thick set appearance and were custodians of great wealth. But it was never earned. Always acquired. Even their female companions were acquired. You know, they didn’t actually marry them, they kind of stole them from others.
M: Wow, perfect CEO material, yeah?
Sous chef: I don’t think, CEOs could make their grade. These guys were not scrupulous, you know. They would cut a deal for anything and everything. They would offer nothing, without throwing out a challenge and the reward would always have a twist in the tale.
M: Okay, well, that’s very interesting and informative. Listen guys, can somebody send out a sampling of the dessert menu to table 15? Our high roller’s wife and daughter would like a taste.
Sous chef: Our high roller? But, he canceled over two hours ago, by calling in at the reception. We just sent out the menu since we thought you had a personal guest.
The maitre’d came into the kitchen with a bemused look. He handed the masterchef a gambling coin worth the cost of the meal and a hefty tip, plus a small note.
The masterchef opened the note. There was a question mark on it.