In 2015, Shri Bala quit her full-time job as a chartered accountant at a law firm in Chennai and pursued a career in the culinary world.
The production team of the National Geographic show Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted was doing the final rounds of interviews in India to choose the chef who would introduce South Indian cuisine to the world. After almost five rounds of interviews, the producers chose Shri Bala, a Chartered Accountant-turned-chef from Chennai. The question that cinched the deal was, What do you think makes you a better chef than Gordon Ramsay?
And Shri replied with, Well, I think it’s the fact that I’m a mother.
As part of his show’s new season, Gordon had made a visit to India in January this year and travelled to different regions in South India to showcase one-of-a-kind dishes. The show aired in India on 16 August this year.
Shri’s passion for food, her experience and witty answer paved her way to the show and brought several of her dishes to the limelight.
In talks with The Better India (TBI), Shri takes us through her culinary journey.
How A Chartered Accountant Turned Into A Chef
“I’ve always been fond of cooking and watching other chefs. I also love to learn about the history and evolution of the food we eat. But when it came to my career, I followed a different route. I completed my graduation in Law and also cleared my charted accountancy papers. It was only in 2015 that I took a detour and stepped into the world of cooking,” Shri explains.
Shri worked as a CA at a law firm in Chennai. But, the urge to make a career in the gastronomic field never left her.
“I started out my career as a cook in 2016 by organising a south Indian vegetarian food festival DakshinRivaayath at the Trident Hotel BKC, Mumbai under the guidance of the renowned chef Ashish Bhasin. That’s when I stepped into the world of 5-star hotels right from my kitchen,” she explains.
Speaking to TBI about his experiences of mentoring Shri, Ashish Basin, the Executive Chef at The Leela, Gurugram says, “Shri Bala’s entry into the culinary world is actually quite an interesting story. She first reached out to me on Twitter when I had posted a picture of Gajar Ka Halwa. She complimented my food and asked me for tips and soon I saw myself get into an intense discussion with her about the lack of representation of South Indian food. At the end of the discussion, I agreed to organise a south India food festival with her. At the time, she was just a home cook and had no background in the commercial world but seeing her passion, I was ready to take on a challenge,” Ashish explains.
“The food she cooked was absolutely spectacular and the festival was a huge success. The best part was that she kept it as original as possible and didn’t try to customise it. Although she struggled to get accustomed to the commercial side of cooking, she learnt quickly. Today, I can confidently say that she is a personification of the saying ‘Khaana Dil Se Banta Hai’,” he adds.
Shri also started building her social media presence with her Facebook and Instagram handles and shared the forgotten recipes of southern India. Soon her dishes started gaining popularity and she began working as a guest chef at several top-notch hotels across the country.
Exploring The History Of South Indian Food
A few years into her career, Shri began exploring new possibilities for the kind of food she made and get a deeper understanding of the evolution of South Indian food.
Her fascination to understand the history of food led to pursue a PhD in the evolution of food in Sangam literature, specifically.
“There’s a stereotype that’s been going around for a while that South Indians only eat idli and sambar. During my research, I learnt that neither of them is in any way related to South India. It most likely originated from Indonesia because of the trade links they had with South India as there is no trace of the cooking technique in Tamil Literature,” she explains.
She also explained how several dishes like biryani existed but were not tagged as ‘biryani’ and were eaten under names like the ‘Perum Choru’ from Kerala which consists of the same elements found in biryani.
“Kootan Soru, a one-pot meal from Sangam Literature which has sambal fried peanuts and spicy shallots is also a form of biryani but is completely vegetarian,” she explains.
Cooking With Gordon Ramsay
“The opportunity to cook for Gordon Ramsay came unexpectedly. I had worked with a friend who was the producer of a show called ‘Curries Of India’ and when the National Geographic channel asked her for South India specific chefs, she referred me. It was shot at different regions of Southern India ranging from Kerala’s Kannur to Karnataka’s Coorg. I had the chance to cook for him region-specific dishes like Kandhari chilly fish curry and pork curry blended with bitter lime,” Shri shares.
“Gordon is perceived as a hot-tempered person and he is widely known for his criticism of food but I had a completely different experience with him. He was charming, thoughtful and was genuinely keen to learn about our food,” she smiles.
“Each state in South India has a certain kind of preparation technique and the kinds of food chosen to be cooked are also different depending on the topography of the land. Besides this, South India is also very region-specific, so each district has its own unique dishes. The chance to cook with Gordon on the show was a great way to show this to the world,” she concludes.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)