Can a home cook stand the heat in the kitchen at Gymkhana?
Words by Meera Sodha | Illustrations by Reena Makwana
What would it be like to work in the kitchen of a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant? Braced for a fiery baptism, a home cook dons chef's trousers and joins the crew at Gymkhana.
When Gymkhana first opened its doors, I was in one of its candlelit booths, knocking back quinine sours. Later in the evening I ordered lamb chops, and with every perfectly spiced bite I became increasingly curious: how did they do it? Before I had finished my meal, I was determined to learn the secrets of this Mayfair restaurant’s kitchen.
Up until then, I had never worked in a professional kitchen. I’d been a dedicated home cook, with some swagger; I’d just written my first cookbook. But I was captivated by the magical culinary alchemy at Gymkhana. So I pursued the owner, Karam Sethi, for a meeting that same week.
Would he allow me into the kitchen? I asked. He would, he said, on the proviso that the team were happy with the idea. My subsequent conversation with them went something like this…
“Have you trained as a chef?”
“Have you worked in an Indian kitchen before?”
“Can you work full-time?”
“Can you start on Monday?”
“OK, see you then.”
I called an emergency meeting in the pub with Ben and George, friends of mine from the cheffing fraternity. “What’s the worst that can happen? I know my way around a kitchen,” I said. George recalled several acts of physical violence he’d experienced when he started out as a chef. “I was grabbed by the neck and thrown across the room by the head chef for not finishing my mise-en-place before service,” he recalled. “Another chef kicked my leg into the back of a steel table for being slow. I mean, who can boil, peel, make and fry 200 quail scotch eggs in an hour?”
“Great, anything else I should know?” I enquired. “Yes, wear cotton trousers. They’ll keep you cool and they won’t fuse onto your skin when burning.” What on earth was I thinking?
Day one. I stumbled across Sonny first: short, Nepali and darting around the tight corners of the kitchen like a greyhound. He looked at me and curtly directed me to a cupboard to get my whites and stripy apron. Soon I was wearing large, unflattering chef’s trousers, an old T-shirt and green plastic clown shoes. But secretly I was euphoric to be part of the gang.
A man who introduced himself as “The Doctor”, but who was clearly a pot washer, was frowning at me from the sink.
“What are you doing here? Your husband doesn’t work?” he asked.
“I’m not married,” I replied.
Wrong answer. He shook his head and gestured towards Ragbir, the head chef, a Sikh Hagrid whose beard chased his smile up the sides of his face and into his turban. He peered over his invoices.
“Can you make coriander chutney?”
“Get Sonny to show you how to make ours. We need five litres. You’ll watch him today and make it yourself tomorrow. But first, drink your chai,” he said, as he nudged over a fresh glass of sweet ginger and cardamom-spiced Indian rocket fuel.
Suddenly Sonny and I were in the spice cupboard, with an unquantifiable mountain of fresh coriander, yoghurt, chillies and mint. “You peel the ginger,” Sonny commanded as he threw ingredients into the Vitamix with abandon, pressing buttons and turning dials. I was peeling faster than I’d ever peeled in my life, while desperately trying to get my pen to work so I could scratch down the recipe. Oh God. What was that he put in? A corner of that plastic lid of mango powder, a slosh of vinegar, but how much… a slab, no two slabs, of yoghurt with that particular medium-sized ladle.
“Is there a recipe for this, Sonny?” I asked. He chuckled. “No recipes here. If you want to learn, you have to watch and taste. You’ll be lucky if the chefs give you their secrets.”
No recipes? How was I ever going to get anything right?
I got into work early and ran around the kitchen, trying to make coriander chutney before Ragbir arrived. But by the time I’d finished asking The Doctor where each of the 15 ingredients I needed was located, he was annoyed and refused to let me use his sink to wash the coriander. So I was behind.
No grace under pressure: I pressed the wrong button on the Vitamix and the engine started to make a funny sound. There was a smell of burning. Ravi, one of the chefs, ducked for cover and, a few seconds later, there were green splodges all over my pristine white chef’s jacket, and some in my hair, and some on the walls.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt like such an amateur. I was so distracted that I cut myself while chopping spring onions. I’d gone in deep. Rohit looked horrified and ran straight past the green first-aid box on the wall and into the spice cupboard. He pulled out a large jar of turmeric – India’s answer to everything – and stuffed some into the cut. It stopped the blood, but I felt weak and humiliated.
There was no time to stop either. No one in a kitchen with 200 people to feed can afford to stop. So with one limp, turmeric-stuffed thumb, I carried on chopping – through minutes that felt like hours and hours that felt like days, up until 11.30pm. I left broken, leaving the smell of fried onion in my wake. Could it get any worse?
Day three and I was exhausted. I caught Sanjay in the spice cupboard saying a prayer to a little figure of Ganesh, the elephant God and remover of obstacles, who was balanced on top of the cinnamon. Obstacles. I realised that I had no more obstacles and nothing to lose because I’d already hit rock bottom, which meant I could throw myself into the rest of the week and start to enjoy it.
In the morning, I shadowed Aditya – pastry chef, poet, dreamer. He got in just before service and still managed to put together and send out five different desserts while baking a fresh batch of Goan-Portuguese rolls and whipping up some saffron kulfi – all this in a space of less than a square metre. He was mesmerising to watch, a perfectly tuned fairground octopus: efficient, rhythmical and timely.
He wasn't the only one. I looked around. Ravi produced six giant metal skewers of perfectly cooked meat from the 500-degree-heat tandoor. Rohit was stirring a couple of giant pots of bubbling things: an Andhra lamb curry and a suckling pig vindaloo. Finally, Mukul was flipping and reversing naan breads as though a crowd was watching. All these items were passed to Ragbir in a matter of minutes. He then assembled them into a perfect work of art – a blur of chutney here, a sprig of coriander there – before signing them out of the kitchen and into the hearts, minds and bellies of customers.
In the midst of watching this, someone addressed Ragbir as “bhai”, which means brother in Hindi. Partly because I’d been standing up for far too long, I felt overcome with emotion at the skill and camaraderie of these men.
But how did this motley crew from a country of a billion end up right here in a basement in Mayfair? “It’s about money and dreams,” Aditya told me. “They all dream about having their own restaurants one day.” I scanned the room and saw old men. Ragbir was in his fifties and had worked double shifts (10am to 12pm), six days a week, for the past 25 years. Rohit, now 60, had been away from his wife for 40 years and, despite having three children and two grandchildren, still only saw his wife once a year. Ostensibly, they lived their lives together, but in fact they were thousands of miles apart.
In the place of their families, this kitchen had created a brotherhood: a place that inspired perfection and, also, a waiting room of dreams that lay beyond Mayfair.
Two days to go. My legs ached from standing, my shoulders ached from stirring and I hadn’t had a proper meal all week. I was cut, burned and my nails were covered in dirt. I stank of onions and garlic. I hadn’t seen daylight or breathed fresh air for the best part of a week. I hadn’t answered a single phone call from my friends, or texted or emailed, or even read the news. Despite all this, I went home happy: I nailed that green chutney.
My final day had arrived and I could barely drag myself out of bed. Ragbir invited me onto the pass to help him look after the orders. Being on the pass meant finishing off the dishes, crossing off the orders on the tickets and sending them out. It was the most important job in the kitchen: where the buck stops, as mistakes or delays can cost a restaurant dearly.
“Ravi, how long for the dill naan?” I shouted.
“Two minutes,” came the answer.
Hearing him respond to me made my chest puff out like a pigeon’s. Although I knew that the next time I stepped into the restaurant I would be upstairs, in this fleeting moment I felt as if I belonged here.
Meera Sodha is a cook, writer and author of two cookbooks – Made in India and Fresh India, published by Fig Tree/Penguin.
Some of the names in this article have been changed.