ABOUT MEERAN GANI MANZOOR
I am Meeran Gani Manzoor, I am the head chef for Blue Haven Collections. As part of the company, we have 2 different properties, Old Bank House, Kinsale and Blue Haven Hotel, Kinsale. I manage both properties, which include a variety of eateries, including Fishmarket Bistro, RARE, a high end fine dining restaurant, Hamlets Street Food Gastro Garden, Old Bank House Café and Vikkis Modern Tapas Restaurant in Cork. Tabasu @ Old Bank House, a regional Indian tapas restaurant, is our latest venture.
I gained my culinary degree from studying in the University of West London and worked in the Metropolitan Hotel London, Dorchester Collections, USA, Belgium and now I am in Ireland.
I grew up in Chennai, India. I remember the very moment which changed my thoughts towards food. I was 9 years old when I learned to make the first sunny side up. Watching the raw egg cooking and turning into something different was indeed special. Food for me has always been a great adventure and something magical. Upon finishing my Leaving Cert, my Dad gave me the opportunity to choose from 3 different courses, 1. Aeronautical engineering 2. Computer engineering or 3. Culinary arts (only because I was adamant). I chose culinary and my Mom wasn’t very pleased. Her words were “don’t you see how difficult it is to be in kitchen with the heat”, and to this day, she’s not happy that I am a chef due to the heat and fire in the kitchen. As the trends change, the culinary scene gets more and more special with time. Dealing with food is like dealing with a mirror; it reflects on the love and care we put in preparing it and we can see the difference in the end. Food doesn’t lie.
My journey towards the culinary industry is filled with memories of people I’ve travelled with all these years. I must be honest here and admit it wasn’t easy- culturally, technically, with communication and working culture. The change for me was constant because of the plan I had set for myself. I wanted to travel as much as I could, and despite the tedious visa application process, I never gave up. To fit in, in any country, and to start from zero in a new world was the challenging part, whether it be London, Newcastle, USA, Belgium or Ireland. With all these changes, wherever I went, I would try to understand the place and values through cookbooks, my favourite being ‘No Reservation’ by Anthony Bourdain. He was the chef who opened my eyes to different cultures and respect for food, and the formula to combine both.
JOURNEY FROM INDIA TO IRELAND
India – To the World as the Outsider
Moving to London at 18 meant taking several menial jobs to keep up with my student life. For the 3 years of my undergraduate in culinary arts, I spent 5 days on college work and 2 days in my part time job. I still remember my first ever practical class was a pan roasted chicken breast with goat’s cheese gratin. Looking at the dish visually, it was divine. Once we had the opportunity to taste it, the very first bite I had in my mouth I almost threw up and lost my appetite for a while, mainly because of the strong flavour of the goat’s cheese. In India, at that time, there was no goat’s cheese and the only cheese I grew up eating was ricotta (Paneer) and processed pizza cheese. The goat’s cheese was a shock to my system, I am over it now but the fear of that is still within me.
I come from a culture where coriander is the main herb and here, we have all sorts of herbs. It took a while for me to understand visual differences between coriander and parsley in the walk-in fridge, and as a commis chef I’ve made a few walks back and forth with parsley in hand instead of coriander. I studied every single herb and the flavour profile constantly.
In the early stages of my career, I worked in other restaurants for free on my day off to understand and learn new techniques. The culinary industry is a world which is constantly evolving for the better. We must make sure that we keep up with new trends and new ingredients and combinations, which are constantly changing. I was never afraid to try; a challenge is good, and it keeps you alive. I don’t know if its common, but I doubt myself a lot which helps me to perform better.
The different food
I grew up eating spices all my life, but in India we eat for the harmony of spices and protein as its end product. But here in Europe and other parts of the world, food is consumed for its own flavor, be it lamb, beef, fish, chicken. As much as I understand spices, to identify the point at which you stop is the key. Now I don’t eat pasta without parmesan cheese, but it took me good 6 months to adjust to the flavor of it, that’s how sensitive my palette was to strong individual flavors. It’s a constant push to see how to adjust the combinations, to my strength.
The Mental Change
14 years ago in India, chefing was not what it is today. London changed the way I saw my profession as a chef, it made me mature and realize what it takes to succeed, survive and enjoy the work I do at the same time. The answer was to be passionate and ready to put in the hours. Everyone I have worked with to date has taught me something directly or indirectly and it’s the only way to stay in the game. Passion combined with the willingness to learn every day. Any one thing can be done in various ways. When it works you get praise, when it doesn’t, you learn a lesson and move on. ‘What doesn’t break you makes you stronger’ fits perfectly for hospitality as a whole and kitchens in particular. The heat, the sweat, the pressure - it’s immense and we have to prepare ourselves. Sometimes we learn it the easy way, sometimes the hard way, it’s luck really. At the end we do it day in day out for the adrenaline rushing through our veins. I can openly say I am addicted to wearing my chef whites every day. It gives me a different sense of feeling which I still don’t know how to explain. It’s a very good feeling.
The Kitchen Culture
Kitchens are an environment unlike any other. Every kitchen I’ve worked in shares a common culture, which is the love and respect for the food. In London, most of my colleagues were Italian, and I loved working with them. They keep the intensity alive and it feels lively most of the time. I am someone who takes my time to adjust into a new team, because I observe a lot in the beginning to make sure that I fit in right.
Irrespective of which kitchen we are in, it has its own language, vibe, values, customs, and distinct ways of doing things - it has its own culture. For me as an aspiring chef, the biggest deal was to fit in to the team and understand their language, because the sooner you understand it, the sooner you'll find your place within the team. It’s like going to war, we have to watch each other’s backs, communicate like an orchestra, all strings in line.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked on one of the finest kitchens across the globe and with colleagues who have the mutual respect and admiration for each other. My Dorchester days, at 45 Park Lane, really made me see the difference within the team. Everyone called each other Chef, there were handshakes before and after service, there was no yelling or anything which would create a stressful environment. Treating everyone with equal respect is an infectious trait I follow in my kitchen, which I learned from Dorchester.
Kitchens are a hard place to be as it is. Why make it unpleasant for ourselves? There is no ‘I’ in the Team, which is exactly what a kitchen is. One day I will be a psychologist, the next day a prep chef, the next day fixing equipment. It’s all for my team. I want my chefs to come in happy and sign out happy, it’s a day-to-day struggle, and with COVID its only gotten worse. The lack of workforce, I consider my biggest challenge right now. Team and team culture are very important for any organization to produce quality.
The cooking methods used to cook affect the flavour of food directly. Even the smallest of mistakes can cause huge havoc in the kitchen. You cannot take your eye off the ball. A simple error can cause serious problems for the guests, and at the end of the day, satisfying guest needs is the pivotal task for us. Techniques are very necessary. During my early days as a commis chef, I was trying to stir béchamel sauce with a sauce spoon while my executive chef stopped and asked me to use a whisk. Something as small as that makes a huge difference to the end product. Learning the basics is very important. Without proper basics, it will be very difficult to tackle complicated tasks such as butchery, filleting fish and knife skills. It takes years and years to master one single thing. On a very personal note, it’s very pleasing to see Indian techniques coming into play and the ingredients being showcased. it is heart-warming for me. Indian cuisine is so vast and technically very difficult. It is not just curry. I would love to see more adaptation of Indian cooking techniques and spices.
Kitchen Communication – it’s different
No matter the size, kitchens are often chaotic, loud and fast-paced. Effective communication makes all the difference. It’s the cornerstone of any efficient and successful kitchen – whether there are two of you or twenty. Communication is the key for success in every kitchen, it is what can make kitchen teams perform better, and ensures everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goal. Without this key ingredient, a kitchen cannot truly function, which can ultimately be a recipe for disaster.
Being a shy kid growing up to be vocal in the kitchen was hard at first for me. Mistakes happen, but the way we communicate makes the difference between a successful service and a disastrous one. It is important to have a team which has a voice. I’ve had several instances where one chef failed to communicate resulting in a whole table waiting for the food. It’s not a nice thing and will backfire the service big time.
Being vocal is not all, being a good listener is as important. I thought the British accent was very difficult to understand at the beginning, until I moved to Newcastle and heard the Geordie accent! I remember not understanding what my sous-chef was saying to me at that time and I had to ask my colleague what he’d said once he left the room. And it got worse. Whilst working in USA, the kitchen brigade was predominantly German, which made me realise how important it is to have one language across the board. Moving to Belgium, I was the only person who didn’t speak Dutch. The dockets were printed in Dutch, the medium of communication was Dutch. It took me easily 3 months to understand the basic communication terms. Without the love of food and the passion, I wouldn’t have been able to travel and have the experience I have had.
For the newcomers to this industry, the only piece of advice I can give is to dedicate yourself to the profession, it will pay the respect back.