Taste may be the most important sense when it comes to food, but cooking — and eating — involves every one of them. Three top chefs from King’s Cross discuss the importance of scent, texture and how memories have influenced their culinary journeys. Interviews by Rebecca Seal
Executive Chef, Dishoom
dishoom.com | @dishoom
Touch is very important when cooking Indian food. My teacher, Imtiaz Quereshi, a grandmaster chef, once slapped me lovingly when watching me handle rice. Basmati is very fragile — we say it is a living, breathing thing. But I was washing it in a big bowl, with the rice in running water, rubbing it. He told me I needed to treat it with gentle gestures and not to let the water hit it directly. He says that to get food right you need to understand spices like they are your children. He uses his hands to weigh everything; he can do this because he’s been a chef for fifty-five years and knows cooking, literally, like the back of his hand. There was a myth that everyone used to tell about him, that he could tell how much salt was in something just by smelling it. My mother, though, really could tell if there was enough sugar in a rice pudding by smelling it. I fast during Ramadan, which means I can’t taste the food we serve, so like them, I’ve taught myself to tell if something is right just by smelling it.
I come from a Muslim family, and we ate a lot of offal when I was growing up, including cow’s udder — which we skewered and grilled over charcoal — and lamb brains. The brains are mushier, like soft boiled eggs, and I wouldn’t eat them as a child. Then I lived in Bombay for seven years and I really got into them. Now, they’re on the menu at Dishoom in King’s Cross.
I spent summer holidays in my grandmother’s mansion in a small village in Northern India. There was a mango orchard, and some brilliant cooks worked there, including one who made the best kebabs. But Bombay is where I grew up as a chef. I used to visit the Irani cafes that Dishoom is based on, places with such a buzz, places like the Britannia. It was a dingy and crumbling room, but so lively. The 93-year-old owner, Boman Kohinoor, would come to your table and share his stories and memories of Bombay. It all adds up to a memorable dining experience.
At Dishoom, we all have a slightly different philosophy about what it means to make beautiful food. We want to serve food like it is back home in India, which isn’t necessarily about how it looks. Our food is true comfort food. It’s the food of all Bombay: its Hindus, Muslims, and Parsis, and its cafes, grills, street stalls and homes. It is unpretentious and delicious. We cook and serve most of our dishes in the way you’d find them in Bombay. The combination of dishes we serve is quite unusual, but when your server arrives and the table fills up with all these delicious things… that’s a truly lovely moment that I’ll never tire of looking at!
Executive Chef, German Gymnasium
germangymnasium.com | @thegermangym
Twenty years ago, I did a little experiment on one of my old bosses. He didn’t believe taste is influenced by what we see, so I dyed some apricot jam red and gave it to him. He thought it was strawberry. I was proved right, and he was very mad.
For me, cooking is essential to happiness. You can teach skills but you can’t teach passion. Several of the dishes on the menu at German Gymnasium are inspired by my grandmother — things like our baked cheesecake or Black Forest gateau.
I remember sitting in her kitchen when I was three or four years old, holding a piece of her cake dough in my hand. She never used recipes and only baked using freehand measuring, but somehow everything came out perfect. Wintry spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and black pepper bring back memories of baking with her as a child, especially at Christmas when we made cinnamon stars, mainly to eat, but some to decorate the tree with. Familial memories are important, it was my uncle who taught me to sharpen knives in the days before health and safety. To test them, I use my thumb. I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to do it though; use a tomato!
Texture is so important. Many dishes need to be a perfect combination of crunchy, chewy and soft, like good bread, or pork knuckle, which should be soft and tender within, but crunchy on the outside. I have a few tricks to achieve this — I might give the meat 12 hours at 80C, and then a final 15 minutes at 240C to make the fat pop and crackle.
I’ve eaten at two-Michelin-starred restaurants where the food looked pretty and tasted alright, but didn’t satisfy my hunger. I hate going for dinner and finding I need to eat again afterwards; when everything is done just for entertainment’s sake. German Gymnasium is an eatery; we don’t want you to be hungry, and although entertainment and delight are part of what we do, it can’t be just about that, satisfaction is key.
Head Chef, Caravan King’s Cross
caravanrestaurants.co.uk | @caravanrestaurants
Cooking is all about nostalgia, whether for a childhood memory, a great holiday, or a goat dish cooked by a tribesman in the desert. This is what Caravan’s food is about; food triggers all the senses, which in turn triggers nostalgic memories.
My first memory of food was when I was about four years old, watching my grandmother bake scones in her kitchen at home in South Africa. I loved watching her make the dough; I thought she was a magician. After, she would cut the dough with a glass and any leftover raw dough would end up in my belly. I loved it.
In creating a new dish, texture is as important as flavour. At Caravan, we aim to impact as many senses as we can to make people enjoy their food. I remember my mother’s sago pudding was like having a pool of warm tadpoles in my mouth. Not my favourite, but interesting nevertheless. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t cook or any texture I wouldn’t try, at least once.
Touching food and respecting the ingredients is a vital part of cooking. From massaging a salt rub into a piece of brisket, to kneading bread, some things need to be done by hand. I can imagine the response from my grandmother if I asked her to use a utensil when kneading the scone dough. It wouldn’t have been pretty that’s for sure. The key is knowing what needs to be touched and what doesn’t.
Our palates are like musical instruments. Some people have a head start but anyone can get there with passion and hard work. I realised taste was important the very first time I ate an oyster from a rock pool picked out by my uncle; it blew me away and I will never forget it.
Smell is a primal sense. It lets you know immediately if something is good or bad. It’s the first sense we trust when we cook or eat anything. If it doesn’t get past our nose, we don’t eat it. The scent of freshly baked bread and freshly brewed coffee reminds me of home and holidays on a family friend’s farm. It’s funny that today I find myself working here with Caravan Coffee Roasters in the back and a counter full of freshly baked items out the front every day. It makes work seem like a holiday.
Caravan: Dining All Day by Miles Kirby, Laura Harper Hinton and Chris Ammermann is out now.
This article first appeared in the winter 2017 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.