Verve People

I first met Keertida Phadke back in pre-COVID January at Dysco’s Y3K: Plant Lost & Found – a thoughtfully curated programme of talks, workshops and pop-ups put together by individuals and organisations united by their concern for the environment. While soaking in the conversations around me, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and a familiar face come into view. I knew I’d seen Phadke very recently, but it was only when she began to wax eloquent about jackfruit, a fruit which, in my opinion, has no redeeming values, that I was able to put a name to the face. In December last year, over mouthfuls of airy crackers dipped in thick, piquant spreads, I had been privy to a similar conversation at The UpperCrust Food & Wine Show. The co-founder of the plant-based brand Better had been demystifying the properties of mock meat to a group gathered around her stall, and while I was intrigued to know more, I was also too ashamed to be caught with my mouth stuffed with her scrumptious offerings and stayed back quietly. “It would’ve been the greatest compliment,” Phadke says with a good-natured laugh when I recount this incident to her almost 10 months later during our telephonic interview.

So how did a L’Oréal beauty marketer in Paris do a 180 and end up at the first-ever licensed and accredited plant-based school in New York? The decision came out of her having experienced the sudden onset of a lactose intolerance when she had been 19, which was the result of a cyclical parasitic infection that left her bedridden for six months. At that point, Phadke had already converted to vegetarianism and would soon have to restrict her diet further. And as someone who had always been interested in studying food, she had a pretty straightforward reason for eventually applying to the Natural Gourmet Institute (NGI): to formally pursue a type of cuisine she could consume herself and therefore confidently serve others.

Excerpts from our conversation….

What was the process of getting accepted into NGI?
I had to fill out an online application that had essay-type questions about what food meant to me. NGI takes pride in balancing taste and nutrition, so the questions weren’t only about why I wanted to study food from a gourmet aspect; they were more about explaining my relationship with food and how NGI would help me foster/alter it. It was a big decision to quit my job in Mumbai and move to New York, so I wrote to a lot of people who had either studied at culinary school or just knew a lot about the space. That’s when I learnt that NGI was extremely popular and had a waiting list to get into the school’s programs because plant-based eating had suddenly become all the rage.

What professional backgrounds did your classmates come from?
Some of my classmates joined NGI after attending more conventional culinary schools because they had realised that they wanted to focus on wellness along with the gourmet aspect. We had a nurse enrol because she saw the impact of plant-based eating in her profession and wanted to approach it from a culinary angle. There were many people like me, who had gone through some major health issues, and decided to come to NGI to learn how to prepare food that was healing and also tasted good. So it was quite a diverse bunch. We were a class of 16, which included people from China, Brazil, Mexico, Australia and India.

Wow, just a class of 16?
That was quite necessary! In fact, 16 was the maximum batch size. It’s impossible to be in those practical cooking setups with more people. For instance, when we got our knife kits on the first day, more than 50 per cent of us had cuts and bruises just from handling them. You can imagine what would happen if you overcrowded a situation where there are sharp knives, boiling water and heavy objects.

What was a typical day at NGI like?
The full-time course was spread over six months, five days a week. Monday to Thursday, we’d have classes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Fridays, we’d end at 1 p.m. A regular day at NGI would start with changing into our chef’s whites and special shoes, which we weren’t allowed to wear outdoors due to hygiene and safety reasons. The program was structured interestingly. First, the basics: we had to learn to hold a professional kitchen knife and identify spices. And for someone who hailed from the “land of spices”, I thought the latter part would be a cakewalk. But I ended up not knowing some of the herbs because we cook them differently back home. Our tutor would pass around 46 tiny boxes of spices and ask us to smell and touch them, and I’d think to myself, “Am I really doing this with saunf [fennel seeds] and jeera [cumin]? Have I come all the way to New York for this when I could very well be doing this back home?”

Since NGI is an alternative school, we focused on the unconventional grains which were suddenly becoming trendy. So, we had to specifically understand how to cook with quinoa because unless you come from Peru or Bolivia, that food is not a part of your culture. We were then trained to “veganise” the mother sauces (béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise and tomato) and instructed in the art of cooking dishes that have their origins in different national cuisines. We also had entire modules on cardiovascular health where we’d make food that supported heart and bone health.

We’d end the week with Friday Night Dinners – the school would essentially transform into a restaurant, and the public could sign up to eat a three-course vegan meal made entirely by the students. That was actually our final-grade assignment for which the students had to do both, the cooking and the stewarding. The experience of waiting on people was something I thought I’d never have because I was so clear that I wanted to be the one cooking the food. But when one person at a table is asking you to fill their water while another one is asking you for dish recommendations, you develop a healthy respect for serving staff.

What are some specific classes you took? Did you have a favourite one?
We had weeks of “conversion classes” where we’d turn traditional baking recipes into healthier foods by substituting white flour, butter and sugar with whole wheat flour, coconut oil and maple sugar. I’d actually never heard of maple sugar before NGI; it’s basically crystallised maple syrup, which is a better alternative to regular sugar. I loved those weeks we spent making decadent pastries healthier. We also learnt how to make vegan cheeses, which was a delightful exercise for someone like me who is lactose intolerant.

What reaction did your friends and family have back home when you told them you were going to study at a plant-based cooking school in New York?
In spite of knowing that I’ve been lactose intolerant for years, my family still asks me to join them for chai. And I have to keep explaining to them that my body won’t suddenly digest milk just because they requested my company at tea for the 57th time. But it was relatively easier for me to justify my decision to go to NGI since I had been a vegetarian for many years. My parents stood by me because they’re vegetarian as well, but it was the no-dairy part that drew a host of reactions. Everyone had something to say, from “it’s not healthy to completely give up dairy” to “you’ll develop a B12 deficiency”, which, for the record, I’ve never had. But there’s also been a fair bit of curiosity since I got back. A few relatives now call on me to inquire how to make milk-less cheese or how to prepare kheer using coconut milk. Going to NGI has given me the credibility to talk about these things.

Culinary school is quite expensive, especially if you compare it with the ROI. In fact, research shows that most people spend at least 10 to 15 years working their way through restaurants before they become successful. What are your thoughts on the argument that the time classes take up would be better spent in a restaurant, learning on the job?
This is a bit of a grey area. It really depends on the context. If you’re an 18-year-old looking to use culinary school to kick-start your career, I’d advise you to get some kitchen experience beforehand so that you’re sure cooking full-time is something you actually want to do. With the age of Instagram and the visual component of consuming shows like Chef’s Table on Netflix, the culinary industry has become quite glamorous compared to what it was 30 years ago. Chefs are now celebrities in their own right. And, for someone who is starting their career in the food industry, this glamour could really warp their perception and set unrealistic expectations. The most difficult part of NGI was how physically demanding the courses were; for instance, you had to be on your feet all the time. During Friday Night Dinners, we would stand for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch, and during internships, we wouldn’t even have the time to sit and eat a meal. At times, we would literally gulp food straight out of kitchen containers while standing because we were in such a rush. That’s something that no amount of watching chef shows will prepare you for.

In addition, chef school is quite expensive. If you’re taking out a student loan, which will take a decade to pay off, think carefully about the ROI because you won’t make money when you start off as a line cook. But if you have the means, culinary school definitely accelerates your learning, especially in terms of technique. You often do isolated activities like working only the salad counter when you join a restaurant as a line cook till you’re promoted to the next level. So there is less scope for 360° learning.

Post-pandemic, do think that culinary schools will introduce modules on immunising the body against illnesses through food?
I definitely think culinary schools are going to focus more on health and wellness because, pandemic or not, people are waking up to the fact that what they’re eating is affecting how they feel physically, emotionally and mentally. But they will also focus on teaching how one should pivot their business in the face of a crisis. The restaurant industry had always been brutal. Statistics show that around 60 per cent of new restaurants fail within the first year and nearly 80 per cent shutter before their fifth anniversary. And these are pre-pandemic stats. So culinary school will increasingly begin focusing on studies that pertain not only to launching a restaurant or a food brand but also to getting into associated fields like food writing. At NGI, we had a module on recipe-writing because you can now become an Instagram blogger and monetise your collaborations with brands. And that might be a more sustainable way to build a career rather than only doing a restaurant job.

 A couple of years ago, reports claiming that a plant-based diet could help mitigate climate change emerged, which is when jackfruit “meat” became a mini-trend in the West. While the fruit is commonly grown and cooked in India, you’re specifically using it as a substitute for meat. Could you tell us more about that?
My family is from the coastal part of Maharashtra, so I grew up eating raw jackfruit in the form of a sabzi [vegetable]. So when I moved to New York and saw pork being substituted with raw jackfruit in vegan carnitas tacos, it made me realise that there is an appetite for this product beyond the traditional applications we are used to seeing in India. Did you know that 70 per cent of the jackfruit in the world actually grows in India, but most of it goes to waste because it’s a fruit no one typically cultivates? My family has farmland along the western coast of India, and in the peak season, even cows don’t want to eat it. I discovered that a negligible per cent of the fruit is exported because someone sitting in a hipster cafe halfway across the world decided to make tacos with it. And if they can do it, what’s stopping me from doing something with jackfruit in the local market? It’s a versatile, hardened crop and resistant to pesticides, and it’s not something that came with the Columbine exchange of food; it originated and flourished in this very country.

What are the products available at Better right now? Are you working on launching something new in the coming months?
We launched the brand with a range of non-dairy, creamy spreads in four flavours. We’ve used non-GMO, locally grown soy to make these high in protein and low in carbs, which seems to be the golden ratio these days. We also don’t use preservatives, which can be quite challenging. But when our customers give us the feedback that they don’t feel bloated and heavy after a meal, it’s worth it. Besides working on launching Better jackfruit in barbecue and kheema flavours, we’re also developing a range of jackfruit-based products like nuggets and burgers – we really believe there is so much to be explored with the fruit’s texture. It’s low in calories but fills you up because it is packed with fibre. Additionally, we’re working on a range of chickpea-based crisps to go with the spreads. You see, our spreads are eaten as a snack and a lot of our customers were DMing us asking for lavaash brand recommendations. There honestly wasn’t a brand which we believed was perfect for our product because I make my own crackers. So I responded to those messages saying, “Give us three months, we’ll create one.”

Did you face any challenges while procuring ingredients for Better from Indian markets?
We procure all our spices and seasoning ingredients from local markets and vendors. The one ingredient that we just couldn’t find an Indian substitute for is sherry vinegar, which we import from Spain; it gives our beetroot spread this gorgeous, blushing pink colour. And that particular variant was the hardest to crack because beetroot originally has a muddy, earthy flavour, which I personally don’t like. I wanted the colour of beetroot without the accompanying flavour, so I made that compromise. It works like this: If hypothetically, we were a chocolate brand, it would be wrong on our part to import cocoa beans because that constitutes over 50 per cent of our product, but it’s a whole other ballgame if you’re importing an ingredient which is used in 1% concentration. These are the kind of things brands that are preaching sustainability should be conscious of.