“Mealtimes,” pronounces the man with the air of an oracle, “should be Sybaritic.” I reflect that Arundhati Roy would love this gent — He Who Speaks in Capitals. I am in the august company of The Man Who Can Cook Anything, the Garden City’s Epicure Number One, henceforth to be delineated as E1. He’s tossing a salad for me, an artful concoction of kidney beans, baby spuds, mushrooms and beet surronding a mound of fresh prawns draped in mayo. His ponderous manner belies the quicksilver movements of his ringed hands as he dices, peels, minces and reaches for dressing from the stone urns and jars neatly ranged behind him on a stone ledge, talking all the while.
“Mealtimes should be a time for Inspired Food, Intelligent Conversation, some Laughter, little Rambles to explore one’s surroundings. And the time to linger over a Superior Wine.” He turns towards me, but I cannot reply. My mouth is full. The prawns slowly start to fill the insides of my mouth, with their distinct flavour. I start to feel light-headed.
“Here, take a bite of this quichelet.” E1 pushes a richly garnished slice of flan towards my already outstretched fingers. “I have Problems,” he intones sonorously. “You just don’t get good enough cheese here. What passes off as Mascarpone or Provolone… pah! I have to Make Do.” It is clear Making Do isn’t really cramping his talent. The melted cheese has glued my lips together in the tradition of the old-fashioned nougat toffee. I give the man a cheesy smile, which I hope is evocative enough.
“I love cooking for Small Numbers of People,” he announces in a weighty manner. “That way, you get to enjoy both Food and Conversation. One complements the other, you know.” I do know, I’m at the receiving end of both, but I’m sipping my soup now and can’t reply. It is lentil soup, the common or garden dal soup with such a tangy flourish. I can distinguish sage, thyme, parsley and a small host of others, which my philistine tongue delights in.
He then takes a deep breath. “We are now about to have some of my spinach based lasagna.” I choke on a reply and smile limpidly; spinach is the stuff of my nightmares, the vegetable my mother used to force down my throat when I was a child, and as for lasagna, I have a history with lasagna… it`s been a string of bummer relationships at most restaurants, from Cuffe Parade, Mumbai to Carmel, California. Inside of three minutes, unsurprisingly, I am forced to eat my thoughts, along with the first mouthful of a clever folding of pasta and Popeye’s staple veggie.
“You are a Mallu, so the main course is fish” E1 says now, with a dramatic flourish. He nods his head in a sage manner. “We often get people who like good food but rarely do I find an Adventurer, a Ranulph Fiennes of Food.” He sighs sadly and I hastily compose my features into a look that combines sympathy with all the delight of a gourmandising adventuress. I devoutly hope I don’t look like a victim of a sudden stomach spasm instead.
The Man is not looking at me, however. This is E1 in moralising mode, and you cannot stem the tide – all you can do is savour the nuggets that come your way. “We are a Race forever in a Hurry,” he says. “ We are on Perpetual Diets. We stick to Safe Bets when we eat out. We never try anything new. A whole new world of Good Food is closed to he who will always order butter chicken. Yes?”
“I want to write a Book,” The Man saysto me, over dessert. “On food, I presume”, I want to say in an astute manner, but dessert is a lemon chiffon pie topped by a curl of sour cream. It is the kind you don’t insult by indulging in talk. He carries on. “It’s going to be a Thriller. Lots of Blood, Gore, Sex and Violence.” He exhales noisily and happily at the thought.
It has been a five-hour meal. Sybaritic as hell. But I have to go now. “It was great having you here, ” he says, turning on the charm in a lethal manner. “I really enjoyed your conversation. It is important to meet people with informed minds and wit.” Mouth open, rather like a goldfish, I stare fuzzily at him. You don’t join issue with a man who cooks like this. Not if you want to eat at his place again.
Author’s note: This piece is inspired by an interview over an unforgettable lunch with an unforgettable man, the late Saeed Sattar of The Farmhouse restaurant in Bengaluru, many years ago.