Friday, July 03, 2009

Super Chef In Shantisagar

I generally have my breakfast from the ShantiSagar near my office; on most days I have rice-bath. (For non-Bangaloreans, ShantiSagar is a chain of vegetarian joints and rice-bath is a generic term for any savoury boiled rice preparation mixed with a variety of vegetables/seasoning that can be had as breakfast; Bangaloreans, excuse my poor ignorant definitions :)

Where I come from, we don't normally eat rice for breakfast. But what made me transcend my gastronomic upbringing was the tastiness and sheer variety that seemed to be on offer. Each day, there were two different types of rice-bath on offer - coconut-rice, tomato-rice, ghee-rice, vegetable-rice, aubergine-rice, pongal, biriyani, pulao, cabbage-rice, capsicum-rice...

Some of these varieties like, for example, capsicum- and cabbage-rice I had not seen in other breakfast-joint elsewhere and hence I believed this to be innovation at work. Plus, whoever was making it was enjoying his work too; the preparation was sure to be tasty without being generic, satisfaction guaranteed!

There seemed to be a virtuoso chef at work right in my neighbourhood ShantiSagar! And it seemed here, you could have your cake and eat it as well, it was cheap as well! Whether he really was a chef extraordinaire is moot, but for me the proof was in the pudding. :)

I thought a little more about this SuperChef and the life he was leading. Somebody so talented and obviously good at what he did, working at a generic food joint chain! His innovation and creativity would mostly be stifled here. Hey, this is really good mate! Exquisite! But this is not rice-bath man, could you please make some rice-bath now please?

The supervisor's perspective was logical as well: what was the point anyway? People came to ShantiSagar expecting rice-bath and not ratatouille or paella. A good ratatouille is a bad bisibelebath, and a paella is probably taboo for most of the customers. So SuperChef, his ultimate duty being to feed the clientele, would willingly submit and decide to be satisfied making innovative rice-baths.

If his creativity was to be bottled, why was he hired then? Because the supervisor only checked for the minimum qualification - "does he make good rice-bath?" - and took any added skills as a bonus freebie thrown in for him. Maybe he will invent a new kind of rice-bath and that will give us a competitive advantage! Who knows!

Surely, SuperChef was not getting paid much either. (A plate of rice-bath is priced at Rs.16 at the restaurant.) Factor in (the mandatory and natural) capitalistic measures and other hierarchical/operational constraints. Probably peanuts, kind of like minimum wage.

Why was my virtual hero doing it then? Why was he not running his own fine-dining restaurant or at least working at a five-star hotel? Probably he enjoyed what he was doing - making good food and people happy. Perhaps that's all he cared about. Or, maybe it could have been that he didn't know too much about other opportunities that existed elsewhere and was not convinced about his suitability/skills.

If you decide to check out the rice-bath in the ShantiSagar near my office after reading this and find that it's not up to scratch, maybe it's because the SuperChef got bored with the "routine innovation" or he got peer-pressured in to normalcy. But I hope it's because he saw the light and quit!

- Thomas Jay Cubb

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