Direction of change: A chef’s charge

Chef Madhu W Krishnan shares her memories of food, influences that shaped her career and valuable advice for budding gastronomy experts.

Privileged with over two decades in pre-opening and directing culinary operations in some of the country’s most prodigious ITC Hotels, my collaborative and transformative approach has been continuously sharpened to cultivate the finest benchmarks while creating distinctive and mindful dining experiences. I am most enriched while working alongside chef teams to nurture and stimulate development, inspire talent and accelerate potential and I am obsessed to shift the context, to drive performance improvement and enhance value creation. 

In my current role as Executive Chef, Culinary Research and Development for ITC Hotels, while defining new culinary trajectories, the R&D function remains guided by the ethos of the chain’s culinary philosophy: Caringly Selected Mindfully Prepared, integrating the tenets into F&B brand creation, Responsible Luxury Culinary Initiatives and persuading change in the way we source, influence dining culture, while showcasing forgotten heritage produce and new ventured artisanal products spanning culinary and F&B operation realms, encouraging positive environmental practices and community impact.

Source of inspiration

My premature orientation to becoming a chef began in my parents’ home and my growing years in Mumbai. Memories from the time are warm, precious and intertwined with recollections of early Sunday morning drives with my father Narain to Juhu beach, in time to watch the fishermen haul their boats to shore. This was always followed by a big breakfast at the Juhu Hotel and a long swim in the Arabian Sea.

Some mornings, we’d stop by the Irani Bakery in Khar market and wait expectantly for the baker to draw the loaves of brun pao from the depths of the wood-fired oven, sliced and sandwiched with thick slices of “maska” (butter), satiating like no other breakfast food or breakfast memory.

At the time, supermarkets did not exist. Instead, there were neighbourhood markets and little shops. Lots of them. Congregated in specific localities and parts of the city that you visited for specific produce. I thoroughly enjoyed trailing behind my father and watching him in earnest engagement with the sellers, as he’d pick seasonal greens and produce while enquiring of their wellbeing.

I still recollect how a roll call followed, on the drive home, of the prized in-season treasures that were accompanying us; drumstick flowers, lotus stem and fruit, plump turnips and broad beans, green garlic shoots and others, to be contemplated and conjured into unique and delightful creations. These beguiling and entertaining market visits still evoke a warm sense of content and a flood of very happy memories.

We’d discuss lunch over breakfast and deliberate the dinner menu in minute details at lunch. I remember this clearly as becoming a daily ritual, even a familial preoccupation. In flashback, the remembrance of meals at our home contemplated with much thought and largesse in both simple and elaborate ways, the conviviality of conversations and the warmth of deep friendships come flooding back.

More definitively, it was in the time I spent assisting my mother Sarla, an impassioned, curious and inventive cook, who in this early apprenticeship, imbued in me lessons of ingenuity and resourcefulness, planning and organisation, continuous improvement and the expanding of one’s repertoire, cooking in season and being intolerant to waste and mediocrity. Lessons and tenets that went on to inspire and define my own professional philosophy and those that hold centre stage for me even today.

In the late 80’s, when a profession in hotel kitchens had little precedence, it was my parents who encouraged me to change the norm. All through my career they remained deeply involved and kept a close watch with my mum remaining my biggest critique and my dad my biggest fan!

Chef madhu krishnan
In the late 80’s, when a profession in hotel kitchens had little precedence, it was her parents who encouraged the chef to challenge the norm.

The early years

My journey began in August of 1990, with selection into the coveted management training programme at ITC Hotels. This proved to be the most insightful, well-designed and holistic initiation into ITC’s legendary restaurant brands and a training ground which provided managerial skills, preparing me for the many challenging and enriching professional experiences that followed.

Up front and close with the country’s best minds in the business and under the tutelage of the finest chefs during my formative years, this was a privilege I will always be grateful for.

I began with learning the ‘fonds’ (or basics, laying the foundation) and working at every kitchen station of ITC’s flagship ITC Maurya and its award-winning restaurants, understanding both the culinary and administrative nuances of these large and unique operations.

I began committing all of my monthly salary to buying tomes authored by the French masters: Roger Vergé, Michel Guerard,  Raymond Blanc, Joel Robuchon, Michel and Albert Roux and others, spending every free moment after work, leafing hungrily through glossy pages of gorgeously produced books with ethereal looking plates, reading about the chefs’ philosophies, what inspired them, imagining the taste of the ingredients combined, making detailed notes of the different techniques they applied and trying to replicate these with available resources and ingredients, interpreting and analysing to better my skills and my understanding.

In my early years; formative and defining of where my career path would lead, I had the privilege of working alongside professionals who empowered me to err, to explore, to disagree, to express and to excel. I have had the fortune to collaborate on and spearhead projects of immense importance under the guidance of the finest in the trade.

Chef madhu krishnan with other women chefs
The number of women in professional kitchens, entrepreneurial ventures and related businesses in the country is growing exponentially and this number is very heartening.

Approaching challenges

I have always approached my career as a chef and never as a woman, so the gender issue has been furthest from my mind. I chose this profession and with it, the lifestyle, which brings the challenges, the accolades and the pure trips of pleasure.

I advocate that our gender must not get in the way of what we want to achieveinstead, we must use to our advantage the strength, the orientation, the focus and the determination to succeed and make successes out of the lives we touch and our own.

Each day poses a great opportunity to accomplish something exceptional and the greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.

When I started out and up until now, women chefs and managers were and are provided an equal platform. Being the trail blazing and forward-thinking company ITC is, it boasts women managers in senior positions across various functions. There are no gender preferences and women are equally empowered as men.

The number of women in professional kitchens, entrepreneurial ventures and related businesses in the country is growing exponentially and this number is very heartening.

For the future

There are several things that you need to bear in mind, if you’ve chosen to be a chef.

  • Remember, it’s for the long haul, make it count.
  • Every profession is rife with challenges and brimming with opportunity. You have to have a strong determination to excel and to thrive.
  • Invest relentlessly in yourself and in your teams and expand your repertoire.
  • Break paradigms, experiment and explore, stay abreast trends.
  • Become intolerant of mediocrity, seek perfection and excellence in everything you do.
  • Go back in time, unearth the heritage of culinary techniques and ingredients. Adapt and apply.
  • Be aware, be mindful. Bring nourishment back into food and cook ‘from scratch’.
  • Be respectful of the seasons, source locally to collaborate with growers and purveyors. Become ‘earth wise’.
  • Champion a cause with genuine intentions to effect change and commit to it as if your life (and those of others) depends on it.

Chef madhu krishnan

Chef Madhu W Krishnan is Executive Chef, Culinary Research and Development for ITC Hotels

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