Chef Jerson Fernandes, Executive Chef, Novotel Mumbai Juhu Beach, talks about his culinary journey, approach to his craft, sustainability, the importance of reducing food wastage and the future.
Chef Jerson Fernandes is an industry veteran with more than a decade of experience and he makes no qualms about the trials and tribulations he has undergone on his journey. Today, as Executive Chef at one of Accor’s most famous properties-Novotel Mumbai Juhu Beach, he caters to among the most demanding clientele in the F&B space in the country, and yet, he is remarkably humble about his responsibilities and achievements.
“I started off in the industry washing dishes,” says the chef, whose list of awards grows longer each year and includes illustrious achievements such as being part of the Guinness Book of World Records and being awarded Star Chef of India-2019 by the Indian Federation of Culinary Association. It is perhaps this process of his, climbing up the rungs to reach the position he is at today that makes humility a cornerstone of his personality.
He has worked with numerous big names in the industry including Taj, Accor-Novotel, Marriott-Ritz Carlton, P&o Cruises and was until recently in charge of the culinary brigade at Novotel Goa Dona Sylvia. A Mumbai boy, Chef Jerson is happy to be back in his hometown but understands the significant differences between the approach to food in Goa and the financial capital. “The culture in Goa is very different from that in Mumbai, naturally, given that the diner profile is poles apart. While in Goa, most of the guests are on vacation, waking up late, focused on relaxing and taking their time with meals, in Mumbai, most guests are focused on work and even conduct business during meals. You’ll see families, honeymooners and vacationers in Goa but in Mumbai, it’s corporates, politicians, celebrities.” Chef Jerson gave Goa its first ever award-winning vegan restaurant in the form of Amalia – a lobby lounge bar which caters to vegan tourists.
Of course, given that the diner profile is so different, Chef Jerson has also changed his approach to the menu. “Goa is all about comfort dining. People take their meals by the pool or the beach, have a more relaxed approach to dining, where they’re comfortable digging in and getting their hands dirty. You have the sorpotels, xacutis, lavish spreads with curries, gravies and the focus is on seafood, typical of a coastal destination. Mumbai, on the other hand, is all about efficiency. People here don’t have the time to spend hours on their meals. They want finger food, things such as sandwiches, wraps, rolls, pizzas, that can be eaten easily and without a mess. The other big difference between the two destinations is that in Goa, most folks are on holiday and are happy to binge while in Mumbai people are a lot more focused on healthy food. Mumbai folks are also very happy to experiment, which is great for chefs who are constantly looking to innovate with their creations.” Gada Da Vida – Novotel Juhu’s sea facing lounge bar has a mix of some of the most interesting signature recipes of Chef Jerson’s creations.
Experimentation brings the conversation to ingredients, a critical aspect of any culinary endeavour. “The concept of farm-to-fork is much easier to execute in Goa. Every second home there cultivates vegetables, so it becomes easy to source such ingredients, tying up with small farmers. Getting your hands on fresh organic produce is extremely convenient. In Mumbai, the lack of space means that your biggest source of ingredients is through novelty stores or supermarkets. But where Mumbai has an advantage is in superfoods, grains and other exotic options. You have a much larger variety of ingredients, imported from other states or countries, available off the shelf here.”
Naturally, with talk of sourcing and organic farming, we veer towards the relevant subject of sustainability. “The Accor Group has a programme Planet 21, which has best practices related to environment conservation, in place. We also have ‘no bin days’ at the hotel when we have to finish everything we have. When I was in Goa, I used to have a small farm where we’d grow vegetables and fruit. We used to even take guests on tours of the farm, so they could witness the process of farm-to-fork first hand. I also had a couple of Jersey cows on the property to meet our dairy needs. In Mumbai, the issue is, of course, lack of space. But still, at Novotel Juhu, I have a small little patch where we will soon grow herbs, some veggies and I intend taking guests on tours of it. It is very important for any chef to connect with nature.”
What Chef Jerson takes extremely seriously is food wastage and has been on a quest to address this problem for some time now. “There is a lot of food wastage everywhere. It’s a heart-breaking situation given the number of people in this world who go hungry every day or even lose their lives because of a lack of access. I have been working for some time now on a project to cut down on food wastage and it’s quite the challenge. It’s a matter that is very close to my heart as I myself have gone through phases in my life when I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from, if at all. Having personally understood the struggle of so many in simply getting a meal, it motivates me immensely to do something that will truly make a difference. And this endeavour is not part of any brand, any particular campaign. It’s a solution that I want to create for everyone. If there’s anything I want to be remembered by, it is for measures such as these, which benefits everyone across the world.”
As we wind up our chat, it’s time to draw on Chef Jerson’s wealth of experience to try and understand if he sees the dining and restaurant industry change noticeably because of the pandemic. “The pandemic has definitely taught us a lot. How to make do with simple and limited ingredients when we didn’t have access to anything. Many people who would otherwise not be too involved in the kitchen turned chefs. However, with the food industry, there is little scope for a drastic change. It remains one of the purest forms of social interaction and culinary experience. Sure, we have inculcated certain hygiene practices but in most establishments, especially larger hospitality groups, these practices were already being followed; it’s just that it’s highlighted more now. Dining will carry on unabated, there will never be a lack of demand nor will people ever stop wanting such experiences.”
Twelve years might be not be a lifetime but what Chef Jerson Fernandes has achieved in this period – rising from the ranks of a humble washer of dishes to executive chef at one of the country’s most prestigious hospitality entities – is a story that would inspire not just aspiring chefs but people from across industries.