TD Conversations: Chefs Maia Laifungbam & Sanchit Behl of Vedro

Chefs Maia Laifungbam & Sanchit Behl of Vedro, Goa talk of local Goan ingredients, French mother sauces, European techniques, ‘vocal for local’, the global palate, and the importance of nostalgia, comfort, delight and rebellion in the served flavours.

Sitting with Chefs Maia Laifungbam and Sanchit Behl in the tony Vedro restaurant (Panjim, Goa), my culinary vocabulary was being garnished with French mother sauces, European techniques, Japanese artistry, Meitei Manipuri broth and a creamy bowl of Punjabi butter chicken. There are no clichés in their gourmet glossary. Instead, they dish rebellion in the flavour along with a ladleful of history, nostalgia and the essential ingredients of delight and comfort in food.

First, the rebellion. Ever heard of shucked oysters paired with kokum and green apple granita? Or cured prawns flirting outrageously with feni? Puffed pork chips served with smoked yoghurt? Soft-boiled egg topped with curry leaf espuma and chilli jam? Grouper fried Amritsari style with a mélange of edamame, grapes and peas in a spiced chickpea miso warm tartare sauce?

Chefs maia laifungbam & sanchit behl of vedro, goa believe culinary training and passion are equally important when running a restaurant kitchen.
Chefs Maia Laifungbam & Sanchit Behl of Vedro, Goa believe culinary training and passion are equally important when running a restaurant kitchen.

So much rebellion on the plate, yet it was not a straight thoroughfare to the kitchen. Not for Maia Laifungbam. Not for Sanchit Behl. Map this journey: Hailing from Manipur, Maia wanted to be a chef but her doctor father was insistent that she follow his noble footsteps. For Delhi’s Sanchit Behl becoming a chef was — forget a dream — not even a remote possibility. To begin with, it was merely a convenient career option but admission in the Institute of Hotel Management (Aurangabad) would take him on another lane.

“Six months into the hotel management course and I knew this wasn’t my calling. I could not picture myself booking reservations or manning the front desk. The kitchen beckoned and I packed my bags for a seat in Manipal University (Karnataka) for a three-year course in culinary arts,” says Sanchit, for whom the move to Manipal meant more than honing his knife and spice skills. Love was ordained, too.

It was there that Sanchit met Maia Laifungbam and the two now run kitchens — and their lives — together.

Hailing from Manipur’s Meitei tribe, Maia spent years in boarding school and always dreamt of being a chef. “Of course, running a kitchen has been a dream and we are blessed to be a leading part of a fabulous team striving to push the palates of our customers,” says Maia, who insists that professional training is key to running a successful business.

What’s her speciality/favourite cuisine, I ask Maia. “We do dabble and take inspiration from various cuisines in terms of flavour profile and technique, but closest to us would be Japanese,” she confesses. I throw another question at Maia: but what about an earlier statement that you are drifting away from European cuisine and going more Asian and local. “When we say drifting, we mean in terms of flavours, ingredients, but European (especially French) will always be close to us as it has laid the foundation for technique and kitchen systems,” she explains.

Vedro interiors vedro's eclectic interiors have been done by sussanne khan.
Vedro’s eclectic interiors have been done by Sussanne Khan.

Sanchit chimes in singing paeans to the five French mother sauces — béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, and tomato — that were developed in the 19th century by French chef Auguste Escoffier.

“Mother sauces serve as a starting point for a variety of sauces used to complement countless dishes, including veggies, fish, meat, casseroles, and pastas,” says Sanchit, who believes that formal education in culinary arts/science is only helpful to a certain milestone; beyond that it is all about creativity and the ‘kitchen gift’ — if God kneaded it in your clay, that is.

The couple-chef have been in Goa for nearly six years with previous stints at Mustard, Sol de Goa, Roboto and are currently manning Vedro, which itself is quite a dish. For Maia, Goa is inherent in her DNA’s double helix — her mother is Goan, but for Sanchit, it meant new recipes, new ingredients, and new food lexis. The Goan Pork Recheado (literally, stuffed), Pork Sorpotel (has its origins in Sarapatel, a dish from Alentejo, Portugal), Chicken Cafreal (originated in Mozambique from Galinha (Frango) piri-piri), the ‘roinn allmi’, wild edible mushrooms that pop their heads out in the early monsoon, and the coconut jaggery that borrows the colour of dark chocolate.

“Ah, the highly prized and highly priced allmi (also known as olmi, olimi) are such a delight. These wild mushrooms are endemic to the Western Ghats and have a very distinct taste. And, of course, the black jaggery that lends desserts a unique texture and flavour. At Vedro, we use the black jaggery with pineapple,” says Sanchit.

Maia often returns to her roots and joins the worldwide ‘vocal for local’ war cry. “I do feel that chefs today are finding it easier to explore their creativity using ingredients and flavours that they’ve grown up with or have a sentimental attachment to, as food is a very intimate part of people’s lives (even more so for chefs),” says Maia.

That return to roots and the necessity of nostalgia reflects in Vedro’s menu which has been curated for the global Indian traveller, a palate accustomed to international flavours and techniques but hungry for nostalgia.

“It took us nearly one year to curate the menu because we wanted to rustle nostalgia, comfort, delight as well as child-like wonder in Vedro’s food and drinks. The idea was to challenge convention and to take the global traveller on a sensory journey of delight. We are reinventing local flavours, infusing them with modern techniques, to cater to a global palate with our own flavour of rebellion,” admitted the two chefs.

Vedro's menu is inspired by fresh, seasonal produce and reflects the food philosophy of its chefs.
Vedro’s menu is inspired by fresh, seasonal produce and reflects the food philosophy of its chefs.

What about food wastage in the hotel/restaurant industry? Worldwide, food waste accounts for 28 percent of total waste at the average hotel and makes up nearly 20 percent of the waste in landfills. As it rots, it produces methane that has 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. I ask a question very close to my heart. How are Maia and Sanchit tackling the global curse of food waste?

“Yes, there is a lot of wastage in the food industry. It is largely the chefs’ responsibility to control food wastage but it is also the responsibility of the modern diner. Pressure on restaurants to provide large menus with pages and pages of options plays a huge role as well. Understanding seasonal and willingness to experience what is offered will definitely help,” the couple-chef professes. 

The two make a few other confessions: they revere the written word of the culinary greats that never fail to inspire and encourage. Maia swears by Chef Bjorn Frantzen of Frantzen Stockholm and restaurant Zen in Singapore. On a lazy day, Sanchit yearns for a creamy bowl of butter chicken with crisp hot fresh naan while Maia prefers Kangsoi, a traditional Meitei light broth with seasonal greens flavoured with fermented fish.

As Maia and Sanchit tie their apron strings again and head back to Vedro’s kitchen, I am reminded of Mark Twain’s revelations: Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education. I wish I could borrow Twain’s funny bone but when I hear of shucked oysters being paired with kokum and green apple granita and cured prawns flirting outrageously with feni, I know all sorrows are less with Chefs Maia Laifungbam & Sanchit Behl’s dishes.

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