Nitin Gautam talks recreating the flavours of India using local Irish produce, trying to get his wife Carmel to cook and the importance of cooking for the right reasons!
WHO I AM
Nitin Gautam, Head Chef/Owner of Copper and Spices Indian Restaurant with my wife Carmel. I am from Delhi in India. I moved here in 2002 and we are celebrating seven years in our own restaurant here in Navan in April this year.
THE NITTY GRITTY
What type of training did you have?
I went to college in India and did a three year Catering Management Diploma. After that I worked for the Intercontinental Hotel Group and Trident Hotels. In both places you had to work in all the areas of the kitchen. The cooking was predominantly Indian but we did a lot of European dishes and pastries as well.
What were the challenges along the way to becoming a chef?
Moving from India to here was a huge challenge. Working in kitchens here was so different to my country, where the hotels are huge and there are huge kitchens. But the biggest challenge I’ve had is in opening our own place and teaching our customers about the spices and herbs. People get them confused, not knowing which is which, or how to use them. Irish people are worried about eating spicy food so we’ve had to educate them that just because you use spices doesn’t mean the food will be hot!
We have run cookery classes here and these have helped hugely in getting the message across. Also people are travelling more now so they can visit India and see the real food of the country. I am now doing Indian food workshops in the Cooks Academy in Dublin which is brilliant. It’s a great set up with a great team and we’re teaching all about the spices and herbs in the classes. For Copper and Spices, we buy our spices whole and grind them as we need them.
Were there any major positives or crucial turning points in your career?
Moving to Ireland was a massive turning point and a complete culture shock! The working style here is very different and I realised I had to learn more. I did a course at Dublin Business School, where I learned all about the social and economic side of things and business management. I wanted my own place. During that time, I started to think ‘I have to put my thinking on the plate, I can do this’ I was able to put together a proper business plan with Carmel. Part of our plan was that we really wanted to connect with local suppliers.
When we opened, Carmel started to visit local farmers and suppliers and then we went together. It was brilliant and very educational. By the time we got accepted for Good Food Ireland we had been using local suppliers for two years. We use as much local and seasonal as possible. Our Indian ingredients are sourced through a supplier in the UK.
Which people influence your cooking?
My mother first and foremost! She is a really great cook. I talk to her once a week on the phone and ask her what she has been cooking and what ingredients she has used. I cook with her recipes here and I don’t allow anyone to change them! We go to India at least once a year, and I spend a lot of time in the kitchen with my mum. She is always telling me to sit down and rest, but I say no, I want to be here and see what you are doing!
Chefs I really admire include Vineet Bhatia, he is a Michelin star Indian chef at Rasoi, his own restaurant in Chelsea, London. I love his food and his books. He is a fantastic ambassador for Indian food and the first Indian chef to cook Indian dishes in a modern way. His food is simple. I really like what he does. In Ireland I think Ross Lewis at Chaper One is amazing. I absolutely love his food and his book. It’s a real story.
Which food styles/trends interest you or influence your cooking as a professional chef?
Trends come and go, so we don’t really follow them as such. We try new things on our specials and tasting menu, but we don’t mess around too much with the A la Carte menu. The biggest influence for us is staying seasonal and supporting local.
Why do you love your job as a professional chef?
Moving away from India was not the easiest thing for me, so when I started cooking Indian food here it connected me to my home country. I am always trying to connect to the festivals and culture of India through my food. So I suppose that’s the main reason I love my job. Being able to maintain my connection with my country and my family through my cooking. My mum loves sharing her recipes with me. And I love being able to share the cooking of India with our customers and the people who come to our classes and workshops.
What’s the worst thing about your role as a professional chef?
I don’t think most people who eat out realise the hardships and effort chefs go to in their work. That applies to chefs in all kinds of kitchens. People don’t realise the work we do, learning the different techniques and working long hours to provide good food. They think it just happens!
Describe a typical day in the kitchen
I usually arrive in the kitchen about 11am and have coffee. I’m always first in the kitchen and I like that because I like the peace. It gives me time to think and plan what we need to do for evening. The rest of the lads arrive about midday and from then to about three thirty or four o’clock its solid prep, because otherwise we would get in a total mess during the service. We stop about 4.30pm for a break and coffee. The front of house staff arrives about 5pm and I like to talk them through anything they need to know about the menu. Then it’s service till about 10pm and clean down, which takes us to about 11pm. Then down the road to the pub with the lads for a couple of pints and a de-briefing. I like to be able to get out of the restaurant with them after service and have a chat. It’s a good way to talk about the evening and keep us connected as a team.
What are your strong points?
I’m a team player and motivator. I love chatting with my staff and getting them involved. I like them to try their ideas and if they work we try to include them in the menu. We are a small restaurant with a small team, so it’s vital that we all talk and listen to each other. It’s really important that we connect with all our staff, floor staff as well. Carmel manages front of house and we both believe in good communication. That would be my strongest point, I think. My staff probably think I talk too much and I sometimes tell them something more than once! If they comment on that I say ‘Yes, I already said that but I wanted to make sure you were listening the first time!’
Would you change anything about your journey so far?
I sometimes wish I had been able to spend more time in the kitchen with my mum, cooking with her. I had to go away to college in India so I missed out on that while I was training and I was still quite young. That’s the only thing I would change, that I could have learned more from my mum at home.
Who does the cooking at home?
I do the cooking and Carmel does all the cleaning up. I bought her a slow cooker as a hint that she should cook more and it’s only been used twice! But to be honest I don’t really mind! We are closed Monday and Tuesday every week so we like to try other restaurants then. We go exploring and we’ve eaten in quite a lot of Dublin restaurants now. When we have people round I don’t always cook Indian. Carmel’s family love the traditional roasts and potatoes and veggies, so I like to cook those for them.
Any advice for anyone who wants to become a professional chef?
Three things: Passion for good food. Attitude. Motivation – which is not always about money! I don’t like it when I am interviewing a chef and the first question they ask is how much they will get. To me that does not represent the right attitude to being a chef. I believe if you work hard, have a passion for food and are connected to your culture, success and money will follow. If you do the job right and be clear in your mind what you want to achieve, money will come. So I would say always maintain a good attitude, cook from your heart and follow your dream.
What’s your favourite dish or recipe?
My favourite dish is a Punjab dish called Rajma Chawal. It’s a mix of red kidney beans slow cooked with spices, ginger, garlic, bay leaves, cloves…with Basmati Rice. I cook it here sometimes for the menu and for my staff and oh my God it’s just fantastic! When I go home to India the neighbours know I like it, so they always bring me a dish of Rajma Chawal every day. But my mother cooks it the best. I did it recently here with Guinea Fowl for a tasting. I added a European touch and it was absolutely superb, everyone loved it.
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