Chef Akshendra Singh Chauhan discusses how cooking in the wild is exciting and adventurous

Chef Akshendra is currently working as Executive Chef for Asteya Safaris. He graduated from IHM Mumbai and went on to work with Taj Safaris with short stints and trainings at Taj Falaknuma, Hyderabad and Taj Usha Kiran Gwalior. Chef Akshendra Specializes in Indian and European cuisines, with special interests in creating menus for health freaks.

 

You’ve cooked in some really intimidating kitchens including cooking in the wild. Was there anything you did to build your confidence and ensure you always kept that drive?

Working in all kitchens can be intimidating if you don’t have the passion and drive to cook and serve your guests with a smile. But, yes, the most driving factor to build confidence is guest appreciation and acknowledgment. Kitchens can be a hard place to work with all the heat and pressure building up at peak hours but a guest appreciates a meal he likes, it resets the pressure clock for chefs and keeps us on top of our game.

 

What makes cooking in the wild different from any other place you’ve worked at?

Cooking in the wild is different and difficult as it pushes the individual to move out of comfort zone and go the extra mile to give a memorable meal experience to a guest. It can be as simple as home cooked simple meal or exotic dishes but the effort that goes into local procurement of ingedients, limited kitchen equipment and faraway jungle venues makes it a challenge for the chef.

 

What are the most important considerations when crafting your menu in the wild?

As a day in jungle lodges is all about safaris, nature walks and people coming to go off the grid, we as jungle chefs have to be very specific about the menu curation.
I would craft a menu around guest activities and lifestyle in the lodge. It has to be light and healthy as a guest goes on a safari. I mostly focus on local produce also to provide more organic and fresh food to the guest. The idea is to showcase homegrown flavors which are not typically found in city restaurants.

 

Which is your most popular dish to cook in the wild?

Though we like to keep our menu simple, local and tasty to suit every palate but a few dishes always shine out than the rest. Our most popular dish would be free range country style chicken cooked with whole local spices in an earthen pot over firewood and Kela aur methi ki bhaji cooked with fresh raw banana and fenugreek from our kitchen garden.

 

Which are the factors you keep in mind while cooking in the wild?

In the wild, my focus is to source fresh produce locally as well as keeping the food healthy and flavorful. Usually, in a safari hotel, the guests do not have multiple dining options by way of restaurants in the property or outside. So while crafting a menu, I try to balance tastes in order to cater to most palates. A usual menu would be a combination of fresh greens, vegetarian and non vegetarian fare as well as a bit of fusion of Indian and continental.

 

Which are your favorite ingredients to cook in the wild?

I love using raw banana, mangoes and salad leaves while cooking.
The one luxury I have in the wilderness resorts is the space to have an organic kitchen garden and usually a small orchard of sorts. I grow many herbs and vegetables like tomatoes, ginger, spring onion, salad leaves, etc. I have a thriving banana patch, mango trees, guava. This means, I can keep true to the growing trends of health and organic food. It gives me immense pleasure to serve a guest directly from ‘farm to table’.

 

 

Tell us something interesting about your experiences while cooking in the wild.

Definitely, cooking in the wild comes with its own set of amusements. For Al Fresco dining, I have to keep a butler to guard the tables before guests come to dine as squirrels love to get into the jam jar on the breakfast table. I take special care to have mesh covers for all the food – to keep off the bees and butterflies.

 

What is your next food festival in the wilderness?

Though wildlife hotels don’t have specific food festivals or events, there are local festive seasons where certain produce is widely used. Every meal I prepare, I try to infuse new flavors drawn from local tribal preparations. Currently – it’s the Mahua season. The Mahua is a super sweet flower which locals prize. During Mahua flowering season we use the flower in our desserts and garnishing of plates. It not only brings different flavors to the plate but also introduces guests to a completely new food experience.

 

How is cooking in the wild different from cooking in a regular kitchen?

Although most hotels will also feature a regular kitchen – the one major difference is being clever with portioning, as we try not to refrigerate or freeze anything. All our meals are freshly prepared just before serving; this is a major difference from big city kitchens. In the wilderness, we have various dining venues, some of them al fresco. I work to match the menu to the venue keeping in mind service as well as preparation times in the open.

 

Please give us an example of a menu and a recipe specific to cooking in the wilderness.

For example, if we are serving a pool side dinner – I would do a Tandoori set up with a variety of grilled veggies and meats served with tandoori breads, lentils, a curry or two and salads. This means I can serve items directly onto the table while it’s piping hot.

Since it’s getting really warm – This cooling drink and light salad is easy to make and light on the tummy. These ingredients can easily be available even during this lockdown.

 

AAM PANNA COOLER
Raw mangoes: 500 Gms
Mint (chopped): 10-12 leaves
Sugar: 50 Gms
Cumin powder: 5 Gms
Fennel powder: 2 Gms
Black Salt: To taste
Salt: To taste
Chili powder: 2 Gms

Method:
Wash and boil raw mangoes. Peel, remove the pulp and throw the skin away. Now puree the pulp to a smooth texture, add 1 liter water and all the remaining ingredients. Serve chilled with diced raw mangoes as garnish.
Note: sugar in the recipe can also be replaced with jaggery for a healthier and less sweet drink.

WATERMELON, GRAPES AND HOMEMADE FETA SALAD

Water melon (diced): 200 Gms
Grapes: 100 Gms
Fresh curd: 200 Gms
Mint: 10-12 leaves
Olive oil: 1 tbsp.
Salt: a pinch

Method:
Hang the curd in a muslin cloth or sieve for 2-3 hours to let it drain out all water. Now add olive oil and salt to the hung curd mix and set it aside. In a salad bowl, add water melon, grapes and quenelles of homemade feta. Garnish with mint leaves and serve chilled.

Jyoti Balani