Chef Christopher Koetke never confines food within the four walls of the kitchen. He carries it everywhere. He takes it to the classroom of Kendall College, Chicago, where he serves as the Dean of the School of Culinary Arts. He packs it to the boardroom of Laureate International Universities where is the Vice President of Culinary Arts Programme. He cooks food on television (he hosted the Emmy-nominated cooking show Let’s Dish). There’s food even on his writing desk — he is a regular contributor to The Chicago Tribune, The Flavor and The Menu magazines, and is the co-author of the award-winning The Culinary Professional.
Flying from his home in Chicago to India to attend the 7th International Chefs Conference hosted by the Indian Federation of Culinary Associations (IFCA), chef Koetke talked of his 38-year journey as a chef, his mother’s pies, the global trend of ‘going local’ and his unforgettable food moments in India.
Did you have an I want-to-be-a-chef ‘aha’ moment?
Yes, I did. I grew up in a small town named Valparaiso (Indiana, USA) and at 12, I was stressed about career plans. One day, out on a drive, while sitting in the backseat of my father’s car I found my calling. I decided to be a chef. That ‘aha’ moment changed it all.
Did you pick a cuisine speciality quickly?
Initially, my entire focus was on French cuisine. High-end French fine dining. During that era, French food was having a glorious moment in the US and I too was caught in the ballyhoo. About 10 years as a chef, an existential question hit me hard. Not existential angst about life, but about cuisine. I asked myself, “Well, you are doing French cuisine, but you are not French. Can you really do French without being French?”
I returned to my roots in a way. To American food, especially Southern food. My mother is a magician, she makes the world’s best pies. Give her anything and she will bake a to-die-for pie. Rhubarb, banana, coconut cream, apple, raspberry. For her, everything is a perfect ingredient for a pie. Add to that, my grandfather's crêpes. He was a wonderful cook and I have taught his crêpe recipe to hundreds of culinary students.
Apart from your mom and grandfather, did you grow up idolising a famous chef?
None. I had no chef demi-gods. I have been cooking for nearly 38 years and my biggest inspiration is ‘local food’. I travel nearly 25 countries a year and I pick my inspiration off the streets and from homes where food is still steeped in local culture, tradition and ingredients.
Local? Is that the culinary buzzword right now?
Yes, local is the flavour. Local is the big global trend. Young chefs around the world are no longer cooking someone else’s food. They are digging into their own culture and traditions for inspiration. It validates their culture and also keeps alive the varied food traditions. For example, I cook shrimp and grits which is essentially a fisherman’s breakfast that combines grits, bacon, and shrimp. All the ingredients that were readily available and not expensive.
What's your take on Indian food?
India’s culinary diversity is incredible. Every region has something unique to offer. I have had some unforgettable food moments in this country. From a street vendor in Chandigarh, I had that round, hollow thing that you fill spicy water in and gulp (pani puri? I helped chef with the name.) At ITC Bangalore, I enjoyed Goan fish curry and lacha parantha for lunch.
The best, of course, was a vegetarian meal in Royal Vega, a restaurant in ITC Grand Chola, Chennai. The chefs there went back in time, dug out recipes of aristocratic vegetarian meals. I would list that vegetarian meal in my Top 10 Best Meals Ever.
If you had a meal voucher to eat in any restaurant in the world, where will you go?
I do not have a favourite restaurant. I will zip through a few countries for my favourite dishes. I will come to India for flatbreads, idli and dosa.
In Guadalajara (Mexico), I will order the traditional tortas ahogada (a sandwich drowned in tomato sauce). In Chile, it will be loco (an abalone dish) which is crazily good. The Malaysian nasi goreng is another dish I could use the meal voucher for.
If you were to stay on a deserted island for long, what essentials will you carry?
My family for sure. Knives. A couple of sauces - Dijon mustard, hot sauce, miso. Cheese, eggs and flour to make bread. And a bottle of wine. Actually, a lifetime supply of wine.