Rupen Rao on Indian Cuisine, Indian Cookbooks and His Indian Sauce Brand
Born in Mumbai, India, Rupen Rao is an Indian food entrepreneur and instructor currently residing in Washington, D.C.
Rupen has taught Indian cuisine at Whole Foods and CulinAerie, a premier cooking school in DC. He is the author of three Indian cookbooks and has recently launched his line of delicious Indian simmer sauces.
What inspired you to become a Chef?
I am not sure if I would call myself a chef, since I never went to a cooking school. For people like me, in our food industry, we do not have a term for what I do. I have always loved food, and I have always found myself in the kitchen, back home in Mumbai, and now in Washington, DC, for the past few years.
Food is my love. Therefore, I always want to be around food, whether I am testing recipes, or doing a video blog, or writing a book, or creating my sauces, I am always around food, and I feel at peace and natural when I am around food.
Where did you train to cook? Do you recommend a formal training for someone who wants to become a Chef (i.e. culinary school)?
I learned everything from my mom. However, if someone wants to be a chef, they must learn the techniques from the best school they can get into.
If they want to start their own restaurant and be an owner, then the requirements vary. In such cases, they need to ‘hire’ chefs that have had the best training in the best schools and are talented, sincere, and honest at what the requirements are for the restaurant.
My mom wrote me a cookbook when I moved to the United States, so that is my favorite cookbook for sure. From my readings over the years and trying out recipes, I found that Indian Essence by Atul Kochhar is my favorite Indian cookbook.
I also like The Flavor Bible, which although is not a recipe book, it’s the best cookbook on flavors.
You have published a few cookbooks of your own. Tell us a bit about your experience as a published cookbook author.
Yes, I published three cookbooks on Indian cuisine. I chose the self-publishing route because I wanted my cookbooks to be all color, and each recipe to have a photograph of the dish, and I did not want to wait for a couple of years to get it done through a publisher.
I have a following where I can share my cookbooks with the patrons, so I went ahead and published my cookbooks through the self-publishing route.
Do you have a signature dish or a favorite dish that you enjoy cooking?
There are songs that we sing for the crowd, and then there are songs we sing for our soul. Similarly, I make Butter Chicken for the crowd and I make Lentils for my soul. My signature dish is Butter Chicken.
India is a huge country. How does Indian cuisine differ from one region to another? Do you have any favorite regional ingredients or dishes?
Indian cuisine is perhaps the most regional cuisine I have known. In a nutshell, the regions differ based on geographical location of the region, and religion and caste dominates the region, and the history of the region. With more than 7000 years of Indian history, there are strong traditions, techniques, customs, rituals, and methods that are still used on a regular basis. Although transportation, Internet, and migration of people within different states has helped availability of food and ingredients in different states, for the most part, the food remains regional, and the traditions remain strong. The same dish in the same region might be prepared differently by different castes of the same religion. Example:
Quite a bit of the Bengal region is surrounded by water, hence coconut and seafood are in abundance. They also grow mustard, and the use of mustard oil and seeds can be seen in their cuisine. They worship Durga (female goddess) and she is offered fish, so fish is a staple. Bengal was India’s first capital when the British were ruling India, so they also have an Anglo-Indian cuisine that is a creation of Bengali food or British food from that era.
Tell us a bit about your current business. You launched a brand of Indian simmer sauces. How did you came up with this idea?
My goal is the make Indian cuisine simple and accessible to the world around me, especially in the United States.
People are busy and Indian cuisine takes time to cook, plus Indian cuisine has many ethnic ingredients and spices that need to be bought fresh or are not easily available, plus there can be a long list of ingredients.
These are problems I was realizing over the years, and my sauces are made from traditional recipes, and they include all the necessary ingredients required to make each specific sauce, hence I was able to take the ‘pain points’ out of Indian cooking for the American home cook.
How important are high-quality ingredients in creating an outstanding dish? Where do you source your produce and ingredients for your restaurants? Can you please provide some specific examples?
High-quality ingredients are the soul to any dish that I make. For myself and some of my cooking classes, I get my produce from Whole Foods, my spices from an online organic store Mountain Herbs, and ethnic Indian ingredients from the Indian store.
Some schools have their own sources of procuring their ingredients and I have no say.
Many chefs struggle with a healthy work and life balance? What’s your take on this?
The food industry is a slippery slope of countless hours and routine. As I am getting older, I have cut down on unnecessary events and work. Focus, determination, discipline, and most importantly, being effective and completion of the task that I start is very important to me.
Nowadays, there are so many machines that act as our ‘soldiers’ and build our army, so life is easier. Wherever possible, I get pre-chopped produce and meat, and that helps as well. Each month, I do not sign up for more than two days out of the eight weekend days each month to teach my classes.
What advice would you give someone who wants to become a Chef?
Anything that someone wants to pursue will be an uphill battle. A good plan and leveled expectations will definitely help a person. They must understand the food business and its culture. It is not for everyone. And for many, it is not for all stages of their lives. Chefs start young, and work countless hours in their 20s and 30s.
This industry is physically demanding and creativity and routine go a long way. They need to know exactly what they want to do, they must understand and accept their limitations, and the opportunities and limitations of the industry as well. Once they have the necessary tools, they can navigate their way through the industry.