In Conversation: Alex Sanchez And John Paul Carmona
On Friday, June 29 and Saturday, June 30, The Table in Colaba will serve a special prix fixe menu co-created by Alex Sanchez, the restaurant’s executive chef, and John Paul Carmona, the former chef de cuisine of the two Michelin-starred Manresa in California. Sanchez, 27, who worked under Carmona, 29, during his 18-month tenure at Manresa until 2010, invited Carmona to The Table to bring a fresh perspective to their menu. We spoke to the duo about the importance of restaurant rankings and awards, their methods of cooking, and their collaborative menu. Edited excerpts:
Is your food ingredient driven or flavour driven?
JP: For me, flavour is foremost. You can boast about the ingredients, but in the act of eating, it is the flavours that people appreciate. At Manresa, we do utilise ingredients from our own farm, but that just conveys that we care so much and so we made the investment. We were actually one of the first restaurants in the US to grow our own farm, which at the time was largely a European model.
Alex: The most important thing for me is to know who I am cooking for. In California, everyone talks about ingredient-driven food, but every chef wants to work with the best quality ingredients. Restaurant cooking involves more thought and technique.
Would you say culinary school training is essential to work in a restaurant.
JP: Schooling is important but it doesn’t work for everyone. It did work for me because of the people I met there and that opened a few doors for me. It also allowed me to be creative in that I was able to explore what sort of cooking I was drawn too. On the other hand, it’s been seven years and I’m still paying for my schooling, as it is very expensive.
Alex: I’m glad I went to culinary school because it was almost all hands on. In Mumbai I think the problem with culinary schools is that there is too much focus on theory. What these schools should teach you is technique. Generally French and Japanese cuisines require the maximum technique, which can then be applied across the board. Here, people come expecting high salaries, but often they don’t even know basic things like how to cut something julienne. I’d say that working in the right restaurant would then be more valuable in terms of gaining practical knowledge.
When an ingredient is no longer sustainable, take for instance the overfishing of the Chilean sea bass, does it go off the menu?
JP: In the States, there are groups of people who are closely monitoring these things so there is a lot of awareness. In California for example, there is talk of banning foie gras because of the force feeding of ducks and geese. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has been keeping a close watch on the overfishing of sea bass. In the modern world it’s hard to be fully sustainable. But yes, if it involves a cruelty of some sort or if there’s something we don’t support, it comes off the menu.
Alex: In America, unsustainability has become a catchphrase. It’s thrown around a lot, but no one really knows what it is. The sustainability I’m concerned with here is sustaining our business. It’s true that sea bass is overfished and in any case here it’s available as a frozen product, so I don’t feel the need to use it.
Tell us about the best meal of your life.
JP: While working at Mugaritz in Spain, I ate at a restaurant called Etxebarri, close to Bilbao. It’s a grill house, which really focused on the craft. They would, for instance, grill caviar, but in an extremely light manner, without using high heat, so that the flavours remained pure. I even tried their grilled prawns and homemade chorizo. It was the best food not only because of the refinement of the grilling, but also because it was something familiar and not very gimmicky involving chemicals etc.
Alex: After culinary school, I went on an exploration of fine dining restaurants such as Alinea, Seegers, and Per Se in America, and a few Michelin-starred establishments in Europe. All the meals were opulent, but I wasn’t blown away. What did make a lasting impression was a meal that I had as a 12 year old in Italy. I accidentally ordered a pile of mussels thinking I had ordered bean soup (the menu was in Italian). Not wanting to put up a fuss, I ate everything including a tri-coloured risotto for the first time and surprisingly enjoyed it.
Do rankings and awards affect the way you cook?
JP: For me other than cropping up in conversation, it hasn’t affected anything. You obviously try to be better, but if you get tangled in this whole business of rankings and cook for the critics who give out these awards, then you will be lost. The food world can be quite sensationalist and fashionable, but things go out of fashion all the time and you won’t exist when that fashion is gone. You just have to make sure that the food is good for the customers and that you’re proud of what you put out.
Alex: When I came here, I had something to prove to myself. I knew that there would be a lot of variables that I couldn’t predict, but I put my head down and worked hard at creating something. Initially the payoffs were few. When I received the Time Out India Best Chef award for 2011, it felt great. Once you get an award, there is added pressure of not letting your guests down because they have higher expectations of you.
Name a meat and a vegetable that you always use.
JP: I use onions a lot. Meat I could honestly do without, probably because the menu at Manresa is quite vegetable centric.
Alex: Garlic and onions because they add so much depth to food. They’re like the supporting characters that always get forgotten. I also couldn’t do without seafood.
What according to you is authenticity in food?
JP: There are many definitions for that. I think it refers to the tradition of cooking. Certain traditions appeal to some people and not to others.
Alex: It’s an elusive term, but to me it’s about someone offering you a genuine experience. Something as bastardised as a Caesar salad with chicken tikka can probably qualify as not authentic.
What have you planned for the five-course dinner?
JP: We wanted to use ingredients that are familiar and yet create something special. I found a suckling goat that will be poached in brown butter and served with shaved foie gras, Swiss chard, pickled sultanas and toasted bulgar.
Alex: We’ve been inspired by our trips to the market. We will be serving a calamari dish with spinach and prawn cannelloni, crispy chickpeas, roasted vegetable jus and fennel pickle. In addition to the five courses, guests can expect a little treat from the chefs.
The five-course dinner at The Table is priced at Rs3,500 per person (excluding taxes). To make a reservation, call 2282 5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.Tags: Alex Sanchez, John Paul Carmona, Manresa, Restaurants, The Table