The restaurant business, as you know, friends, is an all-action industry, not for the lazy, weak, or faint-hearted (although alcoholics still have a chance). Basically those who belong to this industry only know three states of being: going to work, being at work, and coming back from work. Yet thankfully the daily grind is not a lonely one, like that of a writer, widow or husband. This is a team sport. The success of a restaurant depends on the hard work upon hard work of a bunch of people. Only when they all come together can the dreams of any one of them be fulfilled, and when one of them is worn down he can surely take hope and heart from another.
Or so the theory goes, and after a few good days of business these are the thoughts I’m thinking when I jump off the bus outside the China Dragon on a very hot summer morning, grateful for the peace and pleasure and air-conditioning of my own establishment, ready to start the new day with a smile and the hope of achieving the impossible. “Boys, I think this is the day we hit twenty thousand for the first time!” I open the door to my glorious future and waltz in.
Three waiters are leaning against the walls like cut-price roses, scrolling on their mobiles screens.
The kitchen is without the lights on, as silent as a vipassana retreat in the mountains.
A paper napkin lies on the floor, like the wing of a shattered dream.
Every three seconds a large drop of water falls from the air-conditioner into a bucket.
What an energetic scene. I open my mouth to deliver some sardonic commentary when there sounds the sweet music of our industry – the phone ringing! Waiter Santosh “Bodybuilder” is the one most in need of training in speaking skills, so I motion for him to take the order. Swallowing nervously, he picks up the receiver and says “Hello” like a parent whose child has just been kidnapped.
“Yes, Ma’am...sure, Ma’am...good, Ma’am...”
He’s trying to gesture to me at the same time, but I don’t want to help him out, I want him to learn to do these simple things on his own, else he’ll always remain a set of abs and biceps, never become a whole man.
Bodybuilder puts the phone down and announces, “One egg fried rice!”
“And what else?”
Oh joy! One day I’ll surely be able to build myself a palace from orders like this. Anyway, the first order of the day is a sacred thing in our industry. It wakes everybody up from their stupor, it sets the engine in motion. Was there ever a second order without there being a first order?
“Ok, very good. Send it to the kitchen, Bodybuilder! Today, our life changes forever. And get those lights on, for God’s sake! Is this a restaurant or a cinema? What are you staring at me like that for?”
“Sorry, sir...but Chef Vishnu isn’t here. He wasn’t feeling well and went to see the doctor. He said he’d arrive by eleven thirty, because there are usually no orders in the first half hour of the day anyway...”
I’m keeping the smile on my face – this is a service industry, always keep smiling – but suddenly I’m mad. I’m mad. I’m really mad.
A signboard above the shop and no one in the kitchen, a clock on the wall and time at a standstill below, four days of progress and two of retreat – what the hell is going on? The chef himself doesn’t believe we’re going to get an order at opening hour! What am I doing wasting my time, my capital, my hopes, my entire life on this team of slackers and no-hopers? Every moment I stand here looking at their big innocent faces is taking me ever closer to losing it. But there’s nowhere else to go – this place is my garden and also my prison. The emotion does a whole tour of my body and comes back and hits my head with a bigger sound.
In my absolute coldest voice I say:
“We are a struggling restaurant. We desperately want orders. We have an order, but sadly we also have disorder.”
“Hand me the apron and chef’s cap.”
They realise something is wrong.
“Sir, I can try to make it, sir...”
“I SAID, HAND ME THE CHEF’S CAP! And if you have the time, work out which one of you flop stars is going to deliver this order when I’ve made it.”
Into the kitchen I storm; I’d slam the door behind me to make my point loud and clear, except that it’s a swing door – even the design of this goddamn place is conspiring against me. I switch on the lights and put on the cap of rage and tie the apron of frustration around me. Here on the platform is the wok – a black, silent tortoise. Here the big flag-like Chinese cleaver. Here the bamboo steamers. Here the round tree-trunk chopping-board I’d bought from the Chinese bazaar at Manish Market a year ago with such joy, so many dreams. “Give me the best quality, boss, don’t worry about the price.” All for what? So that I may be reducing to cooking food myself like a vada-pao vendor outside Dadar station. I locate the old cold rice in the fridge and, for want of a human team, assemble one for fried rice: a joint of ginger, a pod of garlic, a slice of tofu, a handful of dried mushrooms, a morose carrot with a green pigtail, a pair of spring onions, a big smooth egg, a head of bok choy. Set down by the stove, they make a nice still-life – just like my own.
Whenever Chef Vishnu arrives, he’s really going to get it from me. I boil water in a pan. I peel five cloves of garlic. I break the egg into a bowl and beat it. I plop the mushrooms into a cup of hot water, where they begin to swell.
I’ve never made fried rice in my life, but how hard can it be? I put the wok on the stove and turn the flame on; by the time it heats up, I’ll be all ready with the cargo.
Somewhere, a customer is waiting and growing impatient. I start to chop up the garlic and spring onions as fast as I can. By this time the wok has begun to produce little white wisps of steam, saying give me, give me, give me. I pour two splashes of oil into it and swirl it around, then throw the cut aromatics in and return to chopping the ginger as they fry. Should I be stirring, though, or cutting? Perhaps that’s what two hands are for? In a few seconds the garlic burns to a crisp and the onions turn a dirty brown. Wasn’t a super-hot wok mandatory in a stir-fry? I rush to lower the heat and the cleaver falls to the floor, inches away from a spectacular self-amputation of my foot and a month in Hinduja hospital. I yowl as it lands and overturn the bowl of beaten egg, which runs yellow across the platform. I shout and swear and fume like a character in a comedy – but two raging fires in a kitchen only burn each other up.
How can life be so difficult? I turn the flame off and put my fingers to my temples and close my eyes. This is not the way, boss. This is not the way. This is not the way. When he got angry, Lord Shiva could dance spontaneously in perfect rhythm on the peak of Mount Kailash. But mere mortals always need a plan to make something positive from their mental storms. Shall I give up and phone Vishnuji? No, I’m going to try again, This time with the wok unlit so it cannot harass me. I suddenly remember the words of a chef on a TV show: “Anybody can make a difficult dish if they try hard enough and follow all the steps of the recipe properly. It’s making the really simple dishes that require real skill. How often have you had a perfect dal in your life? Two times in a thousand.”
All right. I’m going to let fried rice itself teach me how to make it. I’m going to study everything that passes through my fingers and think of what it can do for the team. I’m going to win this battle come what may, else the boys will never stop laughing at me behind my back.
I peel more garlic. I flatten it with the side of the cleaver and feel it give way. I bend over to breathe its aroma. I continue to breathe deeply as I mince it nice and fine.
I put it to one side and chop more spring onion. Tiny droplets of moisture flicker wherever the cleaver makes a cut: the water that hides inside all vegetables, all life.
The carrot now: long orange noodles of peel with which I will tie up the staff later and torture them by turning spring onions round and round in their nostrils, and then kss, kss, kss, thin crisp coins cut “on the diagonal” as they say in the books on Chinese cooking. Class, always expose maximum surface area of the vegetables to the heat in stir-frying!
Come, ginger, your turn, you look just like my thumb. I quickly scrub it of its peel, then put down the wedge to cut. It resists as if it were a rock I were trying to slice. What mass, what strength, in this little tuber! I turn it around 90 degrees and try again, this time slicing with the grain, and now I can hew little chips from it. I like the look of the tiny little fibres sticking out of every little piece. Perhaps even these fibres have fibres, everything descending by degrees into atoms and molecules.
And contrast that with the lightness, the crinkliness, the paperiness, of this bok choy here: it seems to me one could even cut it up with some kinds of thoughts.
I find another egg and bash it against the platform edge: it cracks neatly halfway in a line of thunder and slips into a bowl, the fat round yolk keeping its shape in its gelatinous covering until my fork arrives to beat it into a yellow pond of froth and bubbles.
Tofu: little rectangular slabs to contrast with the circles of the carrots, but I have to restrain my hand after my first harsh strokes, holding on to the memory of the war on ginger, make the cake crumble.
And so here we have it from Chinese masterchef Jiga Pa-La: what a parade of colours, textures, and shapes! I see now one of the principles of Chinese food realised by my own hand: the idea of contrast – hard and soft, straight lines and curves, bright and dark – as a principle of well-balanced cooking.
But wait: within the context of this journey what I have done so far is only potential, not reality. Yet more transformations await and for that the next three minutes are vital. As soon as I start, those three minutes are all the time that remains in the world. Everything must reach fruition inside them or not at all.
I put the lighter to the base of the wok again and watch the blue flame leap at the carbonised steel. I hear how the little sighs and whistles emerge in reply, and then a little bit of menace, a bit of unpredictability, as I pour in the peanut oil and the black glistens and trembles. It is so hot already in the kitchen and now the wok has already begun to steam me before it fries the rice. Sweat pours down my body and suddenly I understand the difference between my position behind the counter and this one, only ten feet away: they are worlds apart. Sometimes when I pop my head into the kitchen and try to make a joke to lighten the mood, no one in here laughs and I wonder why. Now I understand.
In the rising mist of high heat I marshal and direct the wok parade: ginger first, then garlic, and on to spring onions, carrots, tofu, bok choy. Tumbling and sizzling together, accompanied by my own dance as I raise the wok and shake them around – a full orchestra of flavour to be soaked up by the late-arriving rice, and finally the egg to be scrambled in a little patch on one side. Right at the end, I’ll throw in a splash of soy sauce, a few spoons of chicken stock, a drizzle of sesame oil, to give depth and a little glaze to my...
With a shock, the sudden awareness of being someplace new and unknown: that place I had only read about. Where the divide between the self and the world vanishes. Where the spirit within each thing becomes manifest. Where all action becomes unhurried and effortless like flowing water.
No more an abstract concept in Chinese books, but a new note in my stir-frying soul: the eternal, oh the all-encompassing Tao.
Excerpted with permission from Days Of My China Dragon, Chandrahas Choudhury, Simon & Schuster India.