“Think about how your mother makes food for you – she does it with a lot of passion and love. I think a mother is the right role model.”

When Regi Mathew says these words of advice for young budding chefs, it almost feels like he is voicing his own credo. It is unquestionably what he has done in his 27-year-long accomplished career: cooked with heart and stayed true to the culinary wisdom of generations of mothers and grandmothers.

For his restaurant Kappa Chakka Kandhari, he travelled through his home state, Kerala, for three years, talking to mothers and researching their food. “When we were at their homes, we heard stories about food that are not written down but passed down from one mother to another,” he said.

Those stories and lived experiences find a clear reflection in Mathew’s recent work. There are, for instance, no parottas or other cliched items on the menu of Kappa Chakka Kandhari in Chennai and Bengaluru. Instead what finds place on it are things like Pazham Nanachathu (a zero waste Syrian Christian dessert) and Meen Nellika Masala (a pan-seared fish made by a tribal community in Agasthiyar forest).

“At Kappa Chakka Kandhari, we follow our mothers’ cooking styles,” Mathew said. “If you have a lot of...interesting options, you do not have to fall back on the familiar.”

Mathew spoke to Scroll Food about his culinary journey, what authenticity means to him, the evolution of his food philosophy, and adjusting to the new normal. Edited excerpts:

What were some of your earliest associations with food? What kind of food did you eat growing up, and what food memories did it create?
I am from Kerala and I was fortunate that, in my growing years, I experienced food as it is made in villages. When you are in a village, the food you get is extremely fresh because it has been cooked that very moment. When a guest comes home, for instance, you go into the backyard, catch the chickens, and cook them immediately. Everything is about freshness and goodness – no stored food is used – which make it is easy to feel the connection with the ingredients. Even vegetables like tapioca – most homes have a tapioca tree in the backyard – are plucked fresh and made into a curry. When I would return from school, steamed yam was served as a snack with chillies and shallots.

What made you, a chemistry graduate, enroll in a hotel management institute?
I always had a feel for food and cooking. As a child, I would help my mother in the kitchen and when she was out, I would make some dishes, or at least my version of them. But growing up in Kerala, it was all about completing studies and getting a job. I came to know about the hotel industry after graduating in chemistry, and I thought, why not? I didn’t know at the time I was going to be a chef. I joined a hotel management course in 1991 and by the third year, I realised I had a real connection with the kitchen. All my teachers helped me define my path.

Did your career take such a sharp turn as your education path?
I joined the Taj group as a hotel management operations trainee in 1993. My career in the kitchen began at the Paradise Island restaurant at Taj Westend in Bangalore. It was a Thai restaurant, one of the premium restaurants at the time, and I was a chef de partie there. I was lucky. Starting as a Thai chef gave me an opportunity to be immersed in a cuisine that, like Kerala food, is about ingredients and freshness. In 2000, I moved out of Taj and came to Chennai to launch restaurants like Benjarong and Ente Keralam. Over the next decades, I started 80 to 90 restaurants before opening Kappa Chakka Kandhari with two of my friends.

So, since the 1990s, you have cooked and come to specialise in the cuisines of Thailand, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala. In your mind, how do you approach different cuisines?
What makes South Indian and Thai cuisines different from Western food is their focus on ingredients, the flavour and then the taste palate. It is not that the taste is not important, but in these cuisines, it is the flavour that gives you a lingering feel...

Can you explain this difference between taste and flavour?
When you eat something, you analyse it through your ears, nose, eyes, fingers, and tongue. In food that emphasises flavour, all these five senses come into play. But food that doesn’t lay emphasis on flavour will only appeal to your eyes and taste palate.

Photo credit: Sanjay Ramachandran.

What made you start your own restaurant, Kappa Chakka Kandhari, after 25 years in the industry?
The thought of preserving my cuisine was always in my mind. One day, in 2015, I was sitting with my friends [Augustine Kurian and John Paul] and talking about the food we ate in our childhood. We found we were talking about different foods. Some of the dishes I was speaking of was new to them. Coming from different parts of Kerala, we thought it would be great for us to explore the depth of the state’s cuisine – Kerala food is not three or four items – and bring it out.

How did you explore this depth?
We went down to Kerala in 2015. We visited our homes, where our mothers cooked for us. On those trips I realised that not only was I enjoying the food from different places, such as Trichur and the Malabar region, but I could also see their uniqueness. We asked our mothers to refer us to their childhood friends, so that we could focus on the older aspects of Kerala cuisine. We went to around 30 homes suggested by our mothers and from more recommendations, we ended up visiting 265 houses. We also visited 70-odd toddy shops.

The number of recipes we collected during our journeys was huge. Each time we would come back from a visit, we held a pop-up to showcase the food we had tried. Between 2015 and 2017, we did around seven pop-ups to familiarise people with the cuisine. These pop-ups were mainly in Chennai and Bangalore, though we also did a couple of bigger events in Dubai and Bangalore. These events achieved two things: while familiarising people with the concept, it helped us select dishes for our menu. We wanted to create a menu that would appeal to the older and middle-aged generation as well as the younger generation. Until and unless it appeals to the younger generation, it will not move forward. That was how we finalised our concept.

What were your biggest learnings on your travels through Kerala?
When we were at those homes, learning the nuances of their cooking, we heard stories about food that are not written down but passed down from one mother to another. We learnt about the role of ingredients used in certain dishes of certain regions. We learnt how these ingredients are grown, where the best ingredients come from. For instance, the best coconuts are available at a place near Trichur, while the best tapioca comes from a place near Ramapuram.

While we were talking with the women of the household, the husbands too wanted to get involved. They came and told us about the toddy shops that served good food. That turned out to be great advice since visiting them was not on our minds. We went to more than 70 toddy shops and learnt about their cuisine – no two toddy shops have the same food. It is always fresh because they do not have refrigerators. Whatever food is made in the morning gets over by evening. Unlike your bars, which can differentiate themselves by the variety of drinks, these shops only serve toddy. So the only difference between them is the taste and quality of food. And this food is influenced by the ingredients available locally. So if you go to the higher regions, you won’t get as much seafood; if you go to the plains, you will get a lot of seafood.

Photo credit: Sanjay Ramachandran.

You have championed the cuisines of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Kerala. What is the distinctive feature of each that sets it apart from the others?
Religion and climate are two important factors that influence a cuisine. Climate determines the ingredients grown in the region, while religion places restrictions. Third is the region’s exposure to the outside world. If you look at Kerala cuisine, it has been influenced a lot by cuisines, from Portuguese to Indonesian.

You source ingredients directly from the farmer and you hired some of the people who helped you research Kerala food. What are your views on the search for authenticity in food? And is it the best way to represent a cuisine?
Authenticity is a tricky word. I would use the word ethnicity. How do you define something authentic? Most people would say something is authentic because it has followed an authentic recipe. For me, being authentic involves several parameters – the preparation of the food, the style in which it is prepared, the ingredients used. All these are important. Just following one or two of these does not make something authentic. It should be a combination of all three. The style, ingredients and recipe should all be from the original source.

How do you deal with queries of ‘no biryani’ or ‘no parotta’ at your restaurant?
Visiting 265 homes on our travels provided us with a good sample size. None of those homes served us biryani or parotta, which are not cooked often by mothers. And why should they? They have many other dishes. That gave us the confidence to leave these dishes out.

Dishes like biryani and parotta are heavy. After having two or three parottas, you will feel leaden because it take times to digest them. But the food we ate at those homes, even though we ate a lot, was never heavy. It got digested quickly. Sometimes we visited three homes and ate three meals and not once did we feel heavy. That was what we wanted to bring to the restaurant.

At Kappa Chakka Kandhari, we follow our mothers’ cooking styles. If you have a lot of different, new and interesting options, you do not have to fall back on the familiar. All the feedback has been positive. Hardly any diners ask for regular biryani or parotta in our restaurant.

How are you adjusting to the new normal during the pandemic?
It is not something you can undo. You need to go along with it, and at the same time, not fall down. You need to actively think about the avenues that you can explore, so that you can sail through the situation. Once things settle, you will end up with a new vertical as well.

When we started our restaurant, we never had a delivery plan. We wanted people to enjoy the food the way it was prepared. But in the middle of the pandemic, we received a lot of requests for our food from our customers, so that was when we considered delivery. We realised it was a new business model, a new avenue which we could explore. But we kept three factors of our restaurant in mind – reliability, quality, and quality of ingredients. This was what we wanted to ensure when we started KCK Food Pack. At the same time, we realised we could not do justice by offering the same cuisine that we offered at the restaurant. We had to understand what food would work well in the delivery model. Which is why we added biryani and parotta to KCK Food Pack menu, and went beyond Kerala cuisine. We also have dishes from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra on the delivery menu.

What is your advice to budding chefs?
It is very important to maintain sincerity. Your guests are trusting you and so you need to prepare food with your heart. You need to be sincere about the ingredients used. Think about how your mother makes food for you – she does it with a lot of passion and love. I think a mother is the right role model.