‘Food Is Visceral, Yet Personal’: Chef Thomas Zacharias On The Power Of Regional Indian Food

‘Food Is Visceral, Yet Personal’: Chef Thomas Zacharias On The Power Of Regional Indian Food
Chef Thomas Zacharias

For the better part of my life, food remained something to be excited over by way of eating out, grabbing fast food, or waiting for my mother to try her hand at a new ‘continental’ dish. Over time and with age, as my curiosity about stories of identity reached the intersection of food, this changed. I began looking at food through a more historical, social, and political lens. It is then that I realised that so much of what we eat today holds years of struggles but also pride, and rarely do we see homegrown and regional foods of India in the limelight.

Each dish, ingredient, technique, and flavour related to Indian food as a whole is so complex but our standards of what makes food exciting are still dictated by Western standards. So much so, that even the thought of Indian food solely warrants names such as butter chicken, dal makhani, and paneer tikka. What India eats, however, is far deeper and vast than this, and Chef Thomas Zacharias would agree. His work toward giving India’s food the importance it deserves proves so.

Indulging in a conversation with him about all things identity, communities, and modern India in relation to food, I was able to gain his insights –– insights that make you wonder, just how much of the Indian food landscape are we yet to explore?

Image Courtesy: The Locavore

He begins by telling me the story of how his love for food began –– he spent his childhood in Kochi with his grandmother, where she would prepare delicious food from local produce (often experimented on after reading cookbooks or watching a TV show) and even the fragrance from this would impress Chef Thomas.

“The ability of food to just transform people’s days really drew me to the craft but I was oblivious to the fact that it could be a profession.”

When this sheer love translated to the realisation that this may be made into a career, he earned a degree in Hotel Management, but soon after, he realised that Indian food served in major hotels is a bastardised version of what actually exists in different parts of the country, and possibly still is.

“At the time, I believed that being a chef meant being an expert in European food and techniques. All theory and practicals revolve around the West’s food and very little focus is on Indian food. As a young aspiring chef, I went on to study in New York, and returned to India to work in a European restaurant.”  

It dawned on him that he was cooking European food without ever having been to Europe, and so he went on a four-month sabbatical and travelled through the continent. Here is where his epiphany of pursuing Indian food took place. In 2014, he travelled through India –– and it changed his life. His perspective shifted from a Euro-centric one to one focused on Indian food.

Image Courtesy: The Locavore

“Indian food is far more exciting than any other fancy technique or recipes I had seen abroad. It has so much more depth, diversity, nuance, history, and culture. After this trip, I decided to focus on celebrating Indian regional food.”  

Around this time is when The Bombay Canteen happened — a restaurant bringing you real flavours of India and exposing you to its culinary diversity. Here, the ‘taste of India’ takes the most serious form as the establishment aims to put on the plate what the country is missing out on from its own people and land. Chef Thomas recollects that there was a whole universe to unravel through the food there. They made a conscious choice to not make it a ‘traditional’ Indian restaurant and aimed to elevate the Indian dining experience to a more exciting one, all while doing justice to the food they served.

The same love for regional Indian food showcased at The Bombay Canteen evolved into his venture, The Locavore. It is where his passions –– local food, storytelling, and exploring India through its produce all come together to create a collective for Indians seeking the same, but also to invite others to experience the joy.

“I have taken all the learnings from my previous years of storytelling, and in making The Locavore, I want to use storytelling to create a long-lasting impact — to actually get people to act, not just listen. Stories are a powerful way to change people’s mindsets, coupled with something to act upon like giving them recipes, or which local ingredients to buy, and enabling them to share these stories with a larger audience. I intend to push this movement through storytelling.”  

It was the nascent years of the digital and social media age when Chef Thomas realised its power. He points out that he realised its potential of allowing the interaction to be more engaging. The fondness of storytelling of all things regional food began with his #ChefOnTheRoad series back when he was travelling through Europe, but iterations later, The Locavore presents itself in the most impactful manner. With the full conviction to understand and convey the relationship food and identity share in India, the venture relies on this very narrative that needs to be explored.

“Food is a very visceral medium, but it is also so personal. Our conversations around food and identity are superficial, and at The Locavore, we want to dig a little deeper through more nuanced storytelling. We want to unravel these complexities, break them up, and then make it digestible for people to interact with.”  

Image Courtesy: The Locavore

The Locavore is built to be more collaborative, partner with like-minded people and platforms to bring together the collective movement of regional Indian food and its deserved recognition, and also ensure its follow-through. When asked about the pillars this venture stands on, Chef Thomas is quick to let me know of them –– storytelling, community, and the producers of the homegrown food. Each of these aspects plays a large role in shaping the outcome of what The Locavore aims to achieve, and at the same time, they are also the inspiration behind it.

Chef Thomas mentioned an observation of his that puts much of this conversation into perspective –– the average Indian knows far more about broccoli than thorai. Though our homeland’s food is wondrous and teeming with the most amazing possibilities — the attention we pay to it lacks largely. We usually fail to draw the connection between our lives and the food we are surrounded by and that is a tale we all must write for ourselves and the future members of our communities. Much of our identity is laid in the land we come from and the food it gives us, but more often than not, we forget to cherish that.

The sweet spot of this entire discussion lies at the intersection of regional Indian food and ingredients, how it shapes or contributes to our identity, and the overall culture it forms around us. In the deepest corners of the country lie the most beautiful culinary gems, just waiting to shine through, and perhaps, people and initiatives like Chef Thomas and The Locavore will help unearth those.

Find Chef Thomas Zacharias here.

Find The Locavore here.

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