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Interview: Rohit Chhetri

For chef's during the lockdown, work has come to a complete halt. Many have either lost their jobs or been furloughed intermittently for well over a year. How have they spent their time? Chefs typically work very long hours with a passion and dedication that is second to none. Writer Susan Davies catches up with Rohit Chhetri to talk lockdown and beyond.

Chef Rohit Chhetri tells us how he has occupied his time and kept himself motivated, finding success, during a year when a pandemic has kept chefs out of the kitchen.

Can you talk a little about where you work, and also your initial thoughts when you found out that the country was going into lockdown?

I'm currently working in a private members club as a Chef de Partie, in Mayfair, London. Before the first lockdown, I was working at Le Caprice in Green Park. It was sad and shocking to hear that the restaurant was going to be closed; at one moment I'm working in a fast-paced kitchen and all of a sudden everything came to a halt, it was quite hard to believe. A few months later, during lockdown, we were told Le Caprice would be closed permanently.

At any time losing your job can be worrying, and during a pandemic when every restaurant's future is uncertain even more so. I remember messaging Rohit, and he was as optimistic and as philosophical as ever.

Already during the lockdown, I had been in awe of the number of great dishes Rohit was producing at home. Reading his posts on his Instagram page, (which is amazing, you must take a look) he showed his enthusiasm and respect for all he was creating.

Throughout the past year, you have inspired those on social media by regularly (posting nearly every day), cooking and producing outstanding dishes; what has been your motivation?

I've always been hungry for more knowledge, learning methods and techniques, but the most important thing I wanted to learn was plating'. He explains 'All that I have learned whilst working in the kitchen, now was the time to polish all those methods and skills and create my dishes. I am always eager for 'less is more,' I'm considering colours, textures and method/technique on the plate'.

I also worked at some new things that I always wanted to experiment with, like sourdough, fermentation, smoking, etc. Plus, I've utilised the time learning about Mexican and Japanese cuisine, always learning bit by bit.

How has it felt to receive recognition from your peers, especially when it's difficult to produce restaurant-worthy dishes at home?

I will say that I felt like I was on cloud nine! That was the best feeling I have ever felt, one of the milestones of my life. My dishes being posted in The Staff Canteen (An online community for chefs to showcase their profession at its highest level). It has helped me to throw my name out there. Plus, connect with some other chefs and a few really good friends I have made through Facebook food groups, who have looked after me throughout the years and helped me. Much respect and love to them.

I pressed Rohit on this a little more, he's modest. In the past 12 months, Rohit's dishes have three times been awarded recognition in the 'Top Dishes', he has been Member of the Month, and had nominations for The Seasonal and Sustainability competition, plus Chef of the Year!

Undoubtedly a chef who is passionate about his craft; it is the proudest moment of his career.

'It was an amazing feeling; getting recognised together with chefs who are already out there, with their names, is a proud moment. Especially through social media, Instagram and Facebook, not Michelin or Rosette, I am talking about the chefs in the UK, Europe and around the world; to be fair, I'm thrilled and proud to have people know me in the USA as well'.

Has lockdown given you opportunities to develop your cooking skills? I often found when working long hours in restaurants that my creativity could suffer. Has having time off allowed you to experiment with different styles and techniques?

"Yes most definitely. It gave me more time and opportunity to look at the same product in different ways. In the end, the foundation is totally 'old school' based but with a different point of view, it can help you get a great result. Learning from a lot at work as well, how the head chef creates his menu. By learning the method and process, you can always tweak a dish to make it your own; to find a different result. Rohit's dishes are beautiful and elegant, they are works of art, and the thought he puts into his flavour combinations, makes me always want to try every dish!"

How would you describe your mindset during lockdown, have you felt challenged by being forced to stay at home?

During the first lockdown, it was fine. The mindset and focus, but it's the third lockdown that did block my mind; I had plenty of ideas for dishes, but I could not get them on the plate. So I took time off, and now slowly, I'm trying to get back to the same routine as I was having at the time of the first lockdown.

Working in a restaurant often means long and unsociable hours; with a young family, it is a difficult combination. Do you feel grateful for having had this unexpected time at home?

Without a doubt working in the restaurant industry, there is less time to spend with family, but it's me who decided to follow my passion'. Previously Rohit had studied computer science at university, but could not resist the pull of cooking, a decision he has never regretted. 'And I'm glad to have a supporting wife and 3-year-old toddler, who is always happy and excited to see me whenever he sees me' he laughs. 'And the positive thing about lockdown is I got plenty of time to spend with my wife and son. And being honest, now they are eagerly waiting for when I will be back to work. He hopes it will be the middle of May and should find out any day now.

What have you missed most from not being at work? Has it been a difficult transition from working incredibly long days to suddenly finding yourself at home?

I miss everything, to be honest. From working in a restaurant to no work was a bit difficult to accept. Plus the head chef and sous chefs I'm working under and my colleagues, they are really great too.

I mean, working and socialising with them is another fun part that I miss. As I always love to keep myself busy when I'm working. And this lockdown has affected my professional life. I'm eagerly waiting to get back into action; trust me I miss the heat, pressure, stress, during the busy service. It's a unique working environment, and the only way to thrive is to love what you do truly, this is apparent in Rohit's cooking.

As we can see life returning to normal, what are your plans for the future?

I just want to get back on a normal routine. Smashing out the service, laughing with colleagues and the long hours. And again, as I mentioned, to learn and grow, get to know about more methods, techniques, products, skills etc.

Rohit and I were at Westminster College, he is modest and humble, he works hard and is very generous with his time, especially to an old 'newbie' like myself. He is ambitious too, wanting to succeed at the highest level. Right now, he's completing forms for upcoming competitions including Masterchef and National Chef of The Year. He is hungry for success and keen to make his mentors proud.

Do you agree that a positive outlook allows you to live a life where you are true to yourself and able to achieve the goals that you set yourself?

Most definitely. If you have a goal, proper mindset, passion and dedication. This can lead you to a lifestyle you want to build for yourself, your family and for your kids future. It's all about how hard you hit for where you want to be. Rohit speaks about his ultimate dream to have a kitchen with a Michelin star, I would be first in line for a reservation.

Chatting Food Contributor: Susan Davies

I re-trained as a chef in my forties, it was tough, but I love cooking. I studied at Westminster College and worked at Food by John Lawson; both were amazing experiences. Now I run a monthly supper club local to where I live in Leigh on Sea and more recently set up Eat Well Together, to post recipes that anyone can cook. I love growing my own vegetables and if I’m not in the kitchen, I’m in the garden.

During lockdown, I wanted to share stories of those thriving at this challenging time.

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