David Rocco’s risotto cook-off at The ITC Maratha, Mumbai

David Rocco's risotto

Chef Davide Rebeccato of the Oberoi Trident group once told me that the secret to a good risotto is continuous and meticulous stirring and nurturing which apparently helps the creaminess of the starch to blossom.

Then you have the biryani. A dish that takes many forms and shapes across the country but the common theme that binds them all that it is a dish that requires patience. Slow cooking and generous quantities when cooked work best for it.

What happens when the two are put into a metaphorical pressure cooker situation?

A couple of days of days back I got a mail from ITC Maratha saying that David Rocco would be at the ITC Maratha on Saturday and whether I would like to drop in.

I’d caught David Rocco’s show occasionally on Fox Traveller here and liked his easy going spontaneity on screen. So I decided to drop in at ITC when he would be there.

I landed at ITC on Saturday and bumped into good old Kunal Vijaykar who was shooting there.

I also met Nikhil, Saee, Rhea and Kurush…friends and bloggers who had come over too to meet Davi. We didn’t have an idea of what was in store though. Apart from us a fashion blogger and her friends were around too. We met Rini of ITC and then got to know that there was a cook up being planned for David’s show and we were supposed to be judges! Well, Rini had a promised us a ‘fun afternoon’ and we were quite tickled to hear about the judging.

The idea was that a couple of common ingredients would be taken – rice and mushrooms – and Rocco would cook against Chef Rajdeep of ITC. All in the spirit of fun of course. Rajdeep and David had been eating together across Mumbai for a couple of days and they looked quite thick.

David came and chatted with us bloggers for a bit. He did come across as every bit spontaneous and warm as he seems in the show. A case where television seemed to match real life.

When someone asked him about how he stays so slim, he said “Best part of my job is that I get to eat a lot. Worst part of my job is that I have eat a lot.” He even joked that he often has to retake shots of his eating. “I am not two take Tony. I am fourteen take David.”

For those interested, David said he only eats salads for dinner when at home and not shooting.

David also told us about some of the stuff that he had eaten with Chef Rajdeep and that he had quite taken to Indian food. Would be interesting to see how that comes out on his show later in the year.

David and Rajdeep then went to the open kitchen. The plot was that David would cook a mushroom risotto while Rajdeep would cook a guchhi (morel) biryani.

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They took up their stations as the shoot began in real time and the rest of us watched on. The producer said the wackiest questions would lead to folks making it to the final edit. It did become quite noisy and I am sure David felt like an Australian batsman padding up at the Wankhede. It was good fun to see the chefs work up a sweat and Rajdeep finished a lot faster and of course had the advantage of the home kitchen. There were chaotic moments like the one when they figured out that there was no salt while cooking. The audience joined in the fun with folks helping the crew by passing on bottles of stock, wine and so on. Kurush and I stood in a corner and barracked the chefs & went “where’s the meat?!?”. David said that he wanted to make carbonara but apparently someone told him it has to be vegetarian. David did give in though when Kurush and I went “butter, butter…add more butter for God’s sake”.

Cooking done it was time for the twelve of us to judge. We broke off in to different groups. I was with Saee, Kurush and Rhea.

First off was the risotto.

It was very very under cooked. I know that risotto is supposed to a be a la dente, and to be honest, I have been to Italy only as a toddler so far so have no idea how a risotto should actually be. However in absolute terms the rice was just too raw and chewy.

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And I must admit that rice is the only area where I am not fond of variations from the ‘usual’. For all my love of Asian food, I am not too fond of their sticky rice for example. I like my rice to be firm but cooked. What we call ‘jhor jhore’ in Bengali.

The rice in the risotto was pretty hard to eat as far as I was concerned. Which was sad specially given the fact that flavours in the risotto were quite intense and bewitching. The indulgent flavours of butter & cheese, that tanginess of the white wine and the varied textures of the three types of mushrooms came together pretty well. I quite liked nibbling on the pieces of mushrooms which had soaked in all the rich flavours…the rice one had to put aside though.

Kurush, felt this happened because the rice was not soaked. David earlier explained that they don’t soak the rice in Italy as they believe that they would lose the starch in rice this way. To which Kurush imperiously suggested that it was time for Italy to forget centuries of tradition and change their way of cooking rice.

Next up was the biryani.

Rajdeep had cooked this very quickly and we were quite stunned to see the speed at which he cooked. The texture of the biryani looked like a cross between the Lucknowi and Kolkata ones in terms of texture of rice.

A couple of bites though and one felt very disappointed. The rice was a tad soft but the bigger problem was that the overarching flavour was that of the saffron. All that one could taste in the biryani was soft rice and saffron screaming out in it. The mushrooms might not have been there as far as the dish was concerned.

The biryani made me at least appreciate the risotto. Especially the way in which the nuanced flavours of the risotto had all come together to create a taste that was both homogenous and yet complex.

The verdict?

Well I said that I would go for the risotto over the biryani but just a couple of spoons of it at the most because of the uncooked rice.

The experience did make me sympathise with the judges on Masterchef Australia and Simon Majumdar who judges Iron Chef. God knows what all they have to eat.

The four of us in our table were quite vocal about our angst and later joked about how we would never make it to the final episode with our bluntness.

So was this taste challenge fated for disaster? Were biryani and risotto dishes that deserved more time? Was serving vegetarian dishes to us a good idea?

Well, if you remember Sunil Gavaskar batted through 60 overs of the first cricket World Cup match that India played in the 1975 for an unbeaten knock of a paltry 36 (!)

In other words I guess neither biryani nor risotto are dishes that can be hurried. These are classics and not cart food.

Anyway, the afternoon was not about the contest. It was more about meeting David.

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Shoot done David came up to us and said that he heard that we weren’t happy with the risotto. He said that neither was he. Surprisingly, his problem was more with the flavours as he didn’t have the stock or the olive oil of his choice. When we said that we loved the flavour but found the rice undercooked, he said that in Italy it would be cooked even less. David also explained that restaurants would have put a lot more butter into the risotto while at home he actually puts a lot less so he doesn’t feel comfortable adding  too much butter on camera.

We then chatted for a bit more and David said that in his opinion bloggers are really important. They are a ‘pain in the a#$” said David. “You can’t control what they say. They are honest. The fifth estate”

Later his producer, Lucas, said “you guys keep up the good work…bloggers keep him real”.

David did say that he was not a trained chef and later I read up this Wikipedia link which says that he was a Canadian actor & producer.

Guess that explains David’s effervescence and relatibility.

He is for real.

PS I was a tad hungry when I went home. I was walking with K at Pali Naka when I looked up by chance and saw lot of flags and lights on the terrace by the building which houses the Vivekananda Club. The one that organizes the Bandra Pujos. This is in the Toto’s lane. I suddenly remembered that there was supposed to be a food festival and realized that this was probably that. We went up and found out that most of the food, specially the biryani, was over. This was food cooked by ladies of the club who had set up counters. We did manage some fish fingers, a superbly flavoured and perfectly cooked mangsho with paratha which made up for the tasting and then some dorbesh too. As they say, sometimes it’s good to just look up to the skies.

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