Please tell us about yourself

Osteria Francescana in Modena has just been declared the world’s best restaurant.

Delhi girl has just completed a 3-week internship in Modena, Italy, at the three Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana. What makes this even more special is that she had the chance to train under the most celebrated chef  She also happens to the first Indian to train at Francescana.

A little background on Bottura – the king of Modena. His three-Michelin-star restaurant Osteria Francescana won No. 1 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016 and came in at No. 2 at this year’s awards. Since then, it has become a culinary tour de force. Most recently his restaurant was featured on the new season of the much loved food-centric show, Master of None.

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The annual San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, unveiled in Bilbao this week, moved legendary Italian chef Massimo Bottura’s restaurant’s back to No 1 (it topped the list in 2016 as well, before moving to No 2 in 2017), displacing last year’s winner, Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park. Besides his iconic restaurant, Chef Massimo founded the non-profit association Food for Soul in 2016, to take on the challenge of food waste.

Which is why I was determined to find a way to work with him. Following short stints at various hotels in India since I was in Class X, and later as part of my Culinary Arts degree, I made up my mind to stage at Osteria Francescana (a stage is an unpaid internship when you work in a chef’s kitchen to learn new techniques). It took nearly a year’s perseverance of studying, working on my skills and applications. I am not sure what worked, but I finally managed to bag a place at the most coveted kitchen in the world.

An opportunity to learn from one of the most celebrated Italian chefs, Massimo Bottura, is a dream come true for any aspiring chef. Akanksha Dean from Delhi has become the first Indian to train at Bottura’s famed restaurant Osteria Francescana. Akanksha studied at Vasant Valley school and then enrolled into Institute of Hotel Management, Aurangabad. Following this, the 21-year-old interned at The Oberoi, Gurgaon. Her father Bakshish Dean is a chef and her mother, Rupali Dean, is a food writer and an ex-chef.

In a conversation with HT, Akanksha reveals how she got selected and shares her unique experience.

How did it begin for you at Osteria Francescana?

I have been following chef Massimo Bottura’s work over the years. His dishes are simple, traditional and yet so beautiful and they always have a story to tell. I have taken a lot from this experience. Now, I know what goes behind making a world-class kitchen. It is not as easy as it looks. You must be extremely passionate if you want to pursue your career as a chef. A lot of hard work and dedication that is required. Chef Massimo Bottura has managed to popularise his traditional cuisine to a whole new level. Modena is a very small town but diners come from all across the world, just to dine at his restaurant. He is truly my inspiration and I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to work in his kitchen.

What obstacles did you overcome to get to Osteria Francescana and do the internship?

The selection procedure is very extensive and since I was the first one from India to ever get this opportunity, I had to attest my determination to show how India is creating culinary students that are on equivalence with any top most culinary university in the world. When I got selected, I was excited about the fact that I would actually get to work in chef Massimo Bottura’s kitchen; it was like a dream come true. The first two days were hard, as I wasn’t used to such an intense working style, but soon I got used to it. My mother was my chief source of encouragement during my training period, knowing that she was with me, enthused me more towards my work.

Tell us about your experience  at Osteria Francescana

I spent the summer of 2017 with Osteria Francescana, learning from Chef Massimo. His style is clean and minimal: his philosophy, to make every dish taste better than your grandmother’s cooking. He understands how to respect the past, even while appreciating the present. At the first chance I got, I asked him the secret to his success. He said, ‘I wake up and then go to bed. And in between I do what I love to do.”

Osteria Francescana has 12 tables, which can accommodate 28 to 30 people. There is just one service for lunch and one for dinner. (The 10-course tasting menu is €250, almost ₹20,000 per head.) Reservations are done online and guests wait for up to six months for a place at the table.

At Osteria, everyone is an equal, everyone is family. I worked alongside cooks and kitchen staff from Canada, Mexico, Italy, Japan and Bangladesh. And we all participated when it was time to clean up.

I worked at the prep kitchen and quickly learnt that no dish on the menu is easy. There are a lot of components to each, hence the dedicated prep kitchen located right across the street. I was put in all the sections, and taught all the dishes on the menu, including Chef Massimo’s celebrated dessert ‘Oops I dropped the lemon tart’, fresh miniature tortellini and his famous ‘Caesar salad in bloom’.

The prep kitchen made the staff meal: pizza on Fridays and pasta everyday. We always had great music playing in the kitchen, from pop to metal to classical Italian, it changed depending on who was in charge of the playlist. On my day, I made them listen to Hindi music: Guru Randhawa’s ‘Tenu suit, suit karda’ (they loved it!). We played soccer on the street between the main kitchen and the prep kitchen in our spare time. It was especially fun when Chef Massimo joined in: he loves playing soccer. Chef taught us that it is important to work at a place that makes you happy. That helps you absorb everything like a sponge. He’s a genius when he gets down to cooking. Like everyone else on the team, he is in the kitchen at 9.30 am. He likes pin-drop silence when plating a dish; and is like an artist when experimenting with a new menu.

Did you always want to become a chef? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

Food, I believe comes full circle, thanks to my family’s deep culinary traditions with my mother being a food and travel writer and father being a chef. It is in my genes. I realised there is nothing else I can do. My curiosity in culinary arts was ignited at a young age through the Sunday meals I prepared with my Chef father. Having had the opportunity to do some globetrotting owing to travelling for cuisine and culture being common ground for the family, I have ( If I may add humbly) built quite a refined palate of my own. Travelling for local food and culture has taught me to develop a completely original perspective on everything, by rewarding innovation and fresh thinking.

When I was much younger, I wanted to be a lawyer at some point, a DJ at another point. But somewhere the kitchen, fresh produce markets and of course, eating good food always fascinated me. I guess it’s in my genes and perhaps, this is what I do best. Wielding the ladle since a young age, I feel that only when one develops true empathy for the diner, does he/she become a chef in the complete sense of the word.

Your mother is also an accomplished food writer. What role did she play?

As a child, she always encouraged me to pen down my thoughts after every travel. We always discuss food and its flavours, cooking techniques whenever we go out for a meal. She has always been my support and guide as she understands that cooking is where my heart truly lies.

Initially, she did warn me that working in a kitchen is not quite easy (being an ex- chef herself) and one can only survive if one has the passion for it. She even put me at the Leela Gurgaon kitchen for 3 weeks to understand the reality. To be honest, the first three days were terrible, my feet hurt….standing the whole day, but I soon realised—the kitchen is where I am the happiest.

Which cuisine is your favourite?

There are no favourites at this point of in my career as I want to learn and then decide on a particular cuisine. I do have a keen interest in Japanese cuisine and Asian cuisine.

Which Indian chefs do you look up to?

I have always looked up to my father, as my curiosity in culinary arts was ignited at a young age through the Sunday meals that I prepared with him. He’s very patient, has immense knowledge and I am blessed to have a champion like him behind my dreams. Apart from that I would says it’s:

Chef Manish Sharma, Executive Chef at The Oberoi Gurgaon; my first professional mentor!

Chef Jignesh Mistry and Chef Samir Mulaokar, my professors at the Institute of Hotel Management, Aurangabad.

Chef Raheel Ahmad, Culinary Director, APEC at Marriott International.

What are your future goals?

I have just begun my culinary voyage at the JW Marriott Hotel Aerocity. It’s an 18-month specialised culinary global leadership training program by Marriott International, which is an interesting mix of on ‘the job’ and ‘classroom training’ and learning through a mentor. I aim to evolve as a dedicated and a professional junior sous chef at the end of the program. As a chef, I would like to ensure that a customer leaves with a memory that would compel him/her to return.

Your advice to students?

“I have a curious mind and I have always been a restless child. I have matured but I will never really grow up,” I remember him telling me, when I asked him for advice for a budding chef. He taught me never to be fearful of ideas. He said it’s okay to be confused when you are thinking of choosing a cuisine or marrying ingredients.

Chef Massimo always says that chefs need to live the everyday routine without getting lost in it.

“That’s the sign of a good chef,” he shared, “Don’t forget to put in your best; your knives should be sharpened at any given time; respect your chef uniform, travel to learn, read, be humble and remember who you are and where you come from, have a sportsman spirit, never forget to help others when you can, and last but not least, be a citizen of the world.”

Twenty-two-year-old Akanksha Dean is a chef and food writer.