We all wait for that perfect thing to happen, while it never does, making us doubt our very own self. But then when you least expect, it happens. Having been hearing this saying since childhood without really believing, it was a huge surprise when something like this happened to me. It happened when I got the opportunity to work in Cafe cloud door, a beautiful cafe located in the middle of tea gardens in a small town of Bir in Himachal Pradesh, India.
It was here in this cafe that I was introduced to the newly constructed woodfired oven for the first time in my life by Gurvinder, owner of the place with utter pride. Even Gattu Mausi, Gurvinder’s partner in the cafe was really proud of it. I didn’t really understand its importance in the beginning.
For no one was really an expert in the field of woodfired ovens I along with Ravi Bhaiya (newly hired evening shift guy and the one who was made responsible for the wood-fired pizza), would end up experimenting in it.
In my first week of experimenting, in the illusion that we are becoming expert in it, we were pretty excited when a group of ten Italians asked us if we can serve them pizza on the next day.
Fully prepared once they arrived, we started making the pizza and served it one by one. As someone who is always looking for feedback, I myself took each pizza and inquired if they like what we are serving, which they said was good.
Although it is amazing how human anger makes a person honest. After serving four pizza and my repeated hunger for feedback finally worked. One of the ladies from the group stood up with a pizza slice in her hand and almost shouted at me to explain how the entire base of the pizza was uncooked. Pizza bread was too thick. How our technique was really poor. How the floor of the oven is not hot enough as the crunch of pizza is also lacking. How we were not using the woodfired oven properly.
One thing led to another and we kept on working over the honest feedback which we finally were able to extract. The weight of dough that amounted to 250 gms till then, drastically came down to a hundred grams. The duration for which pizza was in the oven changed as well. The position of Pizza inside the oven begin to be changed regularly to cook it in different ways required. Each pizza was an improvement on the previous one. That turned out to be my first lessons in this field.
During my second week of stay, a Spaniard came along, asking for a Spanish omelet. Unaware of the concept I turned him away. While leaving he insisted me on learning it, the following morning I learned it. Potato in omelet was something I had never even imagined in the past. It was definitely a new experience.
Shero, part of the Italian group that came in the first week was an ex-restaurant owner himself, who have quit and was enjoying his retirement days in Bir. He was a regular customer for me. We would end up talking a lot of times. He would share his knowledge around food and I would end up making things on his suggestions(mainly pasta). He shared with me about various kind of pasta; how to make pasta sheets using zero water and replacing the water with other things, such as tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach and eggs. Each replacement brought a different flavor to the pasta sheets. He told me about Ravioli, something that I was able to cook with good taste. Soon gnocchi, spinach spaghetti, various shapes of pasta were getting made.
One fascinating tale that happened around pasta was on the day I made Lasagna, something I love and something I have never tried in my life. While checking out youtube videos for its recipes, in one video it was shown how to bake it in a woodfired oven. For the first time, it clicked to my silly self that it was the original way of making it. In the absence of other types of equipment, I used a pan to make a Lasagna and put it inside the woodfire oven. What came out was a beauty to taste. With the perfectly melted cheese, it was probably the best lasagna I had ever tasted. Happy with the product, I took a piece of the dish to the only group of customers sitting outside. Three in number, all of them were from a foreign land probably somewhere in Europe. They just loved it, something I am least surprised about. I still remember one of them compliment ‘I would pay for it if it was in the menu’. Only later on I got to know that he was a professional lasagna maker located in Europe. What else do you need to satisfy your need for approval! I was literally on sky high that night.
I begin falling in love with the oven soon. I Also realized the difference between things cooked in it and those cooked in an electric oven. I knew immediately I want to work on primitive ways of cooking in the long run.
In the cafe, there was Chandresh didi, the chef created by Gattu Mausi before she fell ill. I learned a lot of things from her as well. Also, there was Chunni Mausi, younger sister of Gattu Mausi, located in Bir at that time and who made some amazing caramel custard, the best a person can have.
However, the real mentor of mine through the one month in Bir has to be Gattu Mausi herself. Although bedridden, this 76 yr old lady having an experience of around 60 years in the field of cooking Mausi was an extraordinary person in herself. Not just food she had a history of various businesses throughout her life. A lady of Kashmiri origin whose ancestors settled in Rajasthan some 300 years back, she can be considered a mix of both the cultures. She is also the first lady canal contractor of Rajasthan.
She taught me to cook chicken and mutton in ways, simply adored by the people. Her way of making Dum aloo with a fusion of Rajasthani and Kashmiri style was something I will remember forever. I made my life’s first samosas under her guidance as well. We experimented with making tomato ketchup. Bhazbatta, Kashmiri style of pulao is something that is still cooked every now and then at my home. While there she also taught me how to tackle the staff and why was it important.
Mausi taught us a special kind of Mutton Biryani in Lucknow style. It was only once a week when she used to make it. It was such a special occasion that almost the whole of the traveler community of Bir used to visit the place on that day.
She was bedridden when I went to Bir, still, when I was not in the cafe and would be at her place, she would keep on giving me instructions from her bedroom and I will keep making things in her kitchen. That zeal she had for the tasty food, even in her condition, I have never witnessed it in anyone’s life.
The place really taught a lot of things to me in terms of food. I am a much more evolved person because of that. Even today, not a day passes when I don’t feel like going back to that place, working in that same cafe meeting those same people living that same life, maybe for a longer duration.