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JUST desserts

Nikhil Rao's love of chocolate has led him into delicious situations


IT ALL began with a love for chocolate. Nikhil Rao just wasn't getting enough of it in his dessert, prompting the young lad to venture into mother's kitchen to overload the sweets with chocolate.

A decade or so later, twenty something Nikhil has much more on his plate than mere craving for chocolate. He is now a one-man catering business — called Toothpick — now three-and-a-half years old, which doesn't stint on quality. His workshops in city schools for kids, teaching them basic Math and Biology through the shapes and sizes, weights and measures used in cooking, are catching on. And kids finish their workshops with a final session is survival cooking — learning how to grill and roast out in the open. A perfect blend of cooking, kids and the outdoors, which is really what Nikhil Rao is all about.

He's not your average chef from a hotel administration course, ever smiling and guaranteeing you an impossible room with a view. Instead, when his own kitchen at home can't cope with bulk orders, he comes to your kitchen and takes over. But it's not as threatening as it sounds. You wouldn't really complain if surrendering your kitchen meant lasagnes and bakes and desserts to die for, now would you? And around the corner are plans to "take over the evening": Nikhil will play chef and play music, making sure your evening gels and the man in the white chef cap does more than just serve food and smile blandly from behind the grill.

Nikhil didn't get up one morning knowing he wanted to be a chef. He did take cookery as a sixth subject in high school at The Valley School, but without thinking of it as a full-time career. After completing school at the Centre for Learning, he travelled through Europe for a year, cooking and working in restaurants. Here, in Switzerland bordering Italy, began his Italian Phase. And that was just the beginning. Through that year, in different countries, he learnt about not just his favourite — Italian food — but also health food, mass food, innovating with food, substituting for food and, this has to be the icing, food shopping in Dutch. (For a 100-person-Indian-thali-meal at a seminar in Holland. But that's another story.)

Coming back to India, the excitement paled a bit. Nikhil found himself earning his "Daily Bread" at mainstream restaurants where people didn't really care about the swirl of the soufflé as long as it got to them in five minutes flat. The young chef would stare at row upon row of yellow slips slapped on a board by a harried waiter, only knowing that after all the slips were complete, another whole row would magically appear in record time. This couldn't last and it didn't.

Nikhil is now blending together some of the things he loves best. First the cooking: he's soon moving into his own kitchen space so he can cater for bigger parties. He's planning on getting some help together so he doesn't have to shop, wash, cut, steam, boil, soak, clean, transport — you get the drift — by himself. Some extra hands wouldn't entirely ruin the broth.

Then the kids: Nikhil has conducted workshops for kids in different schools, and now he's planning to take the kids from a school for the underprivileged all the way to Kerala, where he himself learnt about cooking in the outdoors, with just coal and basic ingredients: classic survival cooking.

Working so much with kids has given Nikhil a fair idea of what they do right and what could go catastrophically wrong when they venture into the kitchen.

When he takes them on a mandatory trip to City Market, he often finds they have no idea about where vegetables come from, how much they cost, or what the vendors do. "Most kids would buy an apple even if they were told it costs a hundred bucks," he says. So he's written a cookbook for kids, slated for a year-end release, where he explains what to do and, more important, how to undo what was not meant to have been done in the first place. Since the book is targeted at a foreign readership as well, it offers substitutes for vegetables, which may be unavailable.

So, you see, for a budding chef in Bangalore, life is not all hard wok.

You can email Nikhil Rao at skanix@rediffmail.com, or call 98860-46889

HEMANGINI GUPTA

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