Take the names of any three women chefs in Delhi, and Julia deSa will be among them. The wonder of it all is that she has just started living in Delhi for the last dozen years, but such has been the force of her personality and her cooking skills that she has the who’s who eating out of her hands. When you think that this petite gal with the towering personality never wanted to be buried at the back of the house in a kitchen, but always hankered for a glamorous job, dressed like a model with the latest make-up and trendy clothes, you wonder at the tricks that fate plays on us.
Julia’s parents were no-nonsense, God-fearing Goans from Loutolim and because their estate was large, all her siblings were expected to help separate the cashew-nuts from the fruit, pluck ripe chikoos and papayas and help de-husk the rice. There was milk from the cows to be delivered to the neighbours and the only reason Julia did not object too vociferously was because the pocket money these chores gave her was very welcome. However, she did draw the line at cooking rice and grinding grated coconut and spices in the enormous ‘rogdo’ that every kitchen in Goa has. The rice would either remain raw or become cooked to an inedible mush and her petite arms could hardly turn the giant grinding stone (though, truth be told, she feared developing muscles on her forearms). When her father heard of the ‘Craft Institute’ in Porvorim after Julia passed out from school he deemed it to be an innocuous enough institute that held the potential of teaching his self-willed daughter some life-skills. And that is the chapter that turned Miss deSa into Chef deSa!
She was, as the saying goes, ‘snapped up’ by the canny management of the Taj Group of Hotels where Chefs Rego and Thomas Braganza saw her potential at Taj Fort Aguada, Goa. This feisty lass absorbed the knowledge about her subject from every possible source, including once from a group of hotel guests! Young and relatively inexperienced Julia had served overcooked pasta to Italian guests; they were expecting al dente spaghetti, and were prepared to take over Julia’s station to cook it to their liking while their chef looked on with amazement at strands of spaghetti being thrown at the wall to see if it was done or not! “Of course, there was no internet at that time,” she muses fondly. I was startled; this Goan lass looks so young and sprightly that when she tells me that she has 30 years of experience behind her, I am taken aback because she doesn’t look as if she is much older than 30 years. It is only when she began talking about her earliest life in the kitchen in the mid-80s that I sit up and begin to scrutinize her gamine face for a trace of a wrinkle, but I give up soon enough, because after three decades of following her passion, Chef Julia still retains all the appetite she ever had for her job, and there’s no wrinkle on her visage.
This remarkable lady who works in a kitchen as a profession spends her vacations doing more of the same. When she travels to Europe, she delights in visiting the kitchens of friends or small restaurants in France, UK, Portugal, Italy and Spain just to see the various ways that flavours are produced! To her, it is an eternal delight. When she is not absorbing flavours and techniques from countries and regions that she visits, she delights in ‘sight-seeing’ markets and delicatessens to see new ingredients and revitalize her style of cooking. Thus, while she can cook a paella or a caldo verde perfectly well, especially if it is going to be on a restaurant menu, her own forte is to use the Julia tweak. About the only shopping she ever allows herself – besides ingredients, that is – are high-heeled shoes.
She reminded me of the very first meal she cooked for me. It was while she headed the Taj Exotica kitchen in Benaulim, South Goa. Though it was a couple of decades ago, I still remember the crab poriyal vividly. The pristine whiteness of the de-shelled crabmeat was kept without tinting it with turmeric or chilli powder. Instead, Thai basil scented the delicate meat and a tempering of mustard seeds speckled the whiteness. A good chef knows how to cook. A great chef knows the precise moment to stop! Chef Julia could have ladled on a few more herbs to add colour to the dish, but the dazzling whiteness, the impeccable freshness of the crustacean and the merest hint of a single herb did more to add magic to a preparation whose almost flowery texture has not left me in twenty years. The main course was a whole lobster which had been marinated by the simple expedient of sticking a single strand of lemongrass through its length. When poached in butter on the gentlest heat, the scent of the lemongrass suffused the entire lobster.
What I remember about the meal was that there were no side dishes, no ‘plate fillers’ like potato chips and beans or carrots. The premium seafood was the star of this particular show and it was treated with utmost respect. I remember peeking into the open kitchen and seeing Chef Julia dwarfed by the young males in the kitchen, each watching with rapt attention. I sometimes think back to that day and wonder whether those chefs, in their turn, have become mentors to the next generation, with as much verve and dedication as Julia has been.
As soon as she moved to Delhi, her first assignment in the city was in the then newly opened Set’z which was a cluster of totally different cuisines under a single roof. To date, it is enormously successful though it has been some years that Chef Julia has moved on. The next one was/is Tres. On the ground floor of a market in a government colony, Julia lost no time in developing suppliers for sustainably grown vegetables and making menus that tantalize the palates of Delhiites. My own favourite is the love-it-or-hate-it Chicken Liver Ice Cream. From the Latin music to the bar that does cutting-edge cocktails to the cognoscenti that walk through the golden door, Julia’s in the house!