Kamal

From the red dust of the Australian outback to the valley of Kathmandu, Kamal Verma served a string of royalty, US presidents and even Saddam Hussein before settling in the Adelaide Hills. After closing the doors of his popular Nairne restaurant, Chingari, for the last time earlier this year, Kamal gives us a glimpse into his philosophy of food.

Growing up in New Delhi my family was centred around food … joy, sorrow and happiness was always celebrated with food.”
Kamal Verma’s career as a chef has taken him around the world, all the way from the manic metropolis of New Delhi to the quiet streets of Nairne.
The internationally renowned chef has mastered a myriad of cuisines, stemming from a lifetime of unwavering curiosity in the kitchen.
The man behind the hugely popular Chingari Indian Restaurant in Nairne is considered by many to be something of a food guru, but freely admits he has never stopped learning and never will.
An expert in Middle Eastern, Asian and traditional European dishes, he is a firm believer that food not only sustains the body but by the simple act of sharing that sustenance, we can build a better world.

“Food is the centre,” he says. “My Indian heritage is all about eating together and sharing food. Growing up in New Delhi my family was centred around food … joy, sorrow and happiness was always celebrated with food.”
The 66-year-old – who closed his popular Chingari restaurant earlier this year – was fascinated with his mother’s cooking skills as a boy – how she would make a myriad of curries using a base of potatoes but achieve wild variations just by adding different spices.
“I always looked at Mum and her techniques,” he says.
“We were a middle-class family, but we ate like kings and queens.”

His interest in food led him to study hotel management in both India and Germany and so began a career that would see him employed by major hotels in Europe, Australia, Dubai, Yemen, Oman and Bahrain – including seven years as the executive chef for the King of Bahrain.
“The Middle East is much like India in that food is meant to be shared,” he says.
“Lady Diana and Prince Charles came to Bahrain when I was the personal chef to the king. “The concept was the same – sharing.
“The cooked baby lamb comes to the centre of the table, and you share.
“The king is eating the same food. They (Charles and Diana) were not shy in accepting that culture.

“It is a fantastic way to eat but there is a meaning behind it also, when we share everything we have strong ties, strong relationships.”
The chef has prepared meals for a host of notable people including Queen Elizabeth, US presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat.
But apart from his sublime cooking skills, Kamal is known for having a cool head in a kitchen crisis, something he says all good chefs need.
Like the time he was preparing a wedding feast for 1000 guests for the daughter of the Nepalese Prime Minister in Kathmandu when the hotel kitchen suddenly ran out of gas.

His solution was to calmly transfer the cooking out onto the hotel’s tennis courts where huge pots were set up over hastily lit fires and none of the guests were aware there was an issue.
Or when preparing a gourmet lunch for 500 hotel executives at Uluru when it was discovered at the last moment the charcoal for the barbecues had been left back in Alice Springs.
His solution was to gather local spinifex to use as fuel, a move which added a wonderfully unique flavour to the meal, completely enchanted the guests and further enhanced his reputation as a chef with more than a pinch of practicality about him.

He was named the best chef of the year from 700 hotels around the world after his creativity transformed the Kathmandu Sheraton into a profitable business after he was initially sent by management to close it down after years of financial failures.
“When I arrived with the general manager and financial controller, we saw a lot of potential in the hotel,” he says.
“We said, we are not going to use the French linen or the lobsters coming from France, we are just going to use the local produce.
“My goodness, we turned the hotel around for a profit.”

After criss-crossing the Middle East and Europe, the Indian-born chef and his Irish wife Geraldene finally settled in Australia and fell in love with the Adelaide Hills and the region’s produce.
“We are abundantly blessed in this region with our wines and produce,” he says.
For 18 years the couple and their now adult children worked tirelessly in the family restaurant to develop it into a local institution, with Kamal saying the outpouring of love from the community at its recent closure was “truly humbling”.
“I always thought ‘business comes, business goes, who cares’ but we had so much attention after its closure was put up on facebook I had to take the phone off the hook and switch off my mobile,” he says.

But his love affair with Chingari has been replaced by a new challenge.
Kamal is on a mission to improve food standards in aged care homes.
He took a management role with an Adelaide aged care provider several years ago and in that time has turned things around for both the residents and management. “It (this issue) needs big-time attention,” he says.
“I was in tears when I saw what was going on … my heart bled.”
The two nursing homes he manages care for over 200 people and he says, since changes to kitchen operations were made, his residents are both happier and healthier. Win, win.
Changing the usual practice of serving each resident a plated meal to offering them a wide dining choice has been transformative.

Today the clients eagerly await the daily smorgasbord with three meats on offer plus a bain-marie with stir fry noodles, pasta, risotto as well as vegetables and rice.
“The residents are happier and putting on weight,” he says.
“They come back for more and I say, ‘go for it’.
“Some people were losing weight and they were given supplements like protein powder, injections, tablets – and they are not cheap.
“An extra serve of noodles costs less than $1.”
Win, win, win.

He says employing trained chefs in aged care is also essential.
“And stop using this instant mashed potato, this packet stuff!” he says.
“We need to understand that when a client enters care at age 90 they have seen the world, they have eaten lobster, they have eaten caviar, they have eaten the best of the best and now you are treating them like this. It is inhumane.”
The problem, he says, stems from a basic lack of respect for the elderly and a negative mindset about aged care.
“I hope more chefs at the age of semi-retired join aged care,” he says.
“We need to clean out this mentality that because people are in aged care, we can give them anything.
“I am Indian and if I am in aged care the meat and three veg doesn’t work for me.
“I want my lentil, I want my dahl, my palak paneer, my aloo gobi.
“My wife Geraldene is Irish so you can’t give her curries all the time, she wants an Irish stew, she wants corned beef and cabbage.”

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