Do you remember the first time you ate a strawberry? Did you like it? The explosion of sweet red juice refreshing your taste buds? When was the first time you ate sushi and had the epiphany of umami? When your brain came to light with the realization of new possibilities wrapped in culture? Discovering new food, flavours and cooking techniques is what drives a lot of chefs, knowing there is always something new to be unearthed. The unending thrill of bounty that this blue planet has provided allows us to create.
This metamorphosis of thought happened to Devendra Koolage when, at the age of 17, he attended an Italian cooking demonstration at a local restaurant in his home of Mumbai, India. As a part of the demonstration the Chef made ravioli. “I don’t remember what was in it, but I remember how it tasted. That changed everything for me.” Getting introduced to olive oil, tapenade, pine nuts, sun dried tomato pesto was like a kid getting an Optimus Prime action figure – he had a new world to play with. After extensive research and discovery Dev began taking his journey into cooking seriously and attended culinary school in Ontario, Canada. There he learned charcuterie, bread, and cheese making. His father was never overly thrilled about Dev’s career choice, initially hoping for him to get involved with accounting, investments and commerce. This was Dev’s siblings’ line of work, and his family insisted that he could “do better”. Luckily his older brother was his biggest supporter, nurturing his dream and helping to explain to their father that Dev needed to do what was best for him.
This eventually brought Dev to Whistler. As part of his schooling Dev had to do a three month co-op in a restaurant, a very common practice in culinary schools. This tends to weed out the people not necessarily cut out for the industry. “I didn’t know what Whistler was,” Dev recalls. The shock of travelling the infamous Sea to Sky Highway for the first time is always a jaw dropper, as it’s considered one of the most beautiful drives in the world. “I was speechless.” Even though the Chef that Dev was assigned to for his co-op was not very impressed with his resume, kitchens always need hands, and if the those hands are free – even better! For Dev this was the best possible environment to grow as a cook: being surrounded by the pure beauty of snow fields and the large variety of people, culture and food that ski towns come with.
Now that Dev has climbed his way to Sous Chef, he has the difficult honour of educating the younger generation discovering the responsibility of being a chef. “They are blind to the beauty of no responsibility,” Dev sighs. I myself am an enormous fan of the phrase “ignorance is bliss”, but there comes a point in every chef’s career when you cannot ignore the glaring problems in the industry and how we as individuals are making the problem worse. Dev’s biggest pet peeve is food waste, which is not only a major problem in restaurants because it puts a damper on our oh-so-precious food cost, but a chain reaction occurs every time we throw something away. It’s wasted labour for the cook that prepared it, fuel for the driver that delivered it, water for the farmer that grew it, taking up more space in our already crowded landfills when not disposed of properly. Dev says “We need to be thankful for the food that is provided to us”. As young cooks we are guilty of throwing away more than our fair share of ruined product, not being fully aware of what that means in the grand scheme of things. We need to know where our food comes from, and the work it took from the people who provided it for us.
Dev has had a growing love for Latin cuisine, because of its parallels to Indian cooking and it was a trip to visit a friend in Mexico for a birthday feast that opened his eyes to the care and appreciation you must have for food. His friend Pedro was preparing three goats to make a Mexican style of the Filipino dish “adobo” when a man pulled up with a cow in the back of his truck and slaughtered the cow right then and there. Dev was not prepared for that. However, we both agree that if you are going to have the audacity to cook and eat an animal you should have a complete understanding of what the animal goes through to provide us with nourishment. Dev believes that particularly chefs should experience the pain first-hand by visiting a slaughterhouse or farm, or partaking in a hunting trip. We ought to treat our ingredients with respect, knowing how much work, blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice goes into the product we receive in our restaurants. The least we can do is showcase the absolute perfect version of what we chefs think a dish should be and show our guests the versatility of our product and ingredients. Despite the trauma of being unprepared to witness the slaughter of an animal, Dev says the meal he had with Pedro and his family in Mexico was amazing.
Devendra will forever think of himself as a cook and a “work in progress”, not limiting himself to a particular cuisine or style of cooking. Dev describes the food of chaotic India: “Amazing food. Great food. Probably the best I have ever had. Definitely, definitely the best I have ever had. That I ever will have.” Remembering where he comes from and keeping it close to his heart, he remains humble, embracing any opportunity to learn with an immovable smile.
This is the kind of chef and human that Dev is.
Me: “So what’s the dream then?”
Dev: “What’s the dream?! To be honest I don’t know if I am going to be in Canada the rest of my life or if I am going to go back home… but anywhere I go I hope to have my own restaurant, somewhere. Nowhere in the next fifteen to twenty years… But whenever I do, I think it will be either Indian or Mexican. It will be one or the other, I love both cuisines so much I don’t want to mess it up.”
And after seven years of being in Canada, Dev is still not a fan of snow.