A little boy lost who finally found his path, his true calling, to emerge as one of the country’s top celebrity chefs is how Sabyasachi Gorai should be described. At 47, everybody in the food business and out of it knows him. And if you’re among those who fancy themselves to be discerning, knowledgeable foodies, you will have definitely eaten at his signature restaurants, Lavaash By Saby at Delhi and Mineority By Saby in Pune, presently.
He’s cooked for the Ambanis, the Bachchans, the F1 teams and a host of other dignitaries and famous names so far. He’s also won numerous awards and appeared in many TV shows. From being the ex-director at Olive Bar & Kitchens to launching his own trademark restaurants that serve up Armenian, yes you heard that right, fare fused with Bengali cuisine, Chef Saby, as he is popularly known, has always believed in doing things differently, not because it is a conscious choice — but because he is ‘different.’
Where else will you hear the story of a dyslexic boy from a lower middle class family in West Bengal who had absolutely no interest in cooking, getting India’s Best Chef award from the President along with a multitude of other recognitions? He says having an ego is detrimental to success. “Whether I cook for the Ambanis or even for a charity dinner, my output and attitude towards my work is the same. I do it with all my soul.”
Today, along with his own award winning restaurants he has his hands more than full, also a chef-preneur dabbling in consultancy. His company Fabrica By Saby, where he mixes business with his food craft not only helps set up restaurants but also acts as a mentor to young chefs. He is also Culinary Director with the Bangalore based Byg Brewski Brewing Company where he helps manage their many outlets. Not bad for somebody who claims to have no ambition!
But it was not always so easy. Leaving a secure job at Olive to set up his own restaurant, at the peak of his career, was a daring move and as he says, “I quit Olive at 40 and wanted to do something on my own, to leave my footprints behind and create something unique to me.” His background is equally bohemian, much like this career graph. From his childhood in the mining district of Asansol in West Bengal, to Mumbai where his work led him and now of course, so many other places, it has been a long journey of struggle and indecisiveness. But one trait came in handy throughout; it was his perseverance and commitment to hard work. That bit about him doesn’t change.
He doesn’t believe he had it easy ever, because he doesn’t consider himself a genius. “It was a difficult time for me. My mother had passed away and my father was in a dark place. As for me, I had always been a dyslexic child and had great difficulty trying to pass exams. But I had two abiding interests: art and music, in which I was very good. When I couldn’t do either because they weren’t the kind of choices that would get me a salary, I just picked up whatever was in front of me: the Hotel Management course,” he explains.
He remembers feeling an acute stomach pain the first day he had to work in the kitchen because he was dreading his job so much. “But I remember one senior chef telling me that it was either this or nothing else. I had a choice to walk away. That perhaps was the turning point for me. I decided to stick on. Working hard came naturally to me since I always had to put in double the effort that other people put, because of my dyslexia. The bad thing was that my creativity took a back seat and all my art and music went out of the window.”
But on the home front that did not win him accolades at all. His father was not too pleased that his son did not turn out to be a litterateur like him or his artist mother. Instead he was just a glorified cook. But Saby did not let all that daunt him. He continued in his reckless, persevering, hardworking way and when he set up his own restaurants, he dug into his grandmothers handwritten recipe books from 1930 and also a book authored by his father on the coal mining town where he grew up and crystallised the food memories of his childhood, in the menus. Given the fact that there were so many Armenian settlers there, at a time, the cuisine was largely Armenian with localised Bengali touches, especially the breads and bakeries.
Chef Saby says he’s fascinated by history and the legacies we all have, so his interest is in largely originality, local produce and absolutely unadulterated fare that food should be all about. His life, right now is all about travelling and creating food from his various sojourns. “I started travelling widely every year; a gastronomic tour of sorts where I discover new dishes, come back and use them in my cooking. I learnt a lot from foreign chefs that I meet abroad; it honed my skills and led me to believe that this was my true passion. It was a self discovery of sorts,” he says.
And now that he is where he could not have imagined himself, some years back, how does it feel? “For me, it’s still the simple things. Social media is a big help, of course in creating awareness and chefs are finally getting their due. But I’m still the same person I always was — I don’t watch television at all so I don’t even have a TV at home. All I do is cook and travel and that makes me happy.” Other things that bring out the best in him are the smile of a satisfied guest. He is very hands on and doesn’t believe that the job of the chef begins and ends in the kitchen. “I take it further; right from cooking to presentation and then to serving and that I believe, has worked for me.”
Finally, his dad must be proud of him, I say. “Oh, I still don’t know,” smiles Chef Saby in his characteristic modest way as he signs off.