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A Chef’s Kitchen is Not a Democracy… It’s a Dictatorship!

Vandana Naique

The beautiful (and meticulous) culinary world of Vandana Naique

Founder and Chef of Café Bodega, Vandana Naique speaks to Kanchi Mehta about challenges of being a chef, how her personality seeps into the kitchen, as well as her exciting plans for the future.

It wasn’t the easiest thing to get half an hour with Vandana Naique during the first week of January 2015. Alumna of the Culinary Institute of Art, New York, Vandana spent almost two decades in the Big Apple, much of that time starting up new restaurants. Along the way, she also acquired quite a few feathers in her cap, working alongside some of the world’s most celebrated chefs in some of the world’s finest restaurants. Then she decided to return to her hometown, and bring a bit of New York to Goa.

Three years ago, she started Bodega, a popular café amid the quaint hills of Panjim’s Altinho neighborhood, in the spacious courtyard of Sunaparanta Goa Centre of the Arts. “It could not get better than this,” she admits to me, “I have been really lucky.”

I have known Vandana for three years now, and I have witnessed the growth of this café since the beginning. Firstly, it is not a walk in the park to come from New York  into a small city like Panjim to set up a café. Her main challenge was availability of raw materials as well as the standards of ingredients that she could use daily in her kitchen. One thing to keep in mind about Vandana is that she is a workaholic, and an unmitigated perfectionist. She is fastidious about how her food is prepared and presented and makes sure her staff follows her instructions to the very last element.

One time I was at the café working on my notebook, sipping a coffee when I heard high-pitched clamor coming from inside the kitchen. I was about to get up to see if everything was alright, when I saw Vandana stomping out into the courtyard with a trail of the staff following her, a look of apprehension on their faces. For the next 30 minutes, there was an exhaustive stipulation by her in part Hindi, part Konkani, part Marathi, which climaxed in “…you only do what I tell you to do! DO YOU UNDERSTAND…?” I watched the limp nods of the staff as I hid low behind my desktop and giggled and said to myself, she’s downright crazy! Later in the day when I caught hold of the calmer Gestapo Chef, she explained to me “running a restaurant is not a democracyIt’s a dictatorship!” As it should be, I reflected. When feeding a large number of people it is imperative to maintain quality, hygiene and presentation.

Herein comes the challenge of training a local Goan staff to be as meticulous as the chef and to understand the nuances of international cuisine .

With her plethora of degrees and credentials on paper, there is a certain attitude one acquires in order to receive an overwhelming response for the food prepared. A far-reaching audience has recognized her popularity as a chef. The queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, called Vandana’s desserts “the best she’s ever had in her life”. Her clients also include HH Dalai Lama, George Clooney, Anna Wintour, George & Laura Bush and many more. Her cakes have been ordered by the likes of Beyonce, Mariah Carey, and Ben Kingsley.  Vandana was pastry chef at the famous La Grenouille restaurant under Chef Bedoucha, the pastry sous chef at the W Hotel’s Heartbeat, and at Thom as the pastry chef with Chef Michael Batt. She then accompanied Chef Marcus Samuelsson in his Japanese restaurant, where she was given the chance to innovate Japanese influenced desserts like the green tea donut and miso chocolate cake. She was also pastry chef at the famed 3-star restaurant Town, owned by celebrity chef (and ‘Chopped’ judge) Geoffery Zacharian.

I rest my case.

Vandana is already ‘cooking up’ plans for the future (pun intended). It is only natural for someone with her experience to impart the abundance of culinary knowledge and give back to society what she took years to accumulate. “I want to start a culinary arts institution in Goa,” she says proudly, with a bright smile. “It will not be a regular ‘degree college’ which one receives after a few years of following a set syllabus, but one which attracts people who are passionate about cooking. I find it important to tap into the strengths of every individual, and guide him or her in the right direction and hone distinct talents.” She plans to bring together her friends and mentors in the industry to collaborate on this venture, and contribute as faculty members to create a unique educational space for culinary arts.

In spite of her busy schedule, Vandana keeps in touch with all her friends and colleagues across the globe, and is up to date with the turnover of restaurants, chefs and culinary trends in New York. She is continuously experimenting and learning new flavors and cuisines and sharing them with friends and family. She is always looking after her guests and making sure they are happy with the menu (which is ever changing and always inviting). “I do my best and am always up for positive criticism, but I am never affected by anything negative or harmful that people have to say about me or the café. This is because I live in my own bubble, which is driven by my work, which is my ultimate priority. It makes me happy and gives me a natural high”.

To put it into a nutshell, I quote this from Bodega’s Facebook page in the ‘about’ section, written by Valmiki. An apt description of Vandana, which I conclude with: “Maybe it was a consequence of being a 60s child born in the same year as Gordon Ramsay, or maybe it is almost two decades of experience in the capital city of the world, New York, but Vandana’s personality is like a bungee jump – precariously exciting, but at the same time firmly grounded.” I could not have said it better.