Interviewing an Indolanan Chef (#1 of Worldly Cooking)
There are countless different types of cuisines throughout Loria. Some are as familiar as your grandfather’s kitchen or as otherworldly as roasting sardines on a heat vent under the sea, but all people in all places share a love of cooking that is as universal as hunger itself.
My name is Dagor Seyra and I have been writing for The Culinary Monthly for over a decade now. My passion for food and the people who prepare it started with my grandmother, and even after she passed on to Above, this desire to get to know the people behind what we eat never left me.
So this year, I decided to indulge this fascination and hit the road (or the boat) and experience the cuisines of world-class chefs from around the world.
In each upcoming issue of The Culinary Monthly, I will interview one chef that embodies and/or revolutionizes their people’s cuisine. I’ll be trying to find out what drives them, how they reached their success, and of course, taste fabulous food.
Retaining Identity at the Center of Commerce
(To start my trek across the world, I thought it fitting to begin where world treks so often begin: the port city of Buratysa, capital of not just Indolana, but perhaps all of trade.
Indolanans have been trading across the sea for thousands of years, first selling just their native fruits, chocolate, and of course, sugar; and then as a hub for goods all across the world.
This familiarity with the foreign really comes across in their cuisine. Chefs casually use ingredients from faraway lands with their local staples.
I’m meeting Anthon Calussi, founder and head chef for Elaina’s Bounty, a pioneering restaurant nestled right in the main harbor.
Calussi is an imposing figure of a man; his dark Indolanan skin fails to hide the rippling muscle he maintains even in his declining years. But, as firm as his handshake is, he moves with a restraint born of refined society.
We decided to sit at one of his outdoor tables overlooking the calm sea. The drinks are made with crushed fruit and they’re as refreshing as they are delicious while out in the humid air.
He, like me, learned to love food and cooking from his grandmother, so during my time with him we often shared relatable anecdotes of old kitchens being worked by older hands. None were topical so I have omitted them from the transcription of our interview.)
You work in a lovely city.
Don’t let the tranquility and the piety fool you; this place is as cutthroat as they come.
You’ve had a lot of experience with that kind of thing.
I have. I was the personal chef for Count Sergion, the former head of the Arthavic family.
That’s a prestigious position.
It was. I must put this in perspective: there used to be no restaurants in Indolana, at least, not in the way you envision them.
The only way to make a living as a chef was to work for one of the great families, and the competition to become a dishwasher alone was vicious.
Was that where you started or—?
No, I was hired as sous chef of vegetables.
The Count was an eccentric man and that extended to how he organized his household. He also liked gumption. Now every chef wants to believe their food is the best. I sure did. I told him so. I told him that he would never regret hiring me and that in a few years, I would be running his kitchen. He laughed and told me he would hold me to that.
But you did keep your word.
It took quite a few more years than I had originally planned, but yes, I became head of his kitchen. It was hard but rewarding work. The pressure in that kind of environment is always intense. The very people you are ordering about are all just waiting for you to slip up so that they can try to take your place. Chefs can be passionate people and sometimes patience is not their strong suit. I’ve had…violent altercations.
That’s not very Velaenean.
No. (frowns) It’s not. But many only speak of Velaenean virtues and do not practice them. It is a strange experience: discovering your work can have…a darker side. And sometimes it goes beyond petty and into scandal.
(Calussi made it very clear at the onset of this interview that he would not answer any questions surrounding his former count’s arrest and conviction or his own arrest that fell through. I was surprised that he brought it up himself.)
Is there anything you would like to say about the scandal?
Count Sergion treated me very well. I have nothing further to say about his conduct. My conduct, however…is not something I look back on with pride.
Your conduct? The charges against you were dropped. You were cleared of wrongdoing.
So I was. But no one likes finding out their kitchen is being used for illicit activities. I do not think I handled it with grace. I wanted…needed to leave that life.
Is that why you opened Elaina’s Bounty?
Primarily. I wanted creative freedom. I wanted to feed people who came to my kitchen to be fed, not to be a criminal. I became a chef because I love to cook and I wanted to be in an environment where that was what I did, no politics, no crime, and no courtly appearances.
So, you have cut all your ties to the crime families?
I didn’t have ties with them, to begin with.
So you want to reiterate that there’s nothing illegal going on in this establishment?
I once caught a waiter of mine stealing silverware. Does that count?”
What happened to him?
He did not do it again. I don’t tolerate that.
(I decided to change the subject) You cater mostly to merchant and artisan families.
Yes. The people who walk through my door are hard-working folks and it is an honor to serve them. I don’t mind who eats here, so long as they pay and wear proper attire. As I said, I’m out of politics. I’m so out of politics I know some counts discuss their negotiations over my food because they know I won’t be bribed to poison it. And will not tolerate a fight.
So, you do still come into contact with Counts.
Not many actual Counts come because of course they have their own chefs. It happens, just less.
The only consistent interaction I have now is on the twelfth of every month when I pay Countess Calpurnia my taxes and fees for my permit, and she has kindly chosen to more or less leave me to my own devices.
So, you are now free to focus on what you love.
Indeed. It is wonderful. At first, I admit I feared that this concept would be too radical. High-end restaurants like these were a profound concept here a couple of decades ago. The fact that many saw it as a foreign, even faerie concept only made the pushback worse. However, in the end, few can say no to a quality meal. Especially when it becomes a mark of prestige.
Because when they eat here, they are publicly admitting to the neighborhood that they have a disposable income?
Exactly. I don’t have much disposable income, but that is fine. I’m happy to spend my money on ingredients for my work.
It must be a peaceful life.
It is, thankfully, and once detached from my former concerns, I was able to see the more philosophical wars that raged between chefs all over Indolana.
There were—I should say, there still are many chefs here that believe using foreign ingredients is diluting the identity of Indolanan cuisine. Reject the spices of the south, they say, reject the meats of the north. Our cuisine should stand up on our own local fruits and delicacies.
You challenged that popular view.
Of course. It’s absurd. The Indolanan identity has always been closely linked with trade. Reflecting that through different ingredients from different lands is not a dilution, but an evolution of our cuisine. I take great pride in the fact that new fads in the culinary scene often reach us first because new ideas always find their way here, sooner or later. Like the concept of praising divinity through your food as if it were a temple mural. We are a deeply Velaenean people so that concept spread through us like wildfire.
You’re saying religious cooking didn’t originate from here? I always thought it was Indolanan.
It does sound like us, doesn’t it? But no, we did not invent it, only elevate it, as we so often do with the things that come our way.
Do you know who started it?
No. It came to us from the Perii’ans and none of the chefs I know down there claim to have invented it. I suspect its origin is further south. Perhaps the Giants or even the Araknai began it.
But it has taken on a life of its own here.
This is a natural place for that concept. Religion is very much integrated into our daily life.
You jumped on that idea.
I don’t think I jumped on anything. I have always believed I was praising Velaena through my work. I think a lot of Indolanans are the same. When it became fashionable, we just got more vocal about it. This brings me to my philosophy regarding Indolanan cuisine.
That the foreign ingredients are irrelevant. What makes Indolanan cuisine Indolanan is the mentality with which our chefs approach preparing their meals. If that were not the case, our food traditions would have disappeared a thousand years ago.
A firm stance. I’d like to put that mentality to the test.
In what way?
A challenge. Could you make me a meal that feels in the spirit of Indolana, where each ingredient is from a different region of the world, that’s not Indolana?
(His eyes sharpened at the idea) What an interesting proposition.
Can you do it?
(He takes me to the harbor’s market. It is bustling with vendors yelling from their stands, and crowds surging past them. Artisans show off their silver jewelry, colorful glass, and intricate tapestries to anyone who will pause for a moment. When we get to the food section, I begin to see why the cuisine of such tradition-oriented people could have so radical a range. Everything was at that market. I’m convinced if I wanted a squid beached on Verthinon’s shores and ritualistically blessed by the firesworn, I could have found it. Calussi looked at me and asked me what I was in the mood for. Tempting, but I kept to my instincts and insisted that though I issued the challenge, I wanted him to choose the ingredients.
He bought the following:
Mangoes harvested from the giants in the south
Mackerel from Naravian waters
Tenadari olive oil
Those pale round pears you can find in Verthinon. (Sorry I can’t write the name. They’re always labeled in a draconic script)
Pineapple from Palaelos
Melons from the Araki expanse
We brought back all these foreign ingredients and Anthon Calussi set to cooking.
He first salted the mackerel, then took it outside to one of his smoking pits. He wrapped the fish in a banana leaf and set it into his natural underground oven.)
Isn’t a banana leaf from Indolana?
Of course, but it’s not an ingredient, it’s a cooking method. Asking me to only use a banana leaf from Palaelos would be like insisting I outsource my pots and pans as well.
I see. Very well, I’ll allow it. What’s your thought process in doing it this way?
Slow cooking a fish in a banana leaf is a distinctly Indolanan technique. No naravian chef would do this to their mackerel.
(While the fish was cooking, he took the time to make pasta from the wheat and salt, explaining to me as he did.)
Indolana has an interesting history with pasta. Wheat of course did not grow natively here, but the moment we discovered it thousands of years ago, we’ve had a love affair with it ever since, specifically pasta. We make more pasta than anywhere else. It’s an Indolanan staple.
And yet it’s not from here.
Doesn’t matter. We’ve made it ours.
(He stirs in grated dwarven cheese right before he spins the pasta into a small side bowl. He then cuts the fruits and mixes them with some lettuce to make a fragrant fruit salad. He tosses the rest of the lettuce with olive oil to create a leafy bed to lay the now-done fish over.)
We have a smoked mackerel over an olive oil drizzled lettuce bed with a side of cheesy pasta and fruit salad with mangoes, pineapples, melons, and very foreign pears. All with ingredients shipped to Indolanan from different far-off places.
(I tasted it all and by Her Grace Above was it good. It was so simple. I was somewhat embarrassed at the speed I devoured the whole thing. I get the sense that Calussi values table manners, and would have eaten the whole thing with significantly more grace. I apologize to him for having to suffer through Tenadari savagery.)
This is delicious, and even though nothing but the leaf it came in is from here…you are right. It tastes…it even feels Indolanan.
That’s what I promote. Our culinary traditions transcend our ingredients. It’s about the mindset, the love of feeding your neighbors and honoring Velaena.
Thank you for taking the time to let us all learn about the Indolanan legacy.
It was my pleasure.
(It was my pleasure too. I feel like I understand Calussi better now, a man deeply passionate about his craft who after scandal and controversy ruined his life, has endured and emerged with a peaceful job, doing what he truly loves. And we are all the better for it because what he loves is to cook phenomenal food. I always love tasting good meals for work. I have the best job. Anthon Calussi would say the same.)
That wraps up my first issue of “Worldly Cooking” for you all. I hope all our loyal readers enjoyed it. I leave the city of Buratysa to go someplace close, but I’ll be visiting my next chef at night. Can you guess where I’m going? Find out in next month’s issue if you got it right!
(Taken from the #168 issue of The Culinary Monthly)