If you plan to be anywhere near The Altman Building in New York City on Thursday evening, April 7, don’t be surprised by the sumptuous aromas that will be wafting through the air and greeting your nostrils with the heavenly scent of Indian cuisine. If you’re on the outside looking in, you will be missing out on the first-of-its-kind Varli Food Festival, a celebration of Indian cuisine, wine, dessert and culture.
The Varli Food Festival will feature celebrity chefs specializing in Indian cuisine, some coming from as far away as India while others are based locally. One such individual is Chef Prasad Chirnomula, the culinary visionary behind the Thali—Regional Cuisine of India restaurants located throughout Connecticut, including Thali Westport.
Like many chefs who focus on Indian cuisine, Chef Chirnomula is on a mission. More than twenty-five years ago, he made a promise to his people that he would endeavor to educate others, Americans included, in this growing trend of cuisine.
I asked Chef Chirnomula why Indian food is so appealing, and he was quick to give the cuisine its due. “First of all, Indian food is out of its infancy. I think there are a lot of creative chefs exploring the cuisine of India regionally. People are more willing to try bold flavors. They like the right balance in their food. That’s what Indian food is all about. Anybody can make food hot. But finding the right balance is key.”
However, there have been misconceptions about Indian food. It was, and in some cases still is, being prepared to suit our American palates. “In general, people in the past thought Indian food was either curry or hot. Indian food can be spicy but it doesn’t necessarily have to be hot. Traditionally, our food has had a fair amount of spices which acted as pickling for the food. To counteract that, however, there is no curry powder in India. It doesn’t exist.”
Curry powder was actually a British amalgamation as a quick-fix substitution for the varied spice blends used in Indian dishes. And even though a few shakes of curry powder in the kitchen makes for a palatable dish, the true flavors of India are actualized when the myriad of spices make their presence known.
In sharing his vast knowledge of the cuisine, Chef Chirnomula is doing his part to help spread the word about Indian food and the many flavors and nuances that it encompasses. “You have to explain,” he notes, “and dispel the myth that Indian food is solely curry or massaman. Our approach to our restaurant guests is that all of the food is custom-made and doesn’t need to be spicy or hot. Sauces can be rich or hot, depending on what you like. Balancing the right amount of spices is a talent of a chef, and that’s what I try to do.”
It is this type of educating that will make the Festival an electrifying event. And it isn’t just the public who eagerly awaits April 7th. As the first festival of its kind in the U.S., Chef Chirnomula can be counted among those who are drawn to it. “When I found out about it, I said ‘Count me in. I’ll be the first one in.’ There are food festivals in India, but in the U.S. we haven’t done anything like this. We’re all excited. We get to showcase our cuisine in New York City and work with other chefs. This is a first. We need to thank Varli for doing that.”
As the first such festival of its kind, expectations of accomplishments are hopeful with an eye on success. When asked what he hopes to see occur as a result of the Festival, Chef Chirnomula was pragmatic and realistic.
“An awareness of Indian cuisine. That’s number one. I certainly hope there are a lot of food enthusiasts who want to receive a little knowledge about our culture. And I’m hoping to see, besides our Indian kin, more locals come by to taste our flavors and our food.”
On a more personal note, the anticipated gains and rewards from Chef Chirnomula’s Festival experience can be measured in heightened enrichment. “Personally, the opportunity to buddy-buddy with local NY chefs and chefs from all over would be wonderful. To meet and greet is a great thing. This could be a stepping stone for me to do a venture in Manhattan and be in the bunch with the best of the best. I’m looking forward to being with other chefs, including the master chefs and other celebrity chefs. They call me a celebrity chef but I don’t know where that comes from.”
Chef Chirnomula has a modesty that is rare in the industry. He could be tooting his own horn. Instead, he continues on his quest to bring delectable Indian cuisine to those who love it, introduce it to those who are curious about it and always keeps them coming back for more.
Undoubtedly, there will be many highlights at the Festival. In modest fashion, Chef Chirnomula knows what some his focal points will be. “Chef Sanjeev Kapoor!” he says without hesitation. “He’s the master chef coming in from India. He’s definitely a highlight.” His accolades don’t stop there. “There’s Floyd Cardoz, and Jehangir Metha, who was a contestant on Iron Chef America. This is just to name a few. Of course, there is the food and beverages.”
There’s a buzz surrounding the Varli Food Festival. It will be the quintessential flagship event that others will no doubt imitate, but few will be able to capture the very essence in such a grand way. It is an event that has been a long time coming, and the wait will surely be well worth it. “I’m very excited,” says Chef Chirnomula. “I can’t wait for the day to come and I’m so looking forward to it being a grand success. I expect a huge turnout. It will be the most joyful day for all of us.”
I count myself as one of many looking forward to the Varli Food Festival. I am ready and willing to taste the beauty that is Indian food, especially at the masterful hands of Chef Prasad Chirnomula.
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The Varli Food Festival is coming to NYC’s Altman Building on April 7, 2011 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. For tickets and more information visit www.varlifoodfestival.com. For more on Chef Chirnomula, visit his website at www.chefprasad.com.