Ever since the pandemic, things have been haywire for most of us, and we all have been trying to sail through this difficult time. The travel and hospitality industries have been specifically affected by this more than any other. In the middle of this, I had the pleasure of speaking with Chef Govinda Rai and knowing more about his professional journey so far.
I feel fortunate that the Chef took out time during one of his very jam-packed afternoons. During our conversation, he gave me insight into his inspiration behind getting into the culinary profession, how he got into continental cooking, the changes he has witnessed in the culinary industry so far, what piques his interest apart from cooking and his eternal love for his mother’s food.
So get on with me, as I take you on a culinary expedition like no other!
What attracted you the most to continental cooking? And which is your favourite continental dish?
I came to Dubai in 2002 to study, as well as to improve my culinary skills. I developed a passion for cooking and found that it came very easily for me. I also got the opportunity to work with a French chef while I was still learning, and that was a fantastic experience. I actually found that continental food was the easiest to cook compared to all the other cuisines. In most cities in the UAE, most hotels and restaurants focus on being multi-cuisine and expanding their menus.
As for my favourite continental dish, any dish that is grilled, pan-fried or stewed is a favourite of mine. You can’t really go wrong with continental cuisine.
What or who inspired you to become a chef?
It was my uncle actually who inspired me and encouraged me. He was the one who would take me to all my classes, and he played a huge role in my training to become a chef. He also works in Hospitality, actually. I think that the culinary world is a field that always provides you with an opportunity to always learn something new. You can never run out of cuisines or culinary techniques to learn, and that just keeps inspiring me to learn more and more.
What, according to you, has changed in the culinary industry since you joined? What changes have you witnessed over the years?
Well, earlier, less importance was given to hygiene. There were a lot of ready-made food items that were easily available. However, now, healthy food is more in demand. People are more conscious of their health and of the environment, and these changes are reflected in the food we now consume. More people are going vegan. Nowadays, it’s mandatory to have a health corner in-room service. All the companies must register with the HACCP principles and guidelines, and ensure that the quality of food served is the best. All food suppliers and restaurants should have registrations. Then it’s also compulsory to register with the Food Watch here in Dubai. This is necessary to ensure that the food that is served as well as the chefs in restaurants are of good quality and in compliance with all the requirements.
How have the last 20 years been for you in this industry?
Oh! My experience working in this industry for the past years have just been delightful for me. The last 17 or 18 years have been quite enjoyable. There’s been a lot of competition too in the culinary field. Although, right now, things have also been incredibly challenging since Covid started. However, I am really excited about the upcoming Food Expo. I believe it is due sometime in September this year. The Food Expo is an excellent opportunity to discover new things. It is an incredible platform for us chefs, especially, to witness new technology and new products that will definitely come in handy in the culinary world. There have been a lot of competitors over the years, so I am really excited about it this year.
Some of your videos suggest that you enjoy carving and are also very good at it. Do you incorporate that often while presenting the food cooked by you?
Yes, I usually like to present my food carved, especially if it is a cold food buffet. It really adds to the attraction of the food items on display. Like when it is a cold meat display, or a cold meat platter, or even a food platter. It works wonders!
What is your signature dish?
Beyond the culinary domain, what else influences you?
Besides cooking, I enjoy watching sports. I also love to travel and listen to music.
And if not a chef, which profession would you have chosen?
If not a chef, I would have probably become a technician or an electrician. I cannot stay idle without doing anything. Even when I was a kid, I just loved dismantling things and figuring out how things worked. As a child, I could never stay quiet, so yes, I might have been drawn towards those career options.
How do you think people’s tastes have changed over the years? Do you feel they are more experimental now than they were earlier?
Well, I have found that people love to travel and visit new and different places, and that is reflected in the food that they want to try out. They are very eager to try new cuisines. When they travel, they discover new tastes and develop a craving for those cuisines, which never really goes away. Travelling to new cities has definitely got to be a contributing factor, which has definitely made people more experimental in their tastes, especially now since travelling is much easier than what it used to be.
Your favourite dish from Nepali cuisine?
My favourite dish from Nepali cuisine has to be the Choila. It is a sour grill, and it’s cooked with meat and vegetables. These are marinated, and the dish can be very spicy too, but I can never have too much of this dish.
Who is your favourite chef?
That’s easy! Santosh Shah is my favourite chef. He actually specializes in Indian cooking, and he is based in London. He has been one of the forerunners for representing Nepali food to the world. People have really grown to love and savour Nepali cuisine because of him. I think most Nepalis love him for promoting their food. He was also a finalist in MasterChef UK, and I think that just shows how incredibly talented of a chef he is.
What would you like to say about your mom’s cooking? And how would you rate it as her son and now as a chef?
There’s only one word to describe my mom’s cooking – Unforgettable! Even now, when I visit home, I enjoy her food. The first food that we eat after we come home after being away for so long is always cooked by my mom. I think moms always cook with a lot of love. For a mother, her child is everything, and I think mothers show their love through the food they make. They always prepare our favourite dishes when we come home. Nothing compares to a mother’s style of cooking.
A must-have in the kitchen, according to you?
We should always have the necessary utensils and all the equipment ready for use. There’s a famous saying, Mise-en-place. It’s a French culinary phrase that means everything should be ready for preparation and in its place. In the kitchen, all the preparation for the dishes must be made ready before we start service. I also think that in a professional kitchen, there should be teamwork between the chefs. There needs to be proper planning when it comes to the preparation of food among the chefs. I also believe that our skills and attitude are what takes us forward in life, so that is a must in the kitchen.
Your favourite ingredient while cooking?
A couple of them, actually. I can never efficiently run a kitchen without garlic, oil, herbs, salt & pepper. Another key ingredient that is always in my kitchen is Worcestershire sauce. It’s a continental sauce and is commonly used for grilled food items like chicken and lamb. It also goes well when you’re cooking with or use vegetables too. The sauce is like soya sauce. The only difference is that it is slightly more salty and sour, and it is also lighter in colour compared to soya sauce.
Your first memory of food?
Your go-to comfort food?
I enjoy anything that is grilled because it is relatively easy to cook. For me, a dish like grilled lamb chops along with a side of mashed potatoes is like comfort food. Other than that, Indian food is good, and again it is also very easy to cook. By the way, do you know that butter chicken is found in most hotels in UAE? Indian cuisine is very famous here, and I’m sure it brings comfort to a lot of people like me.
What advice would you like to give to young aspiring chefs?
I would like to tell the young aspiring chefs that if you have passion and the interest to learn more every day, if you can work hard, and if you are disciplined, then you will definitely go far in your career. You must always be prepared to learn new things. That is one of the most essential qualities of a good chef. There is always something new to learn in this industry, so you must always be open to it.
Lastly, Chef talked to me about how he wishes things would get better soon, “During the pandemic, everything became very dull, and the business faced a lot of issues. I am staying positive and hoping things will get better soon. It’s always good to serve others and be appreciated for cooking good food.”
We wish the Chef a great career ahead and hope that he scales many more heights as he moves forward. He truly believes that our skills and attitude is what takes us ahead in life. He also emphasized the importance of being disciplined. These are definitely attributes worth imbibing from the Chef. Also, if you ever get the chance, you must visit his hotel and try the continental cuisine curated by him.