You can’t see it beneath his pandemic face-mask, emblazoned with a Toronto Blue Jays logo, but you can tell from his eyes that Sourabh Gandotra, sous chef at Kitchener’s preeminent tapas-style restaurant on Victoria Street North, is just beaming with a smile.
While the pandemic has knocked down a lot of businesses – including and especially the hospitality industry – Gandotra is positive in the face of dining room closures and other Covid-19 restrictions. He maintains an excitement for what he has been able to do – and to learn – as a young cook at Public Kitchen & Bar since joining the restaurant in September, 2019.
“I love it here, working with all the staff. And Carly and Ryan are awesome,” Gandotra says of co-owners Carly Blasutti and Ryan Murphy.
“I needed to learn more”
Gandotra, 24 years old, was born in Amritsar, a city of more than one million people in the northwest Indian state of Punjab. From his beginnings in the essentially farming state in the country’s north, Gandotra eventually travelled 225 kilometres to the southwest of the Punjab and started his culinary journey in earnest in Chandigarh, a culturally diverse capital city that Punjab territory shares with Haryana. The experience perhaps helped define his cooking interests and sense of mixed cultures.
It’s an interesting sidebar that, in 1947, during the British Partition, the first prime minister of newly independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, commissioned the new “planned city,” which, in the 1950s, was designed by Polish architect Maciej Nowicki and French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier. Chandigarh became a culturally rich metropolis of over just over one million people – and it was in that milieu that Gandotra spend about a year and half during which his culinary background was partially shaped.
His interest in exploring food and cooking more deeply, a theme he says continues today with his work at Public, drove Gandotra to pursue his quest for more knowledge and experience in the southeast of India. “I went to Chennai for further training and stayed for a year or so again. However, I decided that I needed to move along. I needed to learn more,” he said. “It wasn’t what I wanted to do with my cooking.”
“I just came and figured it out”
Knowing what you don’t want can help you find what you do want: his next step was to head to Canada – on his own – in 2018. “My family supported me, and I met so many wonderful people. I spent two days in Brampton and then came to Waterloo. I had no living arrangements planned at all. I just came and figured it out somehow,” he says. He was enrolled in the culinary program at Conestoga College (he graduated in April, 2020), and he credits instructors such as Amédé Lamarche and Philippe Saraiva for helping him get settled. “They were my mentors at that time,” he says.
He knew few people in the industry when he arrived here and had been working the grill at a Harvey’s restaurant between 2018 and 2019 in order to survive. Then, Gandotra describes what he calls a “dramatic” event that resulted in him join Public Kitchen & Bar in September, 2019: he had gotten a lead from Conestoga College culinary instructor Craig Gilbertson, formerly of The Berlin and former sous chef at Public. “Craig suggested I visit Public to see about a job with his reference.” Sure enough, chef and co-owner Ryan Murphy hired him. “They made me part of their family,” he says.
Soon after, among top priorities for all restaurants was making the best of a bad situation for survival during the pandemic; that’s added an extra layer to his education, according to Gandotra. At Public, he takes care of orders coming into Murphy’s kitchen and seeing that “the high standard” has been met. “I do inventory, too, and make sure we have the supplies we need for next day.”