By Andrew Coppolino
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.
Public Kitchen & Bar, Kitchener (Photo: Andrew Coppolino)
“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.”
The Cheese Cave at Public Kitchen & Bar (Photo: Andrew Coppolino)
Whatever mothers make, it’s like magic
With the demands of the pandemic shifting business focus, Gandotra has also overseen introducing elements of Indian food that is offered for online purchase at Public. The result has been a manifestation of his culinary journey to learn about different flavours, ingredients and techniques. There’s been some interesting cross-pollination that has arisen from the pairing of Gandotra and Murphy, he says. “We did butter chicken for the dinner menu and it was popular. Ryan said we should do more and mix together some dishes. So, we made butter chicken pot pies, and they sold well.”
The restaurant recently made a take-away dinner for two of rajma, aloo gobi, street-style black dal and a mushroom-green pea masala with hand-made roti – at the very reasonable price of $30. Introducing such new flavours and techniques to the Public menu has been a benefit to both: the restaurant can offer interesting dishes to its customers, and Gandotra can give expression to his culinary background, citing he is inspired by his mother’s home cooking. “Everything she makes is spot-on,” he says. “There’s no measuring, or anything. Whatever mothers make, it’s like magic. I don’t believe any chef in the world can do better than a mother when it comes to cooking,” he says with a laugh.
Though he works closely with Murphy and the kitchen staff, clearly there’s an independence that Gandotra enjoys at Public that allows him to pursue some of his interests and try out new dishes; he and Ryan and other staff take ideas for a test run and if they work, they go on a menu. “I’m able to expand my palate here and gain as much experience as I can, so that in the future, by God’s gift, when and if I open my own restaurant I will know how everything goes together.” As a relatively young cook, he recognizes that he has a lot to learn – Murphy’s experience and expertise is important for teaching new cooks aspects of the business so that the industry can grow within Waterloo Region.
Chefs Shawn Flanagan, Ryan Murphy and Sourabh Gandotra (Photo: Andrew Coppolino)
While a future venture of his own is a way off, Gandotra ponders it. He says he wants to open a small and accessible home-style Indian restaurant. “Nothing fancy. Affordable for students too. The flavours of Amritsar.” Ask him to cook for you and he would rustle up palak paneer (a spinach dish with Indian-style cottage cheese), parathas (a layered flatbread), butter chicken and slow-braised lamb along with a quick pickle of vegetables such as cauliflower, carrots and turnips, and Punjabi pulao rice.
Patience and creativity are crucial to success
His earlier time experiencing foods and food cultures has circled to take him to this point exploring the intersection of cultures but also recognizing the deft hand needed to cook in the current environment. “We’ve learned patience and how to be creative on the spot,” he says. “We’ve had to figure out how to cook for large numbers – such as family meals – with customers not coming into the restaurant to eat.”
Public is unique in that it focusses on small plates and sharing, as a tapas-style restaurant, but, with Gandotra’s input, the business has evolved while challenging his thinking at the same time. “It has helped me to think critically in these conditions and be more creative with these restrictions. It’s amazing here,” he says adding that he knows technical skill in execution needs to align with delicious food.
“If I feel like I want to eat the food that I’ve put on the plate, that’s great. If I don’t like it, it doesn’t leave the kitchen,” Gandotra says. “The first impression could be the last one. We want customers to come back so we can keep the doors open. We need to make them happy.”
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Andrew Coppolino is a writer-broadcaster, and is a food columnist with CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. Following a stint as a cook at a restaurant in Kitchener, Andrew chose to work with food from the other side of the kitchen pass. As a food writer, he is dedicated to promoting and nurturing culinary businesses and advocating for local chefs and restaurants. Andrew’s work has been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada, the United States and England. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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