reprinted from Bazaar Magazine, January 2015
We know him as the Spice Prince of India, an eccentric chef who has an infectious love for food and an encyclopedia of knowledge on all things spice. His television appearances have educated and entertained the world with a history of some of India’s most popular dishes, and connected people across continents that share the same foods. Though his fame, and incredible dishes precedes him, it is Reza Mahammad’s insatiable and absolute love for what he does that has put him on the map as one of the world’s finest chefs, and as a celebrity chef at the upcoming Q8 Food Festival set to take place in March.
Reza may have been born into the culinary world, with a father who opened one of the oldest Indian restaurants in England, but he didn’t plan to become part of the family business. As a young child he was sent away from England to an Indian boarding school to keep him connected with his roots. That’s where his appreciation for food began in the most unconventional way at the tender age of 10.
“I used to go on holiday to my grandparents’ house, and it was all food oriented,” he told bazaar. “They used to have these huge cauldrons that they used to make jam and stuff. Because we were young and we had energy, we had to keep stirring the pot, to save them the hassle really. I think that was my introduction into cooking, by stirring a pot.”
He grew to appreciate lavish and luxury foods through dinners his parents hosted in England, but planned to continue his education in what he was most passionate about, art history. His plans had to take a back seat though when the 16-year-old was suddenly thrust into the restaurant business after the untimely death of his father left him in charge of the Star of India in London’s South Kensington.
“It was tough,” he said. “Of course it was tough. I was thrown into this at 16. There were all these issues that came up, so I was up against it from the moment we said go, in a sense.”
From the start, his new adventure was a learning experience, and one that he embraced fully. Though he never went through a formal culinary education, Reza dove in head first, and soaked up everything he could from the experienced managers, and his own research on Indian cuisine. In no time the Star of India had attracted diners from all over the world to the British capital. From royalty to locals, tourists and movie stars, it became a place regaled for its cuisine, and Reza’s charismatic ability to make any guest feel at home.
He became infamous among restaurateurs in the city, and in early 1992 he was commissioned to do a segment on the popular show Curry Connection. Reza recalls that day with amazement. He sat on the train on the way to the television station, wondering what he was doing and why he was even there. He wanted to get off at every stop, petrified by the idea of being on camera.
“I just wanted to run, but I thought I can’t do that because I’d already made an agreement to be there, so I had to honor that, and I did. It comes naturally now, but it’s hard work. I think whatever craft you take, or you do, you’ve got to work and you have to work through the end.”
As Star of India continued to enjoy international fame, Reza’s personal adventure in the culinary world was expanding. Today Reza hosts one of the Food Network’s most popular television shows: The Spice Prince of India. You’ll find him riding elephants through the Indian jungle, trying exotic dishes and cooking in ancient pots, all while he takes you to the root of a dish you may have tried a thousand times before.
To do this as well as he does, Reza has years of research and experience under his belt. We asked him a bit about Arab spices, and were told a fascinating story of Arab traders who monopolized the spice route for centuries. When he needed to validate a point, he immediately went into his personal library for the answer.
“Let me look it up, I have a book called History of Food,” his voice fading a bit as he went through the library stack. “I have loads of books, loads and loads of books. I’ve got some old books that go back to how it all started. Let’s see, a history of hunting gathering, jewels of the sea. Ah, here it is!”
For Reza, the secret to success is constant inquisition, and a child-like wonder at the work you are doing. He leaves no spice undiscovered, and questions everything. To truly understand a spice, he said, one has to explore its history and the stories behind them. It’s important to understand the elements and how they are grown.
Most important though, Reza says it’s not about what spice you use, it’s how you use it.
“There is some sort of sequence, but the sequences can change. It depends on what you are doing and how you are doing it,” he said. He added a very important piece of advice: “People forget to taste their own food to make sure there is the right balancing of seasoning with salt. It may not need extra spices, you may just need to augment the flavor with a bit of salt.”
We asked Reza what his favorite spice was, and spoken like a true prince, he couldn’t pick just one. He regaled us with tale of Darius, King of Persia, who sent Alexander the Great a bag of sesame seeds, meant to suggest the number of his troops. Alexander, in return, sent Darius a bag of mustard seeds, not only more numerous because of their smaller size, but also more potent and fiery than sesame.
Two books and several television shows later, the Spice Prince of India has now taken his culinary expertise to the south of France with the establishment of Chez Cartier, a culinary school near Bordeaux. The stunning 19th Century Maison de Maître is surrounded with rolling hills and plenty of fresh and fabulous produce. The workshops are limited to eight food lovers. Participants don’t have to be very skilled as Reza has everything prepared, and lets the student focus on understanding how all the ingredients come together.
In March of next year his travel adventures will bring him here, where he will be a “debutant” in Kuwait! His demonstrations at the Q8 Food Festival are bound to give attendees a taste of his process, and tips on how to make some of his best dishes. No matter if you are a foodie or not, his infectious energy is bound to get you pulling your old pot out to make that curry dish you had always been afraid of.
For us foodies in Kuwait, we can look forward to the beginning of March when Reza Mahammad will regale us with his tips and tricks for perfectly spiced meals at the Taste of Q8. Though any attendee of the festival will be able to watch the show, VIP ticket holders will be seated up front and center during the shows. Afterwards, you can meet Mahammad and other world-renowned chefs in a private meet and greet, and book signing receptions.
In addition, VIP ticket holders will have special parking, and their own entrance. Throughout the day they can relax in the Symphony Style Hotel VIP Lounge and the ABK hospitality suites. The ticket includes five food and beverage vouchers to be used at any festival restaurant.