• September 30, 2020 2:01 pm

Reporting From Delhi

Candid camera

ByMihir Srivastava

Aug 17, 2020

Confined to his house, food historian Ashish Chopra is hosting online conversations with successful, inspired people and spreading positivity during testing times

If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger: This is a cliché that best describes Ashish Chopra’s tryst with destiny. There are a host of serious health issues ailing him that would force a lesser mortal to be bedridden for the rest of their–comparatively tame–lives.

Not in the case of Ashish. His indomitable spirit not only keeps him going, but he’s also improving and improvising, and using technology to be productive and spread his positivity to people at large in these testing times.

Ashish, 58, is a renowned food historian and connoisseur of the good things in life. During this extended period of lockdown, he stayed put within his house in Greater Noida, with his 79-year-old mother, and his wife, twenty years junior to him. His house is beautifully done up, he’s an art collector, particularly of works from the North-eastern states. His kitchen is a food laboratory, where he experiments with various palates and picks the best practices, flavours, cooking style, spices and herbs, to make what he describes as the ‘fusion cuisine’. Don’t be mistaken, he’s also a lover and promoter of traditional ways of cooking. A walking encyclopedia when it comes to food, he never shies away from feeding his friends.

Ashish cannot sit idle, he’s an active thinker and a restless implementer of his ideas—that’s what makes him a doer. He has to take the utmost precaution during the pandemic, as he and his mother are in the high-risk group. But that hasn’t isolated him from the rest of the world.

He started an online talk show— Candid Conversations—where achievers and successful people from all walks of life come and chat up with him, discussing various facets of life in its very rudimentary essence. A conversation that’s not a performance, it’s just like thinking aloud, discussing ideas, their work, and passion, rich in anecdotes, spiced up with nostalgia. As a true conversationalist, Ashish is open to be questioned as well. And half-hour talks, more often than not, go on for much longer and it does good to listen to it.

Seated in his study that doubles as a studio with focus lights and tripods, Ashish explains why he chose Instagram to host his talks: “It’s popular with the new generation.”

Bookshelf in the backdrop, his antique study table, framed certifications and awards adorning the wall, some sketches he had made in yesteryears, his computer, mobiles, earphones, set the perfect ambience for him to stay online till late.  This is the room where he spends most of his time these days. Ashish is from a distinguished family, his father and grandfather were academicians, and served as the vice-chancellor of a leading university. He also holds a PhD in conflict resolution and has in his prolific career, had a stint in politics, business, and administration.

A lover of good things in life, he recently lost Symphony—a shiny black Labrador—who he fondly describes as the ‘only loyal bitch in my life’. Pun intended.

Ashish has been part of the slow food movement and has been the host of many cookery shows, an easy-going gregarious man, who has friends in all age groups. He helps people achieve their goals and is the best example of the adage “Age is just a number’. Many of his projects are on hold due to the pandemic, one of them is for a leading OTT network by the name ‘Unsung Chefs’.

He talks about this upcoming project with the excitement of a teenager introduced to say, driving a car. There are incredible chefs who have a divine touch but will never be known because they are hidden in the vast and varied hinterlands, in small towns and villages of diverse India. Not to Ashish–he wants to document their life and be inspired.

He describes with great flourish an 86-year-old Assamese woman who’s affectionately called ‘Ita’ (or grandmother in Assamese). She had two sons, one was a cop, and the other became part of the underground insurgent group, both were killed in their respective lines of duty in the prime of their youth. She remained hopeful in the dire straits and bitterness didn’t touch her. She continued to serve people cooking her magical recipes. She is one of the very few remaining custodians of the traditional recipe of ‘Pitta’ or sweet meat.

“I have such 23 inspiring cooks and chefs to talk about in my series,” says Ashish. A self-taught food anthropologist, he explains that food is not just about the palate, but is a story of human evolution, and how local herbs, plants, even animals, created a tradition of cooking quintessential to a place.

One of his endeavours is to document and pass on the rich and varied culinary traditions of this country to the next generation. He has mentored many foodies and chefs, from an erstwhile Nawab of Lucknow, to most recently, a young prodigy Mirvaan Vinayak—a Master Chef India finalist. A celebrity in his own right, Mirvaan, describes himself as a ‘foodie by fate, with a pinch of drama and aftertaste’.

When they were last together, Ashish made a video demonstrating to Mirvaan how to cook pork korma. Mirvaan on his part, while it was being cooked in the traditional way, on a slow flame in a copper container, asserted many times, ‘I can’t wait to sample it.”

Ashish is a perfectionist, his house, his food, the way he’s organised his life and internalised technology, never sceptical about change, always on the top of the learning curve, blessed with existential curiosity, is more than willing to share his knowledge and recipes and rich experience. This same positive spirit inspires people he’s in conversation with like his college buddy Manish Tiwari, a politician and a lawyer. And for that matter with wildlife enthusiast Inderjit Singh, economic consultant Sadaf Hussian, musician Sumit Bose, or Harsh Kedia, a chef who specialises in food for the diabetic. The list is long as he has had dozens of ‘Candid Conversations’ during the lockdown.

Kudos to the man whose life is his message.