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Being Reza

Being Reza

International celebrity chef Reza Mahammad recently wowed Indian food-lovers in southern Charente with a dazzling Indian cookery workshop – and, in May 2013, he opened a brand new cookery school right here. We caught up with him just before the launch, and fell under the spell, too... 

reza-mahammad-cognac-cookery-school

Charisma comes in many forms. In Reza’s case it’s somewhere among his expansive gestures, infectious energy and enthusiasm, wide-eyed sense of wonder, and most of all, his passionate desire to express it all in his trademark takes on authentic Indian cuisine which have propelled him to international celebrity. Add to this his obvious delight in sharing the results of his creative instincts with others and you have the perfect recipe, not only for a great chef, but also for a successful restaurateur.

It’s obviously in the blood. Reza’s father was none other than Sheikh Mahammad, one of the first great Indian chefs to bring the flavours of India to eager UK diners. In 1954, he opened The Star of India in Kensington, elevating it to near-legendary status by the time of his untimely passing in 1978. Reza was just sixteen years old when he suddenly found himself taking sole charge of things, but rose to the challenge and has since taken the restaurant (and his own reputation) to international renown.

He continues to manage the family restaurant, and now he’s about to weave some of his visionary magic right here in Poitou-Charentes. For some time, he and business partner, Warwick Hewson, have been overseeing the painstaking restoration of an elegant maison de maître in the tiny hamlet of Chez Cartier, among the gently-undulating hills of cognac vines near Condéon. “It’s a labour of love,” says Reza with characteristic enthusiasm: “When I did the A Place in France series with Nigel (Farrell) I was thinking all the time that it would be lovely to do something of my own in France one day. I loved the country, but what put me off was the language and all the bureaucracy.” 

FALLING FOR FRANCE

Things changed though when Warwick, a fluent French-speaker, came on the scene. He takes up the story: “We’d been friends for some years, and I’d had a house in the Dordogne, which I always regretted selling, so I really wanted to return to France. When we began working together we knew it would be a good time for Reza to open a cookery school, and we soon realised that doing it in France would give us the opportunity to combine our respective dreams.” Reza agreed: “It would have been far too expensive to buy a property in rural England or the Dordogne, and although we didn’t know whether the French people would come to learn about Indian cooking, there’s certainly a huge following in America, South Africa and the UK. With France’s reputation of good food it seemed logical to do it here.” Warwick knew that the location would be a key factor in the success of the venture:

“We wanted to be surrounded by beautiful countryside, accommodate our guests in style and comfort and have access to wonderful local produce. We cast our net far and wide for about 18 months, I viewed about forty properties and eventually found exactly what I thought we were looking for here in Charente.” Having chanced upon the house, he lost no time getting Reza over to show him what he’d found: “As soon as I saw it I knew this was the one – the house just spoke to me. Later we found out that the house and the family who owned it were once renowned for grand entertaining and fine food. In the attic, we came across an old printed menu in Art Nouveau style, with fifteen courses accompanied by an 1860 Champagne. So we decided to give the house back its former grandeur.” But like Warwick, he had also seen the practical advantages: “Bordeaux isn’t far away, and transport links are perfect. This area also lends itself to good produce. You can grow a lot of Mediterranean things... pomegranates, aubergines and root vegetables. We can bring spices from England and establish our own herb garden to service the house – or maybe even get some more land and grow things to sell to local people.”

“The vision is there – now it’s just a matter of the execution...”

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Not surprisingly, the first priority was to create the spacious, well-equipped kitchen which is destined from the outset to become the main focus of activity, both for Reza and his attentive culinary disciples. The style is crisp and contemporary, with functionality married to the kind of substance appropriate to the house itself. Right now the colours are minimal, but who knows how it might evolve as the rest of the house stirs from its slumbers and responds to its new owners’ creative vision? Natural light streams in through newly-enlarged door and window openings, while the equipment list includes names like Le Creuset, Siemens and Magimix. Clearly, then, it’s a case of start as you mean to continue, as Reza confirms: “We want to get it on the map for style and design, so everything must be absolutely perfect and beautiful... the right furnishings, beautiful fabrics from India and everything people will need to be really, really comfortable and feel that it’s a home from home.” Or, as Warwick puts it: “It will be a retreat, a refuge from the pressures of the modern world in beautiful surroundings, to which people will feel they can return whenever they wish.”

All of which leaves the obvious question unanswered: what about the food, and the style of cooking people can expect? Reza lights up: “It will be Indian, but with Middle Eastern influences – I’m also thinking of Far Eastern cuisine, such as Thai food – with Mediterranean elements... a fusion of different styles to create something interesting. I’m really fascinated by looking at more local dishes and adding aromatic spices to create what I call a ‘Frindian’ style. The French are really very open to using spices. They don’t like the heat but they like the flavours, so it’s a matter of doing things more subtly... still keeping the integrity of Indian food, but using local ingredients rather than anything too daunting. It won’t be restaurant food, because that’s too far removed from what people can do every day – but it’s definitely about making things more interesting. Anyway, Indian food is constantly changing, and individual regions have their own style of cooking, depending on what’s available. It’s the same here in France, if you look around at the regional styles.”

 

 

GIVING SOMETHING BACK

So, 2013 looks set to bring a few changes, both for Reza and Warwick and for those of us who have also put down roots in this remarkable region of France, and whose way of life looks set to be enriched still further by their presence. There will be no shortage of food-lovers willing to jet half-way around the world to benefit from Reza’s masterly instruction. But, as he and Warwick well know, it’s the local people who shape the place you fall in love with, and who will be there to share all the good things with you while visitors come and go. Reza still can’t believe what he has here: “Once we have the house looking the way we want it and the day courses are up and running, we can start to think about other things. It’s a fantastic place and we have enormous potential here for all kinds of things. We have the barn and the chais to restore, and I’m hoping that people will also come to see the garden which will be as beautiful as the house. It’s a big project, but we won’t compromise... no half-measures.”

reza-indian-spice-bookREZA MAHAMMAD: MAN AND MEDIA

His eclectic approach is perhaps unsurprising given that, as a child, English-born Reza received a British-style education in India, and now describes himself as speaking both English and Hindi with a classic public-school accent. He began his on-screen career with Flavours of India in 1993/4, before
blossoming as co-presenter (with Sanjeev Bhaskar) of UKTV’s Delhi Belly. Made in 2001, the influential series is still enjoying repeat runs and remains as popular as ever.

In 2002 Channel 4, searching for a charismatic personality to appear alongside Nigel Farrell in their hugely-successful series A Place in France, found what they were looking for in Reza. He went on to star in both A Place in France II and III. Reza’s relationship with UKTV resumed with Coconut Coast (2003) and United States of Reza (2004).

Currently he’s a top chef for the Food Network. In his recent series, Reza, Spice Prince of India, he took viewers on an expertly-guided culinary tour of the sumptuous palaces of Rajasthan. Reza also makes regular guest chef appearances on ITV’s This Morning, where he always livens up the kitchen alongside fellow presenters Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby. 2012 saw the launch of his long-awaited second book, Reza’s Indian Spice. Drawing from his encyclopaedic knowledge of Indian food, Reza combines Indian and Western flavours to stunning effect, delivered in his informal, humorous style. The title was a worthy recipient of the coveted Editor’s Pick in The Bookseller.

 

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PHOTOS: ROGER MOSS, MARTIN POOLE AND SHUTTERSTOCK 

© All rights reserved. Originally published in Living Magazine in Dec 2012