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Monday, August 02, 2021

They also serve: Tastemaster to India’s elite athletes at NIS has his plate full

Abhishek Chourasia, the head chef of the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, and his ears are used to complaints, which he says are mostly in good humour, feedbacks, and suggestions.

Written by Andrew Amsan |
Updated: July 22, 2021 7:18:00 am
Abhishek Chourasia (C), the head chef of NIS Patiala, with shot putter Tajinderpal Singh Toor (R) and javelin thrower Rajender Singh.

Tokyo-bound quarter-miler Alex Anthony wants his chicken gravy thick and dry. But at the same time, he fusses that the dish is spicy and oily. It cannot be both. Abhishek Chourasia, the head chef of the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, has to explain patiently to the athlete that “onions cannot be fried without oil.” Still, Anthony shoots back, saying they serve “fauji food”. Food for the soldiers, bland and oily.

Abhishek’s ears are used to complaints, which he says are mostly in good humour, feedbacks, and suggestions. He knew this the moment he was entrusted to head a group of 42 chefs to feed the 350-odd athletes from across the country camped at the NIS. “The executive director had just one brief for me: ‘improve the quality of the food.’”

But the 29-years chef, who had a stint at the Hyatt, knew it was easier said than done. “The runners want no spice at all. The boxers and weightlifters want an extra dose of ghee or butter to their meals…” rattles out Abhishek.

The list goes longer. A group of elite runners like their meals bland and oil-free, an Asian record-holding thrower prefers a heavy dose of ghee in his parathas while a teen weightlifter can’t make do without his regular dose of Mizo-style pork. Some are calorie conscious; some others prioritise taste; some would want to experiment, some others want home-like food. Thus, the list of demands, day-to-day and meal-to-meal, is exhaustive at the NIS kitchen. “We try to listen to all our athletes and make changes wherever we can,” he says.

Arduous as the task is, he goes to a great extent to keep the athletes happy. Star runner Hima Das often feels homesick so Abhishek and his team decided to treat her to Assamese-style cooked food. “I had a chef from Bengal who was versed with Assamese cooking. So we sat together and prepared a meal chart for Hima,” explains Abhishek.

Sometimes, the athletes themselves provide the recipe.

Like Mizoram weightlifter Jeremy Lalrinnunga, who wants his pork prepared in the way it’s done back home. “He comes with a notepad with the recipe written on it. He stays there during the entire cooking process and guides our chef,” he says.

Pork, though, is off the menu due to its low demand among athletes. So are certain varieties of fish, like salmon, which Jeremy’s friend Achinta Seuli relishes. “It’s so expensive that it can’t be served for the entire camp. Just one fillet costs anywhere between Rs 1200 to 1500. He gets the imported fillets to our kitchen and we prepare it for him the way he likes it,” says Abhishek.

Meat is predominant on the menu, an average of 50kg being cooked every day.

Some walk away if their tastes are not catered to, but he admits that pleasing everyone isn’t always possible.

No fuss blokes

There are those that don’t fuss too much about what is being served as well. “Neeraj (Chopra) likes everything we serve. Not once has he complained. He’s happy as long as you add a little spice to his boiled chicken. Tajinder Toor is a gentle giant and all our staffers love him. He loves his pakoras and kheer while Amoj Jacob thanks us after every meal,” says Abhishek.

Since Abhishek’s arrival, the kitchen has put in extra efforts to introduce more South Indian dishes. “You will get piping hot dosas, uttapams, idlis depending on the day of the week. Unlike earlier, we now have South Indian food at every meal,” he says.

It has jumper Sreeshankar Murali, from Palakkad, pleased: “We like the food here. There is ample variety of south Indian dishes here.” Words like those would go a long way in keeping Abhishek and Co. happy and the tastebuds of the athletes sated.

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