In a large kitchen, lit naturally through a skylight, Rohan was busy stirring vegetables in a large wok. Between stirring, he walked to the counter where fruit salad was being prepared for dessert. Adding spice and a pinch of salt to the fruits, he returned to the wok to add rice.
Teen chef Rohan Sureash, was cooking in Chennaiâ€™s Siragu Montessori School that has been offering free education to children of brick kiln workers, pavement dwellers and the like since 2003. For someone who is not a professional chef, it might have been overwhelming to cook for nearly 300 people. But not for this 16-year-old residing in Singapore. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying the challenge.
Rohan admits that he enjoys cooking and food has been a part of his life from early on. â€śMy dad and I bond over food,â€ť he says.
What started as an interest in cooking when he was in Class 7 led to Rohan opting for subjects such as food science, nutrients and nutrition in Classes 9 and 10. Watching competitive cooking reality shows and the work of chefs such as Gordon Ramsay fuelled his passion for cooking. So much so that he started developing his own dishes.
He decided to use his culinary skills to make a difference and launched a website called Rohan's Chefology in August 2019. â€śPeople can book my services. I go to their house and cook them a three-course meal. I charge a nominal sum per person. Itâ€™s very important for me to stay within the budget. 70% of what I get is spent on food-related causes,â€ť he says.
In November 2019, he cooked lunch at home for 30 migrant workers, most of them from Tamil Nadu, working on the mass rapid transit project in Singapore. His father Sureash and mother Shashi have been very supportive of his endeavours.
According to Muthuraman, founder of Suyam Charitable Trust that established Siragu Montessori School, Rohanâ€™s mother Shashi has been supporting their work for many years.
â€śInstead of exchanging gifts on occasions, my friends and I set aside money and make an annual contribution,â€ť says Shashi.
Aware of his motherâ€™s contribution, Rohan wished to contribute in his own way by preparing a meal for the children at Siragu. â€śI had a fund-raising campaign also on Give India so that people can contribute for a good cause. Because Siragu is giving free education and helping children get out of the cycle of poverty,â€ť he says.
For the children he decided to prepare noodles, fried rice and gobi manchurian for lunch. â€śLiving in Singapore, thereâ€™s Chinese influence and I eat a lot of noodles and fried rice,â€ť says Rohan. â€śWhen I learnt that the kids at Siragu have not tasted noodles or fried rice, I decided to make it.â€ť
With the school located beyond Pattabiram in the outskirts, off the Outer Ring Road, and a good distance from the city, Rohan left home by 5.30am so as to reach the school early and get the meal ready on time.
Chef Arokiasamy of Cascade Kitchen, who was roped in for support since this was the first time Rohan was cooking for a large number of people, commended the teenâ€™s commitment. While Devi and Sundari, staff at Siraguâ€™s kitchen, assisted him with the preparatory work, Anand Vinayagam, an alumnus of Siragu and a chef now, too lent a hand. A few friends such as chef Kannan dropped in to support him.
When the children lined up for lunch, Rohan was ready to serve. When he cooks at other peopleâ€™s houses, he takes delight in plating. â€śThe hyperactive teenager transforms into a calm and thinking chef,â€ť says Anu Antony, a friend visiting from Mumbai, for whom Rohan made dinner. â€śHe is finicky about taste and texture and goes to great lengths to plate it right â€“ with a final swoosh of sauce.â€ť
What Rohan had cooked at Siragu was delicious. Right from a girl from the local village studying in Class 1 to a resident student in Class 9, the children said that they relished the food. Most of the children came for a second helping. And Rohan was a natural with the children, as he was in the kitchen. When a very small child sidled up to him shyly for a second serving of the dessert, he lifted the child up and served. His maternal grandmother who had come to see him cook commented that he is very fond of children.
Rohanâ€™s effort was not just about providing a meal for the underprivileged children. With his campaign on Give India and with the Rotary Club of Madras Down Town contributing Rs 50,000, he has been able to donate Rs 1 lakh to the school.
With his father hailing from Kerala and mother from Chennai, he says that he is familiar with south India. â€śBut Iâ€™m open to cooking in the other parts of India, if there arises an opportunity,â€ť he says. Anything for a good cause that he believes in.
Jency Samuel is a civil engineer and an independent journalist based in Chennai. Daniel Walter is an anthropologist and an independent journalist based at Chennai.
All images courtesy: Daniel Walter