A Humble Chef

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An extraordinary life of a chef – mapping through three continents, a war, surviving homelessness, and now – giving birth to a cooking show during a global pandemic with his daughter, Diya. It all started with a man who simply wanted to become a chef because of a dinner jacket and a bowtie.

I sit down for an honest chat with Melbourne Chef Daman Shrivastav, what follows is his life put together with his determination and faith. I dig through the seeds of the society in which he surrendered himself to fate, and Daman comes to know that success can only survive if one knows never to abandon humility.

A crisp September evening in 2018, my publicist and friend, Aisling Brady and I took an Uber down to the northern suburbs of Melbourne. We were very excited to meet Abhijit Saha, winner of the ‘Best Chef of India’ at the Indian Restaurant Congress and judge of Indian MasterChef that evening.

We were invited by Melbourne Indian chef Daman Shrivastav 55, who threw an honorary party for Saha that evening. Of course, we were delighted to be there to be in the presence of such a prestigious chef but to be honest, being such a lover of good food – I was there to quench my gastronomic delights. We were greeted with welcome drinks to match with all the carefully prepared appetisers and the colossal kitchen which had been transformed into a piece of culinary art as the kitchen island had evolved into a vast sushi platter. A few hours later, the party moved into the backyard. It was a short trip via the kitchen, but I was happily indulging myself gobbling and drooling over the delicate salmon. Sooner rather than later, I was forced to join the others in the patio. For quite some time, I stood pinching myself, a smorgasbord of dumpukht biryani and butter chicken lay in front of us. “What a spread!” I whispered. Aisling and I looked at each other in disbelief. That was my first introduction to the man and the chef Daman Shrivastav in person, and not one I will easily forget.

Fast track two years- we are now all in the middle of a global pandemic; what didn’t change for the ‘chef ‘is his love for good food, and his continuing being a human that is a tad bit extraordinary. As for me, my hunger for a good story drove the writer in me to explore and discover new ideas, and I have spent my isolation cooking up a storm in the kitchen, pretending to be a chef! I say this because, during these times, we have read so many incredible stories, countless TikTok videos, endless cooking posts on social media and watched overnight as ordinary people have turned into heroes helping the community. So, this a tribute to a man who encompasses all of the above and everything that life has to offer without prejudice, who treats everyone equally and to him, simplicity is profound as he surrenders himself to the service of others. Every weekend, Daman packs 40 – 60 lunches for the homeless and struggling international students quietly from his kitchen at home. Daman is very reluctant to take any credit, yet he does this with no financial donations, and this humble gesture is so appreciated by the countless people who have been fed by him.

He tells me there are regulars who he feeds; they look forward to his menu that can be anything from chicken curry to a pasta dish and that he packs the diners to last for a couple of days. He is an intriguing character, and I found myself wanting to know more when I called him and asked for an impromptu chat.

So, here is the story behind the man, because if you are like me, you have to know the history.

Born in Delhi, Daman grew up in Munirka in 1981. He was just like any other Indian boy who wanted to be a doctor or an engineer just because their parents wanted that. But Daman had other plans, he wanted to join the hotel industry not because it was fancy and it would get him a ticket to see the world – he simply wanted to participate because of a dinner jacket and a bowtie!

His father was not happy with his son’s proposition at all; he said that a chef is a ‘khansamah’ translating to just a cook. So, like any good Indian son, Daman accepted his father’s order to finish his bachelor’s degree. He joined the evening classes at Shyamlal College to do his degree in arts, and in then in the morning, he would do his hotel management.

As a trainee, Daman started at the Imperial Hotel part of the hotel management industry release, and in 1983 it did not take him long to become a Commi 3 at The Oberoi Group of Hotels. In that same year, Oberoi bought a 7-star hotel in Baghdad, the infamous Al Rasheed.

Being ambitious, he opted for the graveyard shifts, so that he could not only learn to cook French cuisine but also the language. It did not take long for him to get promoted to Commi 2, and his thirst for ambition landed him in London’s Westminister College in 1985, where a well-known chef called, Jamie Oliver was his junior.

In London, he went on to work at the Savoy, Dorchester London Hotel, and Thistle group of hotels Ménage a Trois to name a few.
In 1989 after his mother passed away, he gave up his job at Maurya Sheraton as an Executive Sous Chef at the Pavilion only to return to Baghdad to work at Al Rasheed as an executive chef. In 1990, everything changed with the onset of the Gulf war. People were leaving Iraq in droves; even the Oberoi Group of hotels had pulled the plug on its hotels in the country.

Daman ditched the idea of returning home and stayed in Iraq, not knowing at all that Al Rasheed would soon become the epicentre for all the journalists reporting for that region with the eyes of the world upon them. Little did we know that behind that hotel wall, Daman fed all these journalists, cooking tasty food to cheer them up and helping to keep them alive as they lived through another day in that horrible war. It was a small community within those doors where they ate, hugged, and cried together. Daman also made small parcels of the leftovers to deliver food to the Iraqi people driven into hiding by the regime.

During these times, he not only helped Mother Teresa to build churches in Baghdad but fed them with his glorious food. In 1991 after the Gulf war had finished, Daman travelled to Amman (Jordan) with a Syrian diplomat. With no money or food, Daman decided to work as a labourer in an orange farm, little did he know his life was about to change again – the owner of the farm was the cousin of King Hussain.

When he found out about Daman working initially as a chef, the owner revealed to him his plan to open a French Restaurant. Daman was asked to cook up a nine-course meal, and the rest was history giving birth to La Coquette after six months. It became so popular that King Hussain himself was a frequent guest.

Charmed by Daman’s food, King Hussain presented a Longines watch from his private collection with the king’s signature embossed on the dial. Amused, I whisper, “What a life!” to that Daman giggled on the other side of the phone.
I look back at the chef’s history, and I could write a book. There is so much more to write in this story, like his first modern Indian French-influenced restaurant on Hoddle in Melbourne, Bay Leaves, to his teaching at the Box Hill TAFE.

Currently, he is on his journey to finish his PhD. In January this year, he travelled to Europe with a scholarship – fellowship awarded to him from the Department of Education to report on best practices in education for use in Australia.

These days he has started his own YouTube channel with his young daughter Diya which I follow religiously!

Apparently, during the lockdown, home-schooling little Diya lacked fun, and being a creative chef, his one idea led to the other finally giving birth to the cooking show. They appropriately called ‘The Dad and Daughter Cooking Show,’ indeed raising the bar for all the dads out there. I think the best gift for any parent to give to a child is the power of love and humility- Daman does that beautifully through his cooking. You can also follow snippets of this show on Instagram.

Finally, I was burning to ask him two final questions during our chat… What made him cook for others… and… What does he like to eat? He simply tells me it is his wife Indika’s daal. As for his selfless cooking for others, it was the breakup of his first marriage that forced him to sleep on park benches in Kew, and so it was facing homelessness and fighting hunger with anger that brought out a unique calmness in his life. He wants to open food trucks for charity across Melbourne, and to continue feeding the homeless and anyone is welcome to eat – of course, absolutely free.

I conclude this extraordinary journey of a humble chef with a quote by Hemingway.” The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

By Nandita Chakraborty

(Nandita is an Author, Screen Writer, Blogger and a foodie. nanditachakrabortyauthor.com.au)