It was with great sadness that I heard today that Mrs. Amar Patel, chef-owner of Indian Rice Factory for an astonishing 40 years and one of the great figures of the Toronto restaurant scene, passed away early this morning, after a long battle with illness. Her devoted son, Aman, gave me the news, and to him I offer hearfelt condolences.
The sadness and loss is acute just now but I hope it isn’t inappropriate to remember what Mrs. Patel contributed to this city in her elegant, graceful, quietly insistent way.
I wrote about her in The Man Who Ate Toronto, trying to explain the significant role she played in this city’s evolution…
There were only two Indian restaurants in Toronto in 1967 (India House and Rajput) when Mrs. Patel arrived in Canada, a young nurse from Bombay. One afternoon, she decided to have lunch at the Inn on the Park hotel, at Eglinton and Leslie. The hotel’s restaurant, Café de 1’Auberge, was famous for sophisticated French cuisine, but it was the buffet of the day that aroused her curiosity – a culinary event entitled “From the Chafing Dishes of India.” In those dishes were examples of the curious travesty of Moghlai cooking that European chefs were trained to prepare: chicken, shrimp, or beef in a sort of bechamel sauce coloured with curry powder. Mrs. Patel called the manager and gently tried to explain that this was a little less than authentic.
When the conversation moved into the kitchen, executive chef Georges Chaignet listened politely and then invited Mrs. Patel to come back next day and cook him a meal. She obliged; he was stunned. As Stratford Chefs School instructor Jacques Marie, then Chaignet’s sous-chef, recalled: “She showed us what curry is really about. It was a new world to me.”
To the kitchen’s eternal credit, Mrs. Patel was hired to teach the team all that she knew. After a year, she moved on, first to Julie’s Mansion on Jarvis, working her magic in the casual upstairs dining room called the Bombay Bicycle Club, more famous in those days for the lissom beauty of its sari-clad waitresses than its buffet, and then to the Hyatt Regency.
In 1970 she opened her own place on Dupont Street, called Indian Rice Factory. The tiny room would be considered avant-garde even today. It seated barely a dozen customers who sat around an open cooking station, choosing from a short and frequently changing list of dishes on a blackboard tied to the back of the fridge. Slender, beautiful and always elegantly dressed, Mrs. Patel radiated a soft-spoken confidence as she worked, preparing many items à la minute, and explaining her recipes to anyone who asked. It was the antithesis of generic cuisine, and it also cost rather more than curry-lovers expected to pay, which bothered a few of the customers.
It seemed as if Toronto had finally taken a liking to “curry.” Eleven more Indian restaurants opened in the next three years, some offering the new thrill of tandoor-baked dishes (you can’t go wrong in Canada if you serve chicken and shrimp), but none of them daring to follow Mrs. Patel’s example by breaking the mould of the old generic menu. There would be exceptions in the decades that lay ahead: Sarnina’s Tiffin Room, near the Art Gallery of Ontario, was by all accounts a place of notable cooking, and more than one nostalgic gourmand has mourned the absence of the partridge in cardamom cream once served at Mindra’s on Yorkville.
Only in the mid-1990s, however, did signs of a shift in the status quo begin to appear. Restaurants with regional menus sprang up throughout the city. Rashnaa offered simple Tamil cooking in an ungentrified old house on a Cabbagetown backstreet. On Gerrard Street East, where most eateries compete on price rather than quality, Gujurat Durbar specialized in Gujurat’s inventive vegetarian dishes. Most of the surviving pioneers remained nervous of innovation, but not Indian Rice Factory, still on Dupont, though in larger, less impromptu premises.
I ate there in 1995 and found Mrs. Patel was still cooking. Her son, Aman, was the manager, a tall, serious young lawyer who told me he found the popular image of the stereotypical curry house deeply frustrating. They bought their meat from the same suppliers as the most expensive Italian or French restaurants, but customers expected to pay Gerrard Street East bargain prices once it was cooked. He had assembled a fascinating list of wines that worked unexpectedly well with Indian spicing, and was more than happy to spend fifteen minutes at a table explaining such matchmaking, but customers still felt safer with beer. He encouraged the chefs who cooked beside his mother to put experimental Indian-Western Fusion dishes on the menu, but his clientele passed them by.
I asked Aman Patel to choose our meal. The dishes that arrived were the work of three different minds. His mother prepared the delicious fresh fenugreek greens with soft potatoes and chewy fried onions, and also the bowl of fiery little okra tossed with garlic, onion, and chilies. Debebrata Sana, who had worked at leading hotels in Delhi and Qatar before joining the Rice Factory, cooked the traditional Moghlai recipe of chicken chirurchi, a tender breast stuffed with almonds, raisins, and paneer cheese, in a sauce of yogurt, cardamom, and saffron as smooth and rich as cream. The lamb shank in dark, intense bhuna sauce was made by David Eaglesham, a young Canadian chef who had been cooking beside Mrs. Patel for a year. Learning her secrets and combining his new knowledge with past experience, it was he who created the Indian Fusion dishes of which Aman Patel was so proud: grilled sea bass marinated with kari leaf, ginger, and garlic, served with a green curry sauce; grilled salmon on a bed of uppama (like Indian polenta) with deep-fried ginger and a Goan sauce.
Yes, it was the best Indian meal I had ever eaten in Toronto. No, it was neither generic nor traditional. It was a glimpse of one of many possible futures for Indian restaurants, a future in which creative cooking at last finds a place…
Mrs. Patel continued to play an influential role in Toronto’s culinary culture. A couple of years ago, she was part of a panel convened at George Brown College to discuss ways of integrating South Asian cooking into the province’s gastronomic mainstream and into the College’s syllabus. In a room full of opinionated people, her voice was quietest and yet it commanded more respect than anyone’s. And I am very happy that she was honoured this spring at the Ontario Hostelry Institute for her lifelong contribution to Ontario’s culinary evolution, winning the 2010 Chef’s gold award.
On a personal note, I learned a huge amount about Indian cuisine from Mrs. Patel, and about the Toronto restaurant scene in the 1970s. She was unfailingly generous with her knowledge, her recipes and her wise and inclusive views on her chosen profession. She was also a spectacularly good cook.
My deep condolences to her son, Aman, and my sympathies to the very many people who, like me, became her friends over Indian Rice Factory’s 40 fascinating years.