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Mrs. Amar Patel

29 Aug

Mrs Amar Patel, chef and owner of Indian Rice Factory

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.

Mrs Patel honoured with the Chef's gold award at the OHI gala, earlier this year

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.

 


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  1. George

    August 30, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    As usual James, beautifully written.

     
  2. Hemant Bhagwani

    August 30, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    It’s a sad day when we have lost not only a restauranteur par excellence, but an amazing person full of grace – a true inspiration. She offered not just great Indian food at her restaurant, but also genuine warm hospitality. She will be missed.

    Deepest condolences to Aman Patel and the family.

     
  3. Barry Chaim

    August 30, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    James, You are truly the best. Mrs. Patel was more than a significant force in the Toronto culinary world.. We all benefit from her pioneering and steadfastness, overcoming many hurdles. her reward was Aman, and friendships like yours.

     
  4. Russell Herman

    August 30, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    I am deeply saddened by the passing of Mrs. Patel.
    Her elegance and grace were matched by her exquisite cooking.
    I frequented her short-lived restaurant on Balmuto Street more often than The Indian Rice Factory because of its proximity and was disappointed to see it close.
    Once more, I thought, Toronto is unappreciative of good Indian fare!
    It was there that I experienced her passion and knowledge regarding Indian Cuisine, since she had the time to chat and enlighten me.

     
  5. Marilyn

    August 31, 2010 at 9:14 am

    James – your tribute to Mrs. Patel was so wonderful. As another ex-pat we too frequented the Indian Rice Factory to meet our need for a taste of authentic Indian fare. Our condolences to her family on their loss of this wonderful woman. I would like to share a memory from from some time ago, when Aman was much younger and had started to help at the restaurant. As we were reviewing our menu choices, we overheard a very heated debate in the kitchen, followed by the slamming of a door. A calm Mrs Patel walked back into the restaurant (with her pens as always sticking out of her hair!) and announced to us that all was now calm – she could not function without her cook, but she could without her son! Our meal was served and calm returned.

     
  6. Anna

    August 31, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful piece of Mrs. Patel. I loved her restaurant and applaud her as a pioneering chef and businesswoman. I will miss her. My sincere condolences to her son and family.

     
  7. Michael Rubino

    September 1, 2010 at 9:46 am

    Well written James. A tribute to a great woman. My condolences to Aman and his family.

     
  8. Mukesh & Neerja Gupta

    September 2, 2010 at 5:18 am

    James thank you for the written piece and also heard your interview tribute to Mrs. Patel on CBC. I have fond memories of meeting Mrs. Patel and her son in her restaurant as we were invited to join for a farewell to former Consul General of India. She was a delight to speak with and she cared for everyone who came in contact with her. She was passionate about quality and in true sense of pioneering the home style cooking. We would do our next workshop session of ‘cooking for a cause’ in her memory and support a local charity in Toronto. Suggestions would be welcome to chef@spiceupfood.com

     
  9. Madeleine

    September 2, 2010 at 9:18 am

    I remember Mrs. Patel well. I had heard she was a bit of a grumpy person who created great food, but I saw another side during a snowstorm one night. A homeless woman came into The Indian Rice Factory. Mrs. Patel led her to a table and asked her to wait. About 5 minutes later, she came out of the kitchen with a big paper bag of food. I was very moved to see this, having witnessed other homeless people being tossed out of restaurants with a swift kick.
    I send my condolences to Mrs. Patel’s family.

     
  10. Christopher Wilson

    September 4, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    My mother (Linda Rainsberry) and Ms. Patel were friends for many years. Our entire family loved the food from the Indian Rice Factory especially the pakoras. My deepest condolences to Mrs. Patel’s family.

     
  11. Michael Pataran

    September 12, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    Great piece James. She was a kind, soft-hearted woman.
    The city has lost a great culinary pioneer, but her endeavours and influences will live on.

     
  12. Aman Patel

    March 1, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    Dear James,
    Thank you so very much for your loving tribute of Mom. She had a great deal of respect for you and one can think of no one better than you to celebrate her.
    Aman.

     
  13. James Chatto

    March 1, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    Dear Aman,
    Thank you for the kind words. I grew up with a tradition of Punjabi cookery – my father spent the years 1939 to 1945 in Delhi with the Royal Indian Army Corps and came back to England at the age of 25 with a new and shiningly ecumenical palate. During my childhood, many of his wartime friends came from India and Sri Lanka to our house and the conversation always seemed to end up centred around food. In my teens, I met other Indian cooks – Ishmael Merchant and Madha Jaffery among them – who cooked for us and changed and educated us. But it was your mother who most broadened my mind as to what Indian cooking is and could one day be. Spectacularly polite in the face of even the most ill-informed question, she was willing to transcend regional cuisines, even national cuisines, generously embracing all sorts of culinary disciplines and seeing how they could fit into her own philosophy. Together, you and she created a very special place at Indian Rice Factory – one of the gems in Toronto’s diadem. It always pleased me that so many of our great western chefs and educators recognised her gifts and her contribution. I will NEVER forget that dish of fenugreek greens she cooked for me, the first time I ever tasted her food.
    A bientot, Aman…
    James