Chef Nash dishes on cuisine and culture
Story by Anne Beaty | Photos by Kristy Reimer – Published courtesy of AirdrieLIFE
When it comes to heating up the menu, Airdrie's Nash Visram has it all down pat.
Chef Nash, as Visram is known around town, is an expert when it comes to East Indian cooking. The interesting part, though, is that Visram did not begin his career as an East Indian chef, but rather learned the continental cuisine during his training in England. His expertise in all foods East Indian has come as the result of demand from customers in Western Canada.
Visram was born and raised in Kenya, but when it came time to consider higher education, his sights were set outside the country. In the 1960s, he says, Kenyans looked overseas for post-secondary education, so he headed to London to study hotel management. His topic of choice was a natural one - at that time, tourism was booming in Mombasa and around the African country so the expectation was that Kenyans would learn overseas and then come back to their own country to ply their trade.
Visram, though, was recruited after his studies by Hilton Hotels, one of several international hotel companies seeking qualified applicants. He headed to Canada to continue his training at the company's flagship hotel in Montreal. Western Canada became the next stop on his itinerary when he moved to Edmonton after getting married, Once there, he expanded his repertoire by running his own enterprises in the food industry while working at Western hotels.
"So many times I've opened my own restaurants, but most of the time [I've run] catering companies," Visram says.
After a divorce, Visram set out on the path that ultimately landed him in Airdrie two years ago. Along the way, he worked at Fairmont in Invermere, B.C. for five years before coming to Calgary to work at both Fox Hollow and Douglasdale golf courses for several years.
Early on in his career out west, Visram discovered that East Indian food was the choice of many and he was expected to provide it when he was asked to cater at mosques and for weddings and other special ethnic events.
The challenge was that he didn't have any experience in that cuisine.
"I'm a European-trained chef,' he says. "[Customers] knew what they wanted, but I didn't know how to cook that. They take it for granted you can cook anything."
So he began researching and experimenting and eventually taught himself what he needed to know to meet the demand. Now East Indian food is definitely one of the chef's favorites. While spices may be mild in his native Kenya, Visram has grown to appreciate the hotter dishes, particularly from northern India's Punjab region.
I enjoy it," Visram says.
His choice appears to mirror that of many other foods.
"East Indian food has really mushroomed so fast in the last five to 10 years," he says." Everybody's on the bandwagon."
Visram's business initiatives developed along the way as well. While in Calgary he even had a catering company Traveling Tandoor - a clay oven on castors, with which he would cook on-site at people’s homes or other venues.
“It was just like a hobby - we just did weddings and parties,” he says.
While Visram can certainly be considered an expert on the subject of East Indian cooking, he continues to learn, experiment and hone his skills in the kitchen.
“I get my ideas from the different recipe books,” he says, adding that cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey is one of the best. “She’s amazing.”
Throughout his educational journey, Visram has been interested in more than just taste. The nutritional value of the food, as well as the medicinal properties of the spices he uses, is equally important. Having taken a nutrition course at SAIT, the chef incorporates his learning into his products
- for example, a low-fat option for his butter chicken is the use of yogurt rather than whipping cream - and he hopes to share that knowledge, as well.
“Eventually I want to compile a recipe book,” he says.
In the book - which he will make simple enough so that anyone can make the East Indian dishes, despite the sometimes-confusing number of ingredients - Visram also wants to include information on the various spices used.
“Every spice that we use [in East Indian cooking] has got some kind of medicinal properties," he says.
Examples include fennel seed, which is a digestive aid; turmeric, which is good for arthritis and joint pain; cardamom, which can relieve heartburn and gas, as well as acting as a breath freshener; and coriander, which can relieve an upset stomach.
The chef would also like to open a cooking school based on health benefits, offering nutritional cooking classes using only high-quality ingredients.
"You don't want to cook with ingredients that are going to harm you," he says.
In the meantime, he encourages anyone interested in cooking East Indian dishes for themselves to jump right in. The recipes may look complicated, but Visram says that the ingredients are all available and the dishes can be concocted relatively effortlessly - even his famous melt-in-your-mouth butter chicken. "It is so easy" he says.
For the more adventuresome, Visram suggests searching the Internet for recipes, finding out the common ingredients and then simply experimenting to suit ones own personal taste.
Now happily settled into his role as chef at Fletcher Village - where he boasts many converts to the East Indian cuisine, which is offered on a regular basis - Visram is also enjoying running his business, A Fine Balance Catering, which caters weddings and holiday parties, as well as providing individual meals. He is allowed to use the kitchen at Fletcher Village for the business, a partnership that has worked well for everyone.
"I think it's working out good for them and good for me," he says.
Through his business and his work at Fletcher Village, he has been having a lot of fun introducing the community to the best India has to offer.
"Experience the joy of not cooking," he says with a smile.
Airdrie is now home for Visram and he and his customers couldn't be happier. The community has also proved fulfilling for the chef in yet another way. He remarried two years ago and he and his wife, Nevin, are delighting in watching their children grow into their own. One of Visram’s sons is working in Africa, having completed a master's degree in public health, while the other has applied to the master's program in education at Simon Fraser University after having earned a BSc in psychology Nevin's children, a son in engineering at Western University in Ontario and a daughter in medical school in the Caribbean, round out the family
Career aside, Nash and Nevin eat out quite often, checking out what's on the menu around the region. So far, the chef has not been overly impressed.
"Really the [restaurants] are so mediocre… they don't pay attention to nutrition at all," he says.
Perhaps that is the only assessment one could expect from a man who has such an exceptionally high standard for himself when it comes to the culinary world.