R.I.P. Chef Jacob

Jacob was 37 - and one of the coolest guys I ever met

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By David Hammond

When my friend Subha Rajan Das Facebook-messaged me to see if I had any recommendations for eating in Chennai (old Madras),  the first thought that came to mind was Jacob's Kitchen, a relatively new restaurant that had opened in June of this year.

 I had visited Jacob's Kitchen in October and spent some time with Chef Jacob Sahaya Kumar Aruni. I'd had a wonderful time that afternoon, so I goggled to get the address and my first hit was for an article with the headline: Chef Jacob Dies of Heart Attack in Chennai.

Jacob was 37.

During breakfast of the morning of my visit with Jacob, I had come across an article in The Hindu all about him, his restaurant, his career as a television chef, his scholarly approach to excavating the culinary heritage of Southern India. Based on that article, I started to think of Jacob as kind of Indian Rick Bayless, whose passion for food had an admirably academic, anthropological integrity.

In the kitchen of Jacob's restaurant, he seemed amused that I was so taken by the pictures of Hanuman the monkey king on his walls. Hanuman, who came to the aid of Rama in the Ramayana, protects us from kitchen-related mishaps and, not incidentally, is credited with bringing many spices to India. In the mythical story, Hanuman carried a lush mountain across India on his way back from Sri Lanka: spice seeds spilled along the way and thus India was blessed with a spicy cuisine.

In this picture, next to Hanuman, is Sai Baba, who gave food to the needy, and was in such a rush to feed the hungry that he cooked with is hands to speed up the process.

I believe the other deity on the shelf in Jacob's Kitchen is Vishnu, but I'm not sure.

"We all have to stand before the kitchen gods," Jacob told me. It was usual to offer spices to the gods to gain their favor before beginning a day of cooking.

We spent a lot of time in the kitchen, with Jacob explaining to me how he used various spices, and identifying some peppers that looked vaguely familiar (having originally come from North America) but which seemed to have been hybridized, modified and obviously renamed over the last few centuries.

Jacob made a lunch for us, of course, and he sat with us as we ate. During lunch, I was so taken up by the energy of the chef, and his stream of food-related discourse, that my notes on this meal are not exact as I would, in retrospect, have liked. I do, however, remember enjoying stuffed paratha, mutton, and fish with spicy chutney.

After lunch, we exchanged cards. Leaving Jacob, I walked past a long line of eager Chettinadians waiting to get into this brand new place for lunch. I thought to myself, "This young man is destined for greatness."


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