* ‘One Pot One Shot’ chef holds special online classes for lockdown cooking

* Chef Ramki launches new e-book for beginners

* Chef simplifies cooking techniques for novices in the kitchen

A bowl of piping hot sambar, fragrant with curry leaves and asafoetida. And a generous helping of steamed white rice. B Ramakrishnan’s maiden venture at putting a meal together was fairly unambitious for a person who grew up in a large household in the town of Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu.

The meal plan, however, took an unexpected turn when Ramakrishnan — better known as Ramki — sought guidance from cookbooks he’d picked up in Bahrain. The instructions were subjective (“fry the onions till they brown”, for instance, or “stir until the oil separates from the vegetables”) and confusing to a person who’d always been told that the kitchen is no place for a man. That bowl of sambar, eventually, did come together, but only after countless attempts and hours in the kitchen. And the experience, from the earlier noughties, prompted Ramki to bid goodbye to a corporate job for a long innings as a chef, innovator and restaurateur.

Currently based in Chennai, in a studio apartment that doubles as his workplace, Ramki (51) wears the moniker of the “One Pot One Shot (OPOS)” chef with grace and humility. However, helming a 100,000-strong online community of food enthusiasts — apart from a chain of pizzerias — is no easy job. Ramki’s waking hours are divided between online demonstrations for his followers on Facebook and YouTube, workshops in different parts of the city and even the country, managing affairs at his restaurants and cooking simple “one-pot” meals for himself in a customised pressure cooker on an induction stove. His schedule has become slightly more hectic since the spread of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown in countries across the world, including India. Apart from guidance on cooking with limited supplies, Ramki now has the added responsibility of boosting the morale of the OPOS community while reminding members of how food can help people bond in difficult times.

In a phone interview, the chef — also the author of several e-cookbooks — says that he has relaxed the strict rules of cooking he usually follows, to make room for those who have been forced into the kitchen by the lockdown. “In a crisis situation, survival is key. And the lockdown is a unique situation for many people who have always depended on restaurants and delivery services for their meals,” Ramki says.

His cooking lessons, which are heavy on techniques (cold-pressure frying and controlled caramelisation, for example) and perfect measurements like an experiment in a laboratory, have been simplified for the first-timers whose kitchens may not be well equipped. To make things easier, Ramki has added another e-book to his repertoire: OPOS Primer , which has 21 lessons for the novice.

“The goal is to empower people to cook with whatever they have in the pantry. The need of the hour is to be independent, and I have tweaked my lessons to make people feel confident about cooking,” Ramki adds while delving further into the contents of his latest book. Laid out over 73 pages, OPOS Primer is a series of what Ramki describes as “building blocks” for beginners. It starts with the basics of both North and South Indian curries: Caramelised onion-tomato paste, cooked dal, nut paste and dairy for the former; tamarind paste, cooked dal (again), coconut-chilli paste and yoghurt for the latter. He then cooks with each of these bases, covering a range of dishes such as soups, lentils, stews and millet and rice dishes. The steps involved are broken down to the exact number of minutes and even pressure cooker whistles.

The response to the new series has been heartening and Ramki gauges the interest by the number of questions and recipe requests that have come his way. “It’s a long way from the time [seven or eight years ago] when I had hired a marriage hall in Chennai and invited over 600 people to watch me cook a marriage feast with only pressure cookers. People came, watched me cook, sampled the food and left without questions,” Ramki recalls. The visible lack of interest in his kind of “one-pot cooking” perhaps spurred Ramki to focus on his food blog, which helped him polish his skills for the e-books (including an OPOS guidebook for Indian Army soldiers posted in high-altitude places such as Siachen) he later ventured into.

He even convinced two companies that manufacture cookware and kitchen appliances to launch an OPOS kit that includes a customised pressure cooker that supports high-heat cooking with the minimal use of water. “From malai kofta to mysorepak , from bharta to biryani — you can make anything in a matter of minutes,” Ramki says. His own meals, however, continue to be frugal — mostly steamed vegetables and the lifelong favourite, sambar. This meal plan is unlikely to change, Ramki adds. What needs to change, he specifies, is the mindset that still yokes the woman to the burden of cooking and setting up table — lockdown or no lockdown.