Cooking up Stories

In September of 2022, Chef Avinash Martins received a slew of accolades. A widely circulated prestigious magazine rated Cavatina, his little gem of a restaurant in Benaulim, the best restaurant in India while he won Best Regional Restaurant West India and Chef of the Year 2022 at the ET Hospitality Awards 2022. He was previously rated as #20 out of India’s Top 30 Chefs for 2021 by Culinary Culture

But more than these and all the awards he’s ever received it is bringing the stories of Goa’s food to light that really drives this passionate Chef.

Text: Samira Sheth

Chef Avinash Martins speaks of the ‘love’ with which a Goan farmer or a fisherwoman cooks for his latest venture, The Community Table. What is immediately apparent though is the love and more importantly, the respect with which the trailblazing chef accepts, honours and welcomes what the indigenous people of Goa bring to the table.

About 9 years ago, Martins (trained at the prestigious Oberoi School as well as under Michelin star chefs Georges Blanc in Lyon and Thomas Keller in California) passed on many a lucrative offer abroad, where he was living and working, and came back to Goa, his motherland to start Cavatina with his wife Tiz Lyngdoh in Benaulim. At the pretty little restaurant, named after a song (‘meaning to get the best out of one’s self,’ explains Martins), the emphasis has always been more on high end western style cuisine. While Martins has always been deeply connected to his roots in Goa, there was a major shift in his food philosophy post the pandemic.

Now, Cavatina is not just a fine dining restaurant   – it’s the fulcrum of an entire eco-system. And Martins is not just a chef or a restaurateur. Driven to go deeper, to learn more, to connect more – he now sees the larger picture – embracing and documenting everything that Goa has to offer, finding inventive ways to bring all these stories to light. Food is now at the front and centre of his imagination but in more ways than one. He is passionate about researching the bounty of the land, the local ingredients, the ways of community life, their food and techniques of cooking, and their history and culture. Every dish, ingeniously concocted from local (often disregarded as humble) ingredients, now comes with a story behind it. 

Yes, Chef Martins cooks up a mean meal. He brings a wealth of global experience to his menu: miniature paos bursting with chorizo and served alongside kalchi kodi (yesterday’s curry); black rice pancakes (made using giresal – a local heirloom variety of rice grown by the small Goan Velip community) served taco style with chicken cafreal (a dish which originated with the Portuguese colonisers); hay smoked mackerel; a divine olmi (mushroom) cutlet, lal bhaji spanakopita style, coconut jaggery cheesecake and honey flans (with the honey sourced from the Netravalli forests of the Western Ghats  – everything on the menu tastes delicious and is presented beautifully. But, then it’s the side of stories that Chef serves that truly make the elegant meal even more memorable. From a mortar and pestle made by a local stone carver to place mats made by local grass weavers, to glasses moulded by local potters – everything on the table has a connect to Goa, everything is in season and sustainable and speaks of the many influences that shaped Goa and its cuisine– its many histories – with Portugal, Brazil, the Sultan of Bijapur, the Kadamba dynasty and more as well as its Saraswat and tribal nuances.   

Chef talks about the way the fish on his table has been caught, recounting the rhythmic movement of the fishermen as they heave their nets onto land. Yes, the fish has to be caught by traditional methods of fishing rather than mass bull trawling. He describes his childhood, looking forward to weekends at his grandmother’s sprawling farm in Velim, the 250 acre farm now the site of his second successful venture – C’est La Vie or Table in the Hills where he brings the farm to table philosophy to life in very real ways. His childhood memories are of happy Feasts, earthy memories of thousands of coconuts being plucked, chicken dishes made from hens bred at the farm, of fragrant arroz (rice), salted bacalhaus (dried fish) and hearty sorpotels, of tables laden with food, often ten day periods of preparations when neighbours and family and friends would drop by to celebrate and eat together. “Everything was about sharing, it was all about community then,” says Martins.

And perhaps it is those memories of gathering and kinship that Martins hopes to recreate with his latest venture – a community table where the food is prepared by the community – of fishermen, toddy tappers, village women, potters, weavers, artists and artisans – in short- by the people of Goa. A radical new concept – Martins’ community table makes an entire eco system visible – of where our food actually comes from; how it was traditionally prepared and served, how the real people of Goa eat, even how some of the dishes came into being in the first place, reviving Goa’s culinary heritage in the process. Traditional occupations, rituals and techniques are celebrated, hitherto undervalued ingredients are brought firmly back into fine dining menus and indigenous wisdom is honoured. Chef Avinash Martins taps into his land’s people, food and culture to celebrate and honour his ‘mother cuisine’ in completely new ways with the Community Table – “an opportunity for the community to showcase their food to the world. I want the community to come and touch your heart.”  

He is continually inspired by his home – living amidst hills, forests, estuaries and the ocean – purveyors of his produce.

Widely recognised and celebrated as among the top chefs in India, Avinash Martins is a chef completely in tune with the rhythms of nature, his land and his people. 

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Author: Planet Goa Team
For us at Planet-Goa, our team is driven by that feeling of exhilaration that one gets when discovering that something ‘unique’ and ‘new’ about Goa for our ever-so-discerning readers.

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