FINE DINING AT ITS PEAK
MIGHTY expat mum Madhu Sarda has spoken of her incredible charity fundraising climb to the Mount Everest Base Camp for a fine dining experience with a celebrity chef.
She was the only woman in a party of 11 taking part in thechallenge spearheaded by Michelin-starred Chef Vineet Bhatia, the inspiration behind an award-winning restaurant at the Gulf Hotel Bahrain Convention &Spa.
It was a return to her home country for Madhu, as well as Nepalese head chef of Rasoi by Vineet – Bahrain, Tej Bahadur Thapa Magar, 38, who also joined the trek, although they were both venturing up the magnificent mountain for the first time.
Mother-of-two Madhu, 40, a well-known community artist, battled against the elements including a blizzard and survived painful falls onthe steep paths, says the adventure was a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience. “This was the mother of all adventures. It was a very steep, rocky and strenuous climb at times,” she said. “At one stage I was almost on the verge of giving up, but that was never an option.”
Madhu heard about Chef Vineet’s plan for ‘fine dining at its peak’ on social media to create the most memorable eating out experience everat 17,600 feet with a ‘pop up’ restaurant. The aim was to raise funds for the Nepalese earthquake victims and Heart for India Foundation, a charity which helps fund the education of girls from underprivileged backgrounds.
“It was a charity trek and the concept was to reach the basecamp and set up probably the highest restaurant at the highest altitude in the world,” explained Madhu, “and the final day featured a fine dining five-course meal.
“I follow Chef Vineet on social media and when I first saw his Tweet for this adventure I was immediately intrigued. I replied to his message, telling him I was interested.
“Being born and brought up in Nepal, the mountains are veryclose to my heart, almost like a part of me and trekking to Mount Everest BaseCamp had always been a dream - top of my ‘bucket list’!
“So when it came together with these causes and an opportunity to join Chef Vineet, there was no looking back!”
Madhu had met the celebrity chef two years earlier on one ofhis regular visits to Bahrain and enjoyed the culinary experience immensely. “This was a perfect recipe for a combination of ‘fan moment, dream and cause’,” she admitted.
She signed up for the adventure and asked whether any other women would be in the group. “You’re the only one brave enough!” he replied.
Then, came the tough part, convincing her family it was a good idea.
“No one in my family have ever done this kind of trekking or travelling,” she said. “Breaking the norms isn’t easy but as someone said – every great dream begins with a dreamer, and I had that strength, passion, patience and determination.”
She soon found support from her Indian husband Sandip Sarda,43, finance director, of DHL Supply Chain Saudi Arabia, and their children, Sejal, 14, who attends St Christopher’s School and Sumedha, 10, a pupil at the British School of Bahrain.
Her fitness helped in the preparation too and regular one-hour intense gym sessions were followed by long treadmill walks with a 15 per cent incline. “I have always enjoyed yoga, meditation and swimming and these practices came really handy because breathing techniques make a whole lotof difference on higher altitudes where the air is thinner and there’s less oxygen,” she added.
The group started at Lukla, spending two days acclimatising to the high altitude before trekking for 10 days and climbing almost 65km, on some days for a gruelling 14 hours at a time.
“The end of the days would be so tiring that I felt I have used every last ounce of energy possible, that I couldn’t take another step,” Madhu said.
“Our oxygen levels and heartbeats were checked daily. We also took anti-motion sickness medicines, painkillers, multi-vitamins and cold remedies depending on our condition.
“For the first time I knew the meaning of ‘sleeping like the dead’ through the night, yet, miraculously, each morning I would feel sorevived and fresh that I would be the first one to wake up, enjoy those fewmoments of solitude, do my stretches and pranayama and write my daily diary.
“I have done treks before, smaller ones, but nothing like this. The final journey from Gorekshep to Base Camp was a small trek of three hours and then one more hour to our tent but, what made it extremely difficult, was a snow blizzard.
“The scariest part for me was facing the blizzard – I almost gave up because there was no proper coordination between my legs and mind. Also, my boots were not good for snow and ice and I slipped and fell a fewtimes, thankfully only suffering bruising.
“But after reaching the destination, making it against all the odds and difficulties, I felt a great sense of accomplishment, happiness and thankfulness. It was like reaching some higher level of attainment in my heart and soul.
“I definitely couldn’t have done it without the excellent and supportive team – one great team, like God had handpicked each one of them to help one another.
“Being the only lady, I felt special - at least there was one woman as part of this event – I was representing women power – but, other than that, I was just one of them. Everyone cared for every other team member, supported and offered encouragement and patience all the way through.
“And, as for Chef Vineet himself, I don’t know where to begin. He’s so enthusiastic, nice, caring and fun loving. And his passion for food is so authentic, there’s a sparkle in his eyes when he talks food and cooks it.
“We were quite lucky, Chef and his team cooked for us quitea few times during the trek. And, me being the only vegetarian, things were more challenging. So while everyone would gorge on eggs, chicken and meat, wherever possible, I would look for bread, rice, dal, noodles and veggies. The more you trek upwards, the lesser the choice of food.”
The grand finale feast proved to be worth the wait for all who had participated in the adventure and others at base camp.
“This was something beyond my wildest dreams, with the views as well as the food,” said Madhu. “Even from the trek from the base camp to the place where our tents were pitched, the vista changed dramatically.
"The Khumbu and Chengri glaciers were like movie sets, although unbelievably real. And, then this whole concept of fine dining. Wow!
“Planning and preparations had started even before the trek. Like what ingredients will be required, how tables will be laid and what local food items could be included in this grand meal.
“We also picked up a few things on our way. All dry ingredients and supplies were carried by the porters and a few special items were carried by Chef as well. But cooking at that altitude and at those temperatures wasn’t easy.
“The tables were set at the lap of the Himalayas, with a view of Mount Everest, Lothse, Makalu and Ama Dablam. The cutlery was laid with lotsof attention to detail, with each fork, spoon and glass perfectly placed.”
The five-course menu included vegetable momo, an Asiandumpling, dal, an Indian term for dried, split pulses, served with juniperberry shorba, a kind of hot stew.
There was also chili garlic cauliflower chicken, yak butterrice, stir fried beans, potatoes and mushroom with Schezwan sauce, fish masalaand chicken masala, saffron suji halwa with beetroot dust, with a welcoming choice of chai or coffee with chocolates.
“My favourite was the mini momos and the shorba,” said Madhu. “It’s very easy to make momos but very difficult to perfect them.”
Speaking from the UK, Chef Vineet, 51, who was joined by his 19-year-old student son, Varaul, on the trek, praised Madhu for her gritty determination and told GulfWeekly: “She did really well. We were all very proud of her.”
He added that his good friend and colleague Chef Tej was also a ‘great asset in so many ways’.
The banquet was prepared with a wok, small pot and a frying pan and essential cooking tips were gathered from the Sherpa guides and friendly Nepalese people they met on the way.
Close to the level of the Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal, the atmosphere holds 53 per cent as much oxygen as the air at sea level, making it harder to breathe, exercise … and cook.
“The challenges became apparent when I tried to scramble anegg on the way and it took me 10 minutes!” he said. The advice he was given wasto cut and slice ingredients as thinly as possible.
“Doing the trek was so important, it gave us the chance to see the land and understand the people and how they live in this environment,”he added.
“It was such a humbling experience for all of us, seeing the bluest of skies, the best views ever of Mount Everest and the silence, it’s so emotional.”
A camera crew shadowed the chef from the moment he started trekking and a feature-length documentary is set to follow on what could be a Guinness World Record breaking event. More importantly, around $40,000 was raised for the good causes.
As for Madhu, she is currently enjoying the comforts of homein Bahrain. “My toes were inflamed and nose and lungs were affected,” she said,“but all is well and things are now back to normal.
“I’m looking forward to another extreme side of nature. Wewill be travelling to the US for the summer vacation and I have a trip planned to the Grand Canyon in Utah. I’m hoping for another great vacation and keeping my fingers crossed!”
* Madhu, who worked for the Northern Governorate on two artprojects at Jid Al Haj beach and Abu Saiba Primary School, recently conducted aworkshop with the Indian Ladies Association, teaching ethnic Indian Madhubanipainting. Catch up with her adventures via Instagram @madhu_sarda and onTwitter @SardaMadhu.
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Stanley Louis Szecowka
Editor/Journalist & Blogger, Restaurant & Motors Reviewer, FinTech Writer, Manager, Trainer.
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