Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Behind Miss Sydney's big secrets

As a licensed electrician, Anand “A.J.” Jayapal was scrupulously precise about his measurements and connections.

As a chef with an ever-growing reputation, he prefers cooking by instinct and inspiration, seldom writing down or reading recipes.

“When he gives someone a recipe verbally,’ says wife Shannon, “he’ll tell them the main ingredients. Then I have to say, ‘and salt and pepper.’ And, he’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, salt and pepper.’ And, I’ll say, “and balsamic vinegar.’ And, he’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, and balsamic vinegar.’ It keeps on going like that.”

Which shows the interesting partnership of these two people for whom food wasn’t such an overweening interest in the early days of their relationship, a relationship that led to marriage 11 years ago and the birth of daughter Sydney, 7.

Shannon concedes she doesn’t cook, and A.J. didn’t enroll in Schenectady County Community College’s well-regarded culinary program until he was laid off from his electrician job at Albany Medical Center and some friends suggested he give cooking a try.

“I thought they were crazy at first,” he recalled. “I liked to cook, but doing it for a living? That sounded like a lot of work.”

But along the way, Jayapal completely immersed himself in the modern culinary world. The Albany High School grad began winning medals in American Culinary Federation-sanctioned competitions early in his career, and currently serves as executive chef at the Albany Country Club.

He’s been there since 2006 after five years in the same capacity at the smaller Edison Club in Schenectady. That followed a long learning curve at the elbow of some of the Capital Region’s best and best-known chefs: certified master chef Dale Miller, then at Jack’s Oyster House in Albany and now at The Inn at Erlowest in Lake George; Yono Purnomo of Yono’s in downtown Albany, and Carmine Sprio of Carmine’s in Albany. Plus, serving as the founding chef at the Albany Pump Station gave Jayapal his baptism of fire in opening a restaurant.

“I was so fortunate to be able to learn from Dale and Yono in particular when I was starting out,” Jayapal said. “At that time there weren’t as many top-level chefs as there are now, and they were wonderful in training me – how to be precise and imaginative at the same time, how to work with all kinds of ingredients and seasonings. And Carmine was just getting into his TV shows then and he showed me how to plate dishes beautifully … And Dale encouraged me when I had the chance to open the kitchen at the Albany Pump Station. That was a wild experience. We had all the big things but when the staff came to me on opening night and said ‘Chef, where is the ketchup and the salt?’ we had to run out to Price Chopper to get some.”

The switch from public to private dining services was something that allowed Jayapal to not only prepare menus in a different way, but to have more family time, something that is central to his life. In fact, when he and Shannon built their home on land that had been owned by her grandfather near Lawson Lake and the sprawling Alcove Reservoir several miles from the village of Feura Bush, they became neighbors of her parents, Bob and Linda Whipple.

“It’s so peaceful out here,” Jayapal said, gesturing from the front porch of his contemporary home to the heavily wooded property surrounding it. “Driving home through the countryside gives you a chance to unwind after a hectic day at work. And then, when you get here it’s idyllic.”

The house was a major reason for moving from the Edison Club job to the Albany Country Club. The former required an hour’s commute one way; the latter is located in Voorheesville, an easy 8-mile drive.

“I liked the Edison Club,” Jayapal said. “In five years there I got to really know the members and their families and saw some of their kids growing up. It’s getting to be that way at the Albany club now that I’m in my second season there. Plus, the members are usually people who have traveled a lot and have very sophisticated tastes. They’re not afraid to tell you what they like and don’t like, and it makes you a better chef.

“In a public restaurant, except for a few regulars you really don’t know who you’re cooking for. At a private club, you quickly get to know everyone and they get to know you.”

The Jayapals designed their new home with the kitchen as the heart. It’s a modern, utilitarian space with a six-burner stove, plenty of counter space, cabinetry and hanging rows of cookware.

Plus, it has a built-in sous chef. Daughter Sydney. As Jayapal was working on a lunch for a trio of visitors, Sydney got into her kitchen outfit – a child-sized apron and a chef’s toque complete with pink ears on the sides.

“It’s from ‘Ratatouille,’ “ she explained, referring to the animated film about a French rat who became a gourmet chef. “It’s one of my favorite movies.”

Then she climbed on a step-stool to help put the toppings on a flatbread pizza. The major ingredient? Indu’s Chutney, one of two products in a line of foods called Miss Sydney’s Secret Family Recipes LLC.

After she put a light coating on the warm flatbread just as one would put tomato sauce on a basic, she sprinkled shredded asiago cheese, shredded prosciutto and diced red onions on top. Then Dad took over, adding a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar and a light topping of micro-greens – mache, watercress and the like – before popping the pizzas in the oven for a few minutes.

By then, Sydney was checking the progress of little sausage patties that had been prepped in Miss Sydney’s Marinade as the main ingredient in a platter of sliders made from Dad’s earlier prep work: tiny buns, sausage, chili garlic mayo and apple/fennel cole slaw.

This activity at such a tender age may be merely a precursor to a career,

“Someday we’d like to have our own place, a restaurant called Miss Sydney’s,” Jayapal said as Shannon vigorously nodded in agreement. “Maybe she’ll wind up working there.”

That family thing again. And it comes through in the creation of the Miss Sydney’s products (they’re working on a salad dressing to add to the offerings). They were developed in the home kitchen, with lots of guidance from the food studies programs at Cornell University teaching them to modify recipes to keep them additive free yet shelf stable.

The chutney recipe came from A.J.’s mother, Indulata, or Indu for short. The marinade was A.J.’s. The brand name’s origin is obvious, and the company logo is a computer-designed profile of Sydney created by Shannon. As far as what’s inside the jars, Shannon had to curb her husband’s penchant for recipe-free cooking to jot down every ingredient and amount to promote consistency a commercial product requires. Her passion for order and detail also shows when she updates their Web site (

The original marinade began being sold by several small retailers, but quickly took off enough to move the manufacturing operation from the rented kitchen of the Masonic Hall in Delmar to Nelson Farms at Morrisville State College in Madison County which has kitchen facilities it rents out for such businesses.

The Jayapals and the Whipples make the trek to create new batches of products on a monthly basis. Until he passed away a year ago, Shannon’s grandfather Ed McCombe also helped.

“We have pictures of Sydney when she was really little, sleeping in a crate while we worked in the first commercial kitchen we rented,” A.J. recalled.

The ingredients’ sources – dates, raisins, vinegars, sugars -- have morphed a bit over the years, and all now are U.S. products.

“The marinade is soy based, and we had been buying Indonesian soy sauce,” Shannon said. “But, after the tsunami that hit there the supply was wiped out and we had to find another supply.”

It’s been a long journey from the early 1980s when A.J., his sister and mother moved to Albany from India with, as he tells it, “little more than $60 to their name.” But they also brought along a love of food, a knowledge of spices not generally known to U.S. palates then, and a desire to succeed.

That background, energy and family effort has led to their Miss Sydney’s products being carried by about 30 outlets around the state, as well as being brought to the attention of some of the most serious palates in the American food world. For example, earlier this year the Jayapals were invited to showcase their products at the prestigious South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach, FL.

“That was a mind-boggling experience,” A.J. said. “We’re just a little mom-and-pop operation going in there with these major names in the culinary world. But they couldn’t have been nicer to us. And seeing all these famous chefs right there … .”

A.J., who despite owning a string of culinary medals won in stiff competition here and in Europe, tends to become starry-eyed when he talks about the luminaries of the culinary world -- the Thomas Kellers, the Rick Baylesses, the Marcus Samuelssons. But that eagerness means he never stops learning.

He has taken various kitchen staffers on field trips to Maine and Pennsylvania and around New York to farms dealing with sustainable agriculture, mushroom producing facilities and competitions to get their hands – and sometimes their feet – dirty while they learned more about unprocessed, healthier ingredients to use in their art.

“The more I learn, the more I want to teach my staff,” he said. “It’s such a fascinating, changing field it’s hard not to be curious about what you don’t know yet.”
Miss Sydney's Secret Family Recipes
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