From the minute we were born to the moment we take our last breath, there is that little time in between it all that we call life. Though change is the only thing constant in this world, the concept of losing someone forever is something that’s difficult to grasp. One such person who was loved immensely by his family, friends, well-wishers, thousands of his students around the world, the hospitality industry and the chefs community is Chef Vernon Coelho. Chef Coelho taught at IHM Mumbai for over 30 years. He retired as the Head of Culinary at the Institute. He along with a couple of fellow chefs founded the Western India Culinary Association (WICA). During his teaching years and even later he travelled around the world and taught professionals in many countries. He was the ambassador of Indian culinary would not be an understatement as he spoke about Indian food on so many forums and taught Indian cookery to people around the world. Chef Coelho left for his heavenly abode on 26th November 2020. The hospitality industry and the culinary fraternity will miss the inspirational professional and an incredible person that Chef Coelho was.
Over 26 years of knowing Chef Vernon Coelho, as a student, colleague and then a friend. He was exceptional in all roles. He knew his students well and he mentored them well. Everyone got the best out of him; everyone saw the best version of him for them! He continues to live in our memories.
The last time I met him was in 2018 at his residence at Bandra in Mumbai. I had tea and cookies that he had kept for me. He wasn’t keeping very well but his spirits were absolutely high. He led a life of great experiences and on his own terms. I remember he used to travel a lot to places around the world and that added to his experiences and culinary expeditions. When I told him that he had neglected his health and had been a workaholic; he replied saying that he had no regrets at all and that he would live the very same life again given a choice. He enjoyed every bit of the ride most of it had IHM Mumbai and its students being a part of the roller coaster!
He always asked about my children, husband and a few of my batchmates and that was the pattern whether we met or spoke over the phone. I wondered why would he ask me about others and I get my answer seeing the messages shared by his students over the years. He knew and understood his students well; knowing the qualities of each one of them!
On our last meeting; we spent close to an hour talking about so many things; most of them revolving around his students and not to miss the Dadar Catering. His home reflected his zeal for life and all things that mattered to him. His home showcased his travel memoirs and the wall lined with his cherished childhood and travel photos, a beautiful collection of artefacts and souvenirs that were gifted by his students living around the world. If anyone visited him at his residence he ensured that the guest was offered fruit cakes, chicken puffs or cookies. He also took me around his home and showed me some pictures of his family telling the whereabout of all. Then we went to see the terrace garden.
He told me that he liked what I was doing specially writing about the ladies from the fraternity in the Indian Women in Hospitality. He appreciated the story on Ms. Thangam Philip. I told him that when I start writing about male hospitality professionals; would want his story to be the first one. In fact I had decided that day that the section on my website will be called ‘A few good men’. I was to speak with him as I didn’t want to send him a questionnaire…. that wish never materialised. But his story will feature on IWH as I had promised. Mr. Ravi Wazir has worked closely with chef Coelho on archiving his journey and I would like to share the link here so that his fans all over the world in hospitality or outside of it get a glimpse of his life.
“A great soul serves everyone all the time. A great soul never dies. It brings us together again and again.” – Maya Angelou.
These thoughts and expressions resonate thousands of his students feelings for him. His timeline highlighted some qualities of his as put by many of his students. Rarely a person inspires generations of professionals. You will not meet a single person who studied at IHM Mumbai and was not captivated by Chef Coelho. People remember ATK, his den at IHM Mumbai where he’d be often seen giving precise instructions to his students. So often saying something only he could come up with, could make the entire class burst into synchronized laughter. He had his eyes on students during practicals; even when he was across the kitchen, he could tell if somebody went amiss.
As a Chef instructor he would be seen observing, monitoring and making sure that all of his students were trying to replicate the recipes that he made them write in their journals. One deviation and then depending on his mood at that moment, it would either be that sly, one eyed smirk that would make you smile realising your mistake. Or it would garner that angry look telling you that you had messed up the whole thing!
A raconteur par excellence who demanded your undivided attention. He could easily make you feel nostalgic, overwhelmed, inspired and in awe; sometimes all of these at the very same time. One can always be in awe of the clarity with which he remembered his students not just by their names but also by their year of graduating. He remembered the mischiefs that were attached to them while in college. He was a people’s person; he livened up every conversation. He lived his life to the fullest, enjoying each moment doing what he loved. He enjoyed good food and took pleasures in the little things like his tall coffee mug with cookies or a perfect beef steak.
He was also the head of the Cultural Committee while he worked at IHM Mumbai. Apart from holding the regular college cultural events; there were the choir practices and Christmas celebrations that his students remember fondly. Everyone who attended these events also remember his beautiful rendition of the O holy night.
To his students he was cheerful, witty, often acerbic, approachable, warm, generous and friendly with a wicked sense of humour that everyone loved.. Students knew that he was the coolest Profs when he distributed a handout that said amongst other things, ‘A chef is always right, even in his underwear’. His mantra shared with all his students was “Serve cold dishes cold and Hot dishes piping hot”. While he was quite generous with his praises, he did not shy away from pointing out the flaws quite upfront and an on the face. His feedback was sandwiched well and his critiquing took people far ahead.
He was a great storyteller always ready for good, long telephonic chats, even when he was not in the best of health. He kept in touch with his students; in fact some connected with Chef Coelho if they wanted information or hereabouts of a batch mate they were not in touch with. He made it a point to reply to messages sent to him.
Chef Vernon Coelho was a dedicated and passionate teacher who created a legacy. A legacy that’ll live on in all the incredible hospitality professionals he has inspired over generations. It will also live on in the Chefs he has mentored and the numerous stories that highlight his incredible memory, great sense of humour and concern for his students. He was a wonderful man who lived an equally meaningful and cherished life- a teacher everyone loved!
His delightful tales have been captured for posterity and can be found in the links: http://www.raviwazir.com/articles/a_vernon_my_journey.htm
Picture Courtesy and anecdote credits: Mr. Ravi Wazir, Chef Sudhir Pai and all his students who shared such beautiful instances from his life on his timeline.