Sunday, June 20

Only the Best

I have four rosemary shrubs in the backyard, in four different micro-climates. When snipping a few branches for cooking, I always go to the same two that are in the sun the most - the ones that have managed to produce the highest quality of the aromatic oils that impart that distinctive Mediterranean flavor to meats.

I learned the importance of quality from my father, who has always believed in buying, selling, and living the best. As a young man, he was ambitious and always looked up and never down. He transformed my grandfather's small Indian spice store in Singapore into an international distribution company. He started by importing Indian food products - pickles, curry powders, and pappadams, and distributed it within Singapore and Malaysia. His ventures in distribution also took him to Paris and Sydney at one point. He always demanded the best ingredients in the products he distributed. He would purchase dals wholesale for the pappadam maker in India. He made sure the highest quality chillies were ground for the curry powder that was produced for his brand. I will never forget manning a stall in a trading convention with my mother and some of their employees as a teenager. It had been an okay day, but, when my father stopped by in the evening, sales just skyrocketed as he opened jars of the curry powder to passers-by and simply said, "smell the quality."

In the 1990s, his business expanded into wholesale trading of raw cashew nuts from Africa to India. I spent that summer with him, the summer his father, who had broken his own boundaries by leaving India to seek his fortune in Singapore, died. Traveling around Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Tanzania with him, I learned how to tell the quality of raw cashew in the shell by shaking them, how to light up peeled cashew up with a lighter to discern its quality by the color of the flame. I also learned about the importance of third-party quality certification. The biggest one at that time (probably still is now) was a Swiss company called SGS, which would send in a team, carry out the appropriate testing procedures and issue you a certificate that you carried with you to the bank, the shipping company, and all the way to the buyer. I don't know how the Swiss do it, but the world always wants to turn to them for all products and metrics of quality.

I'd like to think that his perception of quality transcended many levels. The year I was applying for universities in the UK, I visited a UK university fair in Singapore and spoke to many admissions folks. I came back pleased with my work and with my short list for Economics departments and showed it to my father. He looked at it carefully and said, "but why do you not have Oxford nor Cambridge on this list?" I said, "because there is no chance of me getting in, Paaa!" His response? "I know you better than you know yourself. I've met many and I know just how intelligent you are. Just apply, and let's see if you get in. But I know you will."

Happy Father's Day, Appa. Thank you for believing in me.



Randy Gottlieb said...

Lovely post. Thanks for sharing!

Randy Gottlieb said...

Lovely post. Thanks for sharing!


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