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Big Fish, Small Pond

A formerly fame-bound chef finds peace in a tiny seafood kitchen

Author ANISH MAJUMDAR

Fried karimeen, a simple but sublime Keralan dish

KERALA, INDIA

“THERE’S BEAUTY IN SMALL,” says Jude Allen Stephens, head chef at Little Maxim’s, a waterfront eatery in Kochi, India, with a kitchen the size of a closet and a bamboo overhang providing the only shade for patrons. It’s just past noon. Stephens is frying up his third batch of karimeen, a round-bodied freshwater fish that’s considered a local delicacy. The waiters, young men with easy grins who’ve been with Stephens through a career that spans nearly 30 years, are already turning people away.

Stephens was once bound for the top tier of India’s culinary ranks. He served as executive chef of the restaurant Southern Spice at the famed Taj Coromandel hotel in Chennai, but left when he felt unable to fully pursue his passions. “Opening my own restaurant was a dream, and no accolades can ever replace your dream,” he says.

So he opened a fish shack where he could focus on his specialty: Porichathu cuisine, a seafood-heavy amalgam of Keralan and Portuguese flavors that includes dishes like fish chuttu, a creamy stew of seer fish and cardamom, and the ubiquitous karimeen fry, in which the fish is served with head and tail intact and with nothing but a few sliced veggies as accompaniment. While neither is as elaborate in presentation as the dishes he created as a five-star chef, the payoff is just as rewarding. All that remains of the lunch rush is a heap of impeccably clean-picked fish bones.

Asked if he ever regrets giving up the promise of international acclaim, Stephens wipes the sweat off his forehead with a yellowed rag. “Simple food and happy faces,” he says. “It is enough.”

PHOTOGRAPH BY ABRAHAM CHACKO

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