When celebrity chef Nimmy Paul first visited the site of her idyllic seaside home in Fort Kochi, she never intended on living there at all. After years of hosting cooking classes for international tourists at her home in the heart of the city in Thevara, she was simply looking for a larger space to scale her culinary ambitions.
Once she began to conduct sessions at the new cooking school, the early morning commutes started to take a toll and soon she surrendered to the charms of the nearly 100-year-old property. An adjacent plot of land was acquired, and Nimmy, along with her husband Paul began to sketch up the house of their dreams with the husband-and-wife team of Latha and Jaigopal Rao of architectural firm Inspiration. During the process of restoring and renovating the home, the couples became great friends over Nimmy’s cooking and generous hospitality.
Nimmy is often considered a pioneer of culinary tourism in Kerala. Long before food walks and homestays had taken off in India, she had opened her home to international tourists for hands-on cooking classes as well as traditional home-cooked meals. The business soon outgrew her small home kitchen, so her husband Paul began looking for alternatives. The couple zeroed in on a convenient property in Fort Kochi, already an important pitstop on tourist itineraries.
Nimmy and Paul’s initial brief to the architectural team was to create a state-of-the-art cooking studio to accommodate groups of 30-to-40 tourists at a time without losing the intimacy of home cooking that made her so popular. Nimmy also wanted the new school to offer an insight into traditional living and culinary customs of Kerala. A mini food museum to showcase her family’s heirloom kitchen tools, utensils, and crockery in the premises was also on the agenda.
Another caveat came from Nimmy: “I told Latha that one day I might stop these cooking classes altogether. At that point, I don’t want to be staring at a white elephant. Even though I didn’t intend to stay there from the start, someday the space would have to transition into a beautiful home.”
The Restoration Challenge
The property’s proximity to the sea posed several challenges because it fell under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) and had heavy rainfall during the monsoon season. Even though the existing structure was rundown and in shambles, the rules and regulations didn’t allow much room to increase the overall footprint. In addition to this, smaller rooms made up the building which had to accommodate a large, open cooking studio.
Since it was an old building, there weren’t too many drawings to begin with. Despite these challenges, Inspiration’s in-house team of restoration specialists and skilled artisans developed solutions that were modern but simultaneously era-appropriate.
A team of carpenters dismantled the roof meticulously to salvage the wood from the beams and rafters which was used to make windows and doors. Steel beams and lighter Aerocon panels were used to reinforce the building. An additional floor was created in place of the attic with sweeping views of the sea.
The Design Aesthetic
Two large verandahs flank a large, airy classroom with plenty of natural light and ventilation. Movable, light wooden furniture—a mix of Nimmy and Paul’s own, some custom built on-site and a few purchased from antique store Crafters in Kochi—allow the classroom to transform into a formal dining room for guests or a warm contemporary living room for the family. At the centre of the room, a large dining table can be split up into six smaller trapezoidal tables when Nimmy’s classes are in session.
To retain an overall rustic aesthetic and offer visitors an authentic experience of visiting a traditional home in Kerala, the architects have also made use of local materials like terracotta and oxides in yellow and red. Leaf-stamped stone tiles and pebbles highlight the entrance and various parts of the large verandahs. Murals depicting scenes from Nimmy’s classes are painted on the walls. Exposed rafters flank the high ceilings throughout the building.
A Tale Of Two Kitchens
Soon after Jaigopal and Latha were commissioned, Latha began visiting Nimmy at her house, watching her demonstrate her family recipes and interact with international guests in her kitchen. Together with her team, Latha meticulously took note of Nimmy’s movements in the kitchen design, the equipment and tools used and anything kitchen related she owned, right down to the measurements of the traditional urulis and the stacks of plates from her precious crockery collection.
“During the process, Latha and Nimmy became such great friends that they nearly pushed me out of whole equation,” says Jaigopal as he fondly remembers the rapport they shared, Nimmy’s baked goodies and the overall pampering the team enjoyed during the renovation. “Nimmy stuck a good chord with the site engineer, the masons and the carpenters—providing key information to what she needed in the process.”
Not one, but two kitchens were carved into the Fort Kochi property to showcase Nimmy’s culinary prowess as well as the collection of kitchen tools, cutlery and crockery. The first is a state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen, complete with an island equipped with a hob top for guests to hover around. When classes are larger, a camera and mic are set up along with a screen. The island itself has storage for all of things Nimmy needs handy during her cooking sessions—there’s even a dedicated rack for her masalas box. Hiding behind it, is a prep kitchen boasting of professional-grade appliances and several wooden cabinets.
At the other end of the house, a traditional model kitchen design holds treasures like Nimmy’s large pickle jars, clay pots, urulis, grinding stones and coconut scrapers passed down her family for generations. A special wood-fired stove is custom-built into the kitchen countertop. Nimmy is also a stickler for cleanliness so a rack for sun-drying vessels and louvered wood cabinets ensure that utensils used have plenty room to breathe. Glass-front cabinets and open shelving hold Nimmy’s prized cookbook and kitchen artefact collection.
“When I look around the house now, I can see my mother, and her mother all around me,” says Nimmy. “This is my way of keeping them and their legacy alive.”