Jazz Bistro

DINE and Destinations - - COSMOPOLITAN CUISINE -

He­mant Bhag­wani has el­e­vated In­dian cui­sine in Toronto. His pop­u­lar Amaya restau­rants were founded in 2007, and his sauces and naan breads are renowned. “A beau­ti­ful girl does not need a lot of make up,” he says. “If you have beau­ti­ful in­gre­di­ents, you don’t need to do too much with them.” Whether in busi­ness or on the menu, it’s about al­ways try­ing some­thing new, but “the key must al­ways be good qual­ity in­gre­di­ents. That has to be the base of ev­ery­thing.”

Adam Wax­man: How do you de­fine In­dian cui­sine?

HB: Flavour and colour. In­dian is as high as French in terms of flavour pro­file, and there is such di­ver­sity from north to south. South In­dian dishes are based more on co­conut milk or mus­tard seeds and curry leaves, while North In­dian is more tan­doori dishes. It’s not just about curry. In­dian cui­sine is more than just but­ter chicken and tikka masala. The flavours from south­ern Goa or Bengal are be­com­ing more pop­u­lar. Peo­ple are be­com­ing more ex­per­i­men­tal, and that is good. Tan­doori food, our bar­beque, is de­li­cious. It is not just about the food though, what we are try­ing to put for­ward is our cul­ture, our her­itage.

AW: What dis­tin­guishes Amaya?

HB: I want to keep it sim­ple: good food is good busi­ness. I’m not a fan of buf­fets where food sits and gets de­hy­drated. For me, pre­sen­ta­tion is im­por­tant, how it looks on the plate, and then pair­ing it with wine or beer. When you walk into my restau­rants they do not look like a tem­ple, they are main­stream and com­fort­able.

It is about in­no­va­tion and in­ven­tion. I base my menu on the sea­sons and on what is lo­cally avail­able. When fid­dle­head is avail­able, I would rather use that than okra. In­stead of us­ing reg­u­lar toma­toes I use green and white heir­loom toma­toes. Many guests at Amaya who have trav­eled to In­dia tell me they get bet­ter food at Amaya than in In­dia. While that’s a great com­pli­ment, I re­al­ize that the kinds of in­gre­di­ents we get lo­cally, I don’t think we could get in In­dia, and that is where the dif­fer­ence lies. I stay true to the flavours, the tra­di­tions and the au­then­tic­ity of the food. I’m not shy to in­no­vate, but in the end, it’s how you present it on the ta­ble.

AW: Your menu con­cepts are unique. Is this a re­flec­tion of your taste or your vi­sion?

HB: When I first came to Toronto, I felt In­dian cui­sine was not rep­re­sented well, and I thought that I would like to be a part of the change. My first few restau­rants were very tough. Ini­tially when I opened in Toronto, Burling­ton and Oakville, I failed mis­er­ably, but I al­ways had pas­sion and am­bi­tion for change, and when Amaya hap­pened I didn’t want to stop. Slowly peo­ple started know­ing Amaya and ap­pre­ci­at­ing the food.

Trav­el­ing was very im­por­tant for me. I trav­eled a fair bit, to see not just In­dian restau­rants, but what other restau­rants were do­ing around the world. I wanted to bring a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing into my own restau­rant, and give that ex­pe­ri­ence. I sim­pli­fied the menu, made it more ac­ces­si­ble, added tast­ing menus, and kept it mod­ern. Each dish can be an event. The servers have the op­por­tu­nity to come in and do the­atre at the ta­ble. This is the tra­di­tional way. Order Biryani (mixed rice dish), and the waiter cuts a dough-cov­ered clay pot to re­lease a wave of aro­mas from within. It’s a more in­ter­ac­tive way of din­ing. When or­der­ing kulfi (In­dian ice cream), we use liq­uid ni­tro­gen and make it at the ta­ble. Through molec­u­lar gas­tron­omy we add saf­fron car­damom caviar to it. It is still tra­di­tional, but the way it is pre­sented is much more mod­ern.

AW: What does the fu­ture hold for Amaya?

HB: We have 16 Amaya restau­rants now. I will keep ex­pand­ing in quick ser­vice, but I think I have found a way of bring­ing Amaya food to ev­ery­body’s home. Avail­able soon will be our ready-to-eat meals. There is ro­mance in cook­ing Amaya food at home. That is im­por­tant to me. We also opened Marathi restau­rant at Toronto Pear­son In­ter­na­tional Air­port, Ter­mi­nal 1, of­fer­ing In­dian “street food.” The high­est sell­ing item there is our naanini, an off­shoot of the panini, stuffed with chicken tikka masala. Peo­ple thought I was crazy when I started mak­ing those, but now they are to­tally catch­ing on. I’m proud that we’ve been able to spread In­dian cui­sine. I was in­spired by other peo­ple, and I’m hop­ing some peo­ple will be in­spired by Amaya.

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