TRAVEL AS MUSE
WITH TRAVEL AND MUSIC AS TWIN INSPIRATIONS, CHEF VINEET BHATIA'S MENU IS LIKE AN ORCHESTRA PLAYING A BALLAD WITH FOOD AS A SYMPHONY OF TASTE AND TEXTURE
FIVE JOURNEYS THAT HAVE INSPIRED THE EVOLUTION OF TASTE FOR CHEF VINEET BHATIA
As a child, I was always the shortest, smallest, youngest; I got bullied, hit. But I learnt to fight. The kitchen became my battleground and food a form of expression. It was my scope for freedom; my space.'' Food as battle cry, passion and muse, globally acclaimed, London-based, Mumbai-born Vineet Bhatia is a chef and food impresario. The journey of a boy who dreamed of becoming a pilot but ended up piloting the cause of Indian food overseas is one of grit, gruelling hard work and luck, by his own admission. But the aggressive trajectory of his success belies the soft-spoken, diminutive man wearing a gentle smile, burgundy denims, printed jacket and a bowler hat.
It’s easy to forget that Bhatia is the first Indian chef-restaurateur to receive the coveted Michelin star in 2001; just one of the many epaulettes he wears ever so lightly. Always one for turning things on its head and taking risks, he shut down his flagship restaurant, Rasoi, almost 12 years after it opened in 2004. The idea, to re-launch it as Vineet Bhatia London. With 12 restaurants around the globe and a name that is a brand to reckon with, Bhatia could well rest on his laurels. "I am almost 50, I could step back and say I have done 32 years of hard work. Do I need to start afresh? Do I need to pull in 18 hours again? I don’t need to. But I want to make a statement," he says.
Thinking out of the box
“When I opened Zaika in 1999, I was the first Indian chef to do a tasting menu. People laughed at the idea of doing five courses of Indian khana, paired with wine. When I started plating Indian food in London, I did it because I had to survive. I could not call my rogan josh, a rogan josh, so I used to call it slow-cooked shank of lamb with Kashmiri spices to make it sound delectable; chicken tikka became morsels of chicken in a buttery tomato sauce, scented with kasuri methi.
It's not gimmickry he insists. “When your classic butter chicken is pitted against the butter chicken made by Indian restaurants in London, which is deep fried chicken in a yellow sludge, and it gets lapped up willingly, you have no choice but to improvise. It's the same when your gajar ka halwa is told off, because it’s not deemed authentic, you write it up as slow cooked carrots with cardamom and pistachios.”
When he left India in 1993, he insists he was very classical. No plating. Just typical fare—kebab with some lachcha pyaaz sprinkled with nimbu. “It was perfectly fine. but when I was repeatedly rapped on my knuckles for doing it the right way, I realised that if I had to change them rather than submit to the tyranny of the majority, I'd do it my way."
Naturally, the way Bhatia was cooking in 1993 was poles apart from the food he's presenting now. “London is the centre of the world in many ways, in food terms. So when you want to showcase an Indian menu with
15 courses, it takes a thought process. For two and a half hours, you have to remain seated and be entertained, plate after plate. And each time there has to be a wow factor.”
It isn't just about the food anymore; it is the restaurant; it's the staff, the service sequence, crockery, and every little detail matters. "For example, the crockery on which I serve my 15 courses costs me around £300 per person. We buy unique pieces. We have a new plate, which is a half plate; it’s a broken plate. We serve a wild mushroom momo with a red pepper chutney, garlic raita, porcini powder and makhni ice cream." Why broken? "I just wanted to add something dramatic flair. Fifteen courses on the same plate is boring. Suddenly this comes in the seventh course, and piques your interest.”
A menu is a composition; a symphony of flavours, he says. It has to have highs. It has to have lows. The first six courses are childhood snacks. You have pav bhaji and aloo chat, but they are not served in the way that you are used to eating them. Pav bhaji is basically a pao stuffed with the bhaji with butter, flavoured with pav bhaji masala, served on the side. Aloo chat comprises finely cut chips of potatoes, shaped into a ball, and deep fried to a warm crisp. The chutney is injected inside, and a small pip inserted, which when pressed, spurts out yogurt. With each bite, the yogurt and the chutney mixes seamlessly inside the mouth in a burst of varying textures and flavours. Revolutionising Indian food in Britain, while nurturing its core values, has become a Bhatia imprimatur now. From the way it is presented to the way it is experienced, is a carefully evolved strategy of surprise and enterprise.
Travel is key to an evolved cuisine
“Fusion is a word I used to detest. Going back 15-20 years, fusion was the confusion. But when you start travelling, you realise there is a lot more to fusion. It is an artful blend; an internal jugalbandi in many ways. But you have to respect ingredients, techniques, the usage, and how you can do it. For instance, if you take foie gras, basically liver, and mix it with kadhai masala, and serve it on a bed of wild mushroom naan, it’s still very much Indian. The foie gras protein may not be Indian, but the spices are. If we add kaleji to kadhai masala and toss it together, the flavours are incorporated. But with foie gras, you can't do that because it is full of fat and has a subtle flavour.” That comes with an understanding of the cuisine, and style of cooking. “So, we crush the foie gras with spices, cook it in the same style as the kaleji but we don’t toss it for 5-10 minute, to retain the delicacy. You need to serve it on something that can absorb the fat, so we serve it on a bed of wild mushroom (gucchi or Kash-
miri morels) naan flavoured with truffle oil. Is that fusion, I am not sure, but it’s very much Indian. It is progressive. That’s what my food is: progressive evolved Indian.”
The idea is to evolve a cuisine internally within its own ingredients and boundaries, but when you go overseas, you have various proteins that are not indigenous to India. But since you feed a different audience, you utilise local products. “When we were traveling through Venezuela, we came across black corn. We did our own dish, with a moilee sauce, cooked lightly as in Kerala, but added a puree of black corn so the sauce turned black; when you eat it with your eyes closed, it is moilee in the mouth, but when you open your eyes, the moilee is gone.”
Whether it is the kebab, biryani or samosa, none is Indian in origin, but has been adapted over the years. Travel blurs boundaries and seeps into food and flavours. Nobu Matsuhisa’s food is a perfect fusion of Japanese and Peruvian, but he is a master at it. Similarly LA-based John Shaw, of Steak and Whisky, has perfected the blend of Vietnamese and French. I live overseas but still maintain traditional Indian into which I incorporate imported techniques, flavours and proteins. That’s why my food is not heavy; you can have multiple courses.
Since neither of his sons, Varaul, 19 or Ronit, 17, has shown any interest in the food business, does he worry about his legacy? “The legacy will be through our books, our TV shows and eventually through youtube,” he says. Both he and wife Rashima launched their second book, My Sweet Kitchen, in Paris in November last year. “It was Rashima’s idea to do a book, because it will all be lost otherwise. Sadly, Indians don’t share, and I love to teach. Naturally, future plans include starting a cooking school: “We want to start a six month course for junior chefs who know the basics, but need the finesse of a finishing school. Out of these 20 children, we want to take in five from the streets, who will be taught free.” This is his way of paying it forward.
In his typical easy going, salt of the earth manner, he maintains: “Nobody is born a cook; you become one. I became a cook purely by error, but I was very lucky that I got into a restaurant that has worked for me. I slogged my butt off, but there are people who are working a lot harder than I do, but don’t get recognised. I am just lucky.”
the private room, wittet, at vineet bhatia london
the chef with wife rashima and sons, ronit and varaul (extreme right) on holiday in japan