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.

Plan­ning ahead

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

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