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.