Chef Interviews

FOOD HALL OF FAME: Eight Chefs Who Have Defined All That’s Good & New About Indian Cuisine

Posted: September 28, 2014 at 5:14 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

THOSE of us who remember the Emergency days (1975-77), may find it hard to forget the slogan that every bus had to mandatorily carry: ‘India is on the move’. Today, the slogan can be re-written to state a universally acknowledged fact: ‘Indian cuisine is on the move’.

We owe it to three generations of chefs, starting with the venerable Imtiaz Qureshi, who at age 85 never misses a day at the kitchens of the ITC Grand Maratha in Mumbai. By bringing the flavours and spices of Awadhi dum cooking into the national repertoire, Qureshi and his extended family liberated diners across India from the stranglehold of butter chicken and paneer makhni, and exposed them to flavourful alternatives. In the same way, Urbano de Rego of the Taj Hotels brought home-style Goan food into the national mainstream and created dishes such as red snapper fillets rolled in prawn mince, tiger prawns in coriander sauce (a favourite of Ratan Tata and Salman Khan!) and the much-copied balchao naan.

Chef Rego’s old colleague, Hemant Oberoi (Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s favourite), gave India three new cuisine concepts — CalIndian (Indian cooking with Californian influences, so we got a pizza with a naan base and makhni sauce replaced tomato puree); Masala Art (which introduced phulka trolleys and interactive cooking); and Varq (the country’s first Modern Indian restaurant, which brought home the nouvelle cuisine presentation styles perfected by Indian chefs in the U.K., such as Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar and Vivek Singh).

Oberoi’s counterpart in ITC Hotels, Manjit Gill, has raised the consciousness of chefs around the country by introducing them to ideas such as locally sourcing organic ingredients, Slow Food (an old Indian tradition that was being junked by hotels for the sake of convenience and saving gas), and incorporating the principles of ayurveda into everyday food — in a way, like Jamie Oliver, Gill is passionate about making India eat healthy.

Representative of the next generation of innovators are two chefs across the country’s classical north-south divide who have turned conventional wisdom on its head. As a result of persistent research and extensive travels, Praveen Anand of Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers, Chennai, has brought the south’s robust tradition of non-vegetarian cooking into national limelight and destroyed forever the northern myth that ‘South Indian’ cuisine doesn’t extend beyond idli-dosa-vada-sambhar. Likewise, Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent has demolished another persistent myth — that Indian food can never be presented in a manner that can appeal to the eye and satisfy the palate. He has not only taken presentation to the level of art, but also mixed and matched flavours to cater to the Global Indian palate (who could have dared to sex up galawat kababs with foie gras?).

And the new generation is getting edgier with its experimentation. Take Manu Chandra of Monkey Bar. Having first wowed Bangalore with his Mediterranean fine-dining repertoire, Chandra has completely turned around gastropub cuisine by enlivening it with India influences, without playing with the integrity of taste. Imagine having Eggs Benedict with sarson da saag! Indian cuisine is not only on the move, but it’s going places, and how!

MANISH MEHROTRA, Indian Accent, New Delhi

Winning Edge: He has shown how you can re-invent a cuisine while retaining the basics

FOOD is a business Manish Mehrotra’s family understands well, although his father ran an Hindustan Petroleum vend. His uncles own traditional halwai shops in Bihar  and his elder brother runs a chain of bakery and confectionary shops in places as different culturally as Dwarka in New Delhi and Lucknow, Patna and Ranchi. He could have taken charge of the petrol vend or joined his brother, and lived a predictable life, but Mehrotra chose to be the master of his own destiny.

He grew up in a no-onion, no-garlic kind of strictly vegetarian family. He was caricatured for being a Bihari when he first moved to Delhi as a Class XI student at the New Era Public School. He trained under the master of Thai cuisine, Ananda Solomon, in Mumbai. He failed in the trade test at an upcoming ITC hotel in Delhi before finding a job at the Oriental Octopus in the Habitat Centre, where his khao suey had a loyal fan following, which included Gursharan Kaur, the former prime minister’s wife, and India’s former foreign secretary and ambassador the U.S., Nirupama Rao.

Following the stupendous success of India Accent, the restaurant he has single-mindedly steered, Mehrotra today is acknowledged across the world as one of the foremost exponents of the new wave of ‘Inventive Indian’ cuisine, the creator of the foie gras galawat kabab and Chilean spare ribs with meetha achar, and the man who has gentrified such everyday edibles such as the poor man’s sattu (roasted Bengal gram flour) and arbi (colocasia). Mehrotra may have gone to a Hindi-medium school, but he had a galaxy of Michelin stars listening to him in rapt attention when he spoke at the Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants gala in Singapore in February this year. He’s the new global face of Indian gastronomy.

HEMANT OBEROI, Grand Corporate Chef, Taj Mahal Palace & Towers, Mumbai

Winning Edge: The man who gave us naaza, phulka trolley and Modern Indian cuisine

ONE OF the regrettable mistakes The Oberoi group made was not to hire Hemant Oberoi. He was asked to tweak his surname because there could only be one Oberoi in the group. Ironically, a hospitality industry career wasn’t his first choice.

A railway station superintendent’s son from Ferozepur, Punjab, where he saw the 1965 War and played cricket with Mohinder and Surinder Amarnath, Oberoi joined the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa (New Delhi), after trying unsuccessfully to clear the pre-medical test and get into the armed forces (he got through the NDA entrance exam, but fell ill at the time of the final selection). His family was distraught when he packed his bags for Pusa. “How will I ever find a girl for you?” his grandmother lamented.

That has been the least of Oberoi’s worries as he progressed in a crowded career studded with inventions such as the Naaza (the naan pizza) and meals that he prepared for the high and mighty. From Prince Charles and Henry Kissinger in his early days in Muscat, to Bill Clinton, who ate his first dahi-vada from the hands of Oberoi, and Parvez Musharraf, who got to sample a version of Baked Alaska created by the extraordinary chef without whom Atal Bihari Vajpayee would travel nowhere.

You can’t imagine an Ambani party without food served by Oberoi — his last big catering assignment for the family was for Nita Ambani’s 50th birthday bash at Udaipur — and when the multiple Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse invited 172 chefs from around the world for the silver jubilee celebration of his Monte Carlo restaurant, Oberoi was the only one from India.

Oberoi’s lasting contributions, though, will remain the two Delhi restaurants that bear his creative stamp — Masala Art, where he introduced ganne ka ras and phulka trolleys, and Varq, which opened a little before Indian Accent, and introduced diners to the incomparable quintet: Palak Patta Chaat, Varqui Crab, Haleem ke Kabab, Martaban Meat and Coffee Ragulla Tiramisu.

MANJIT GILL, Corporate Chef, ITC Hotels

WINNING EDGE: Bringing global influences (Slow Food) and ayurveda to the same table

WHEN THE Ministry of Tourism was brainstorming on the first-ever Culinary Survey of India, Manjit Gill was the first person it turned for advice outside the walls of Parivahan Bhawan. Gill presides over a culinary empire of 109 restaurants (and counting!), including the top-grossing Bukhara, which has just completed its 35th birthday celebrations, and his most recent ode to the country’s tradition of vegetarian cooking, Royal Vega at the ITC Grand Chola in Chennai. Gill also manages to hold on to three personal records. He’s the youngest person ever to become the executive chef of a major five-star hotel in the country (ITC Maurya, at age 28 in 1981). He was the first professional chef to appear in television shows (1982-83). And, unusual for a chef, he has remained a steadfast vegetarian out of choice.

“The world sees Punjabis as hearty consumers of chicken and mutton, but we are not everyday meat eaters,” says the affable Amritsar-born chef, who attributes his love for cooking to his mother, Dalip Kaur, after whom he has named a trophy awarded every year to the best graduating food production student at his alma mater, Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa (New Delhi). It was his father, however, who encouraged Gill, an average student, to become a chef after reading a newspaper article on what was then an emerging career option.

Gill’s biggest contribution has been giving Indian cuisines their rightful place in five-star hotels, which used to consign them to basement restaurants and treat desi tandoorias and masalchis with utter contempt. It is under his leadership that ITC Hotels have become the torch-bearers for Indian cuisines. His passion to make the world discover the country’s culinary diversity has taken him from Slow Food powwows to meetings of the World Association of Chefs’ Societies (most recently in Oslo), an organisation he got Indian chefs affiliated to, and inspired him to write four books connecting the dots of ayurveda and linking them to wellness cuisine: Eating Wisely & Well; Fire / Water / Earth / Air / Ether; Secrets of Indian Gastronomy; and Indian Spa Cuisine. “I don’t create dishes, I discover them,” he says, acknowledging his debt to the country overflowing tables. Unsurprisingly, a conversation with him can start with recent neuroscience studies on the significance of eating with hands to the karma of gastronomy and why each meal should begin with a sweetmeat. Gill is truly the Rajguru of Indian Gastronomy.

PRAVEEN ANAND, Executive Chef, Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers, Chennai

WINNING EDGE: Breaking the long-lasting myth of the idli-dosa-vada-eating ‘South Indian’

FEW INDIANS have worked as exhaustively as Praveen Anand, guardian angel of the Dakshin restaurants, to document the rich culinary heritage and gastronomical traditions of the southern states. In the last 25 years that he has spent giving birth to and mothering Dakshin, which is the equivalent of Dum Pukht in the Indian fine-dining space created by ITC Hotels, Anand has collected an encyclopedia of recipes and cooking secrets of communities as different as the Shivali Brahmins of Udupi, the Rajus of Andhra Pradesh, the Chettiars and the Ravuthar Muslims of Tamil Nadu, and the Mappilas of Kerala. This intellectual diligence driven by a  hunger for greater knowledge has ensured that Dakshin, unlike Bukhara and even Dum Pukht, evolves constantly, refusing to get stuck in a time warp.

Hyderabad-born Anand, like many others featured in these pages, did not plan on becoming a chef. Immediately after school, he had got admission into a ‘Triple Maths’ honours course (Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Operations Research), but his desire to grow up outside the comfort zone of his home made him study hotel management at IHM-Chennai. He chose it over an aeronautical engineering course (also in Chennai) just because it got over in three years, compared with the five of the competing option! It may not have been the most rational career choice, but we should be thankful for such irrationality, for we wouldn’t have had a Chef Anand had he opted for aeronautical engineering!

It was a similar odd decision of Anand’s first executive chef, Uday Girme, who eventually migrated to New Zealand, that saw him being plucked from the Continental kitchen of the Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers in 1989 with the single-point agenda to set up a “South Indian non-vegetarian restaurant” within four months. Anand didn’t quite like it, but in Dakshin’s silver jubilee year, he seems to be loving it!

URBANO DO REGO, Goan Food Consultant, Taj Goa

WINNING EDGE: Taking Goan home cuisine to the world stage and inventing new classics

CHEF REGO, as he’s widely known, tragically made national news in 2008 as the grieving father of a budding chef gunned down in the Taj kitchens during the 26/11 terror strikes on Mumbai. For all his working life, though, Chef Rego has been famous as the man who took Goan cuisine to the world — he has cooked for every Indian prime minister since Indira Gandhi (her bete noir, Morarji Desai, being the only exception), he has fed both the Bushes (father and son), Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, Bill Gates and George Harrison, but his greatest moment was cooking with Hemant Oberoi for world leaders and captain of industry at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 2008.

Chef Rego wanted to be a professional footballer, playing for one of the Goan clubs, but a mid-field injury saw him being benched. His next stop in 1971 was the Taj in Mumbai; from there, in 1974, he moved to Taj Aguada, which was the country’s first beach resort. It was at Taj Aguada, and thereafter at the other Taj properties that came up in Goa, that Chef Rego established a robust tradition of preparing Goan cuisine with an international touch. His constant innovations in the kitchen led to the undying popularity of such classics as the camarao frito (semolina-coated prawns fried on skewers), filetes enroladas de peixe (red snapper fillets rolled in prawn mince), caranquejos recheados (stuffed crab), camarao tigre con cilantro (tiger prawns in coriander sauce — a favourite of Ratan Tata and Salman Khan!), the much-copied balchao naan and chicken jiri miri.

Classicists may quibble about the authenticity of these dishes, but Chef Rego was cooking for an international audience, which included the Shah of Iran, Margaret Thatcher, Pierre Trudeau, Mario Soares, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak and King Hussain of Jordan. He cannot be faulted for his research — as he loves to say it, he had even gone to Canacona in the state’s southernmost tip to research Goan Saraswat Brahmin cuisine — but he understood his clientele better.

IMTIAZ QURESHI, Master Chef, ITC Hotels

WINNING EDGE: Bringing the flavours of Awadh to an India OD’ing on butter chicken

NO OTHER Indian chef, who’s still active in the kitchen, can claim to have fed Jawaharlal Nehru, appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine, and gifted a dish, Kakori Kabab, which epitomises all that is fine and fanciful about Awadhi cuisine. M.F. Husain, whose love for food matched his passion for paint, hailed it as the “king of kababs” — and he was right.

For an unlettered man who was the fifth of 11 siblings born to a family of butchers who doubled as cooks in the shadow of the Chhota Imambara in Hussainabad, Lucknow, it has been a long and eventful journey. At 85, Qureshi, whose early memories go back to the time when he would accompany his father with mutton supplies for the army in the hope of getting a helping of custard or caramel pudding for his labour, is the unsurpassed doyen of Awadhi gastronomy.

A genial man with twinkling eyes, walrus moustache and tested hands, which he used in his youth to pin down his opponents in wrestling matches, Qureshi had no option but to take up the family profession. His paternal grandfather’s cousin was Kolkata’s Ahmad Chaampwala, his last name a tribute to his mastery over the dish that made him famous, and his maternal great-grandfather’s reshmi kababs evolved into the silken kakoris (and no, they were not made for any toothless nawab, for the town of Kakori, famous for its mangoes and zardosi work, never had a nawab!).

Qureshi had become a successful wedding caterer by the time Ajit Narain Haksar, ITC’s first Indian chairman who led the company’s expansion into the hotel business, spotted him at a party in Aurangabad, where ITC managed the Rama International. He also had a letter of offer from the Taj Coromandel in Chennai. Qureshi chose ITC Maurya because Delhi seemed far more exciting than Chennai. Qureshi was hired for the new hotel’s lobby-level fine-dining restaurant, Mayur, which eventually was shut to make way for Dum Pukht at the basement level. It was at Dum Pukht where Imtiaz attained everlasting fame and glory; today, his son-in-law, Ghulam Qureshi, presides over its kitchen.

MANU CHANDRA, Monkey Bar, Delhi and Bangalore

WINNING EDGE: Giving an Indian edge to global gastropub cuisine

WHEN Manu Chandra, driven by his ambition to become a chef, secured admission into the Welcomgroup Management Institute, Manipal (Karnataka), a top honcho of ITC Hotels, who knew his parents, took him aside, gave him coffee and said: “The only glamorous part of my job is the tie I am wearing.” With these words, Chandra was dissuaded from joining the hotel management school. He went to St Stephen’s College and studied for a Bachelor’s in History, but he did not abandon his dream. He started part-timing with Ritu Dalmia, another of the city’s ground-breaking chefs, when she was launching Latitude, her Asian cuisine restaurant at Khan Market, and then he went to the Culinary Institute of America.

On his return to home country, Chandra was discovered by AD Singh and asked to take charge of Olive Bar & Kitchen, Bangalore. But the man who wowed Bangalore with his Mediterranean cooking has earned his place in the history of India’s romance with new dining concepts as the chef-entrepreneur who gave gastropub cuisine a desi twist. Walk into Monkey Bar, New Delhi, for breakfast and you can ask for Eggs Faujpuri, a variant of Eggs Florentine with creamy sarson ka saag; with your drinks, you can treat yourself to ricotta and paneer kababs (a winsome combination) or the Tikki of Joy (Kolkata-style fish cutlets with kasundi mustard), or the Goan Chorizo Pao, or even the Kheema Bao and Shaami Sliders; and for lunch or dinner, you have the option of making a meal out of an Irani Berry Pulao or Madras Curry Chicken Pasta, Coorg Pandi (Pork) Curry, The Parsee Orderlies’ Mutton Curry, and Bengali Kosha Mangsho with a Kerala-style parotta glazed in the Awadhi way with saffron. After Manu Chandra, gastropub cuisine won’t be the same again.

KUNAL KAPUR, Executive Sous Chef, The Leela Ambience Hotel, Gurgaon

WINNING EDGE: Giving classics a contemporary twist

WHEN Kunal Kapur, the endearing (and enduring) of Masterchef India and author of A Chef in Every Home, was a kitchen trainee under the redoubtable Arvind Saraswat at the Taj Palace, New Delhi, he had the most unnerving experience on the day each member of his batch was to present a three-course meal for evaluation by their guru. An eager-beaver, who made a mark on his first day at IHM-Chandigarh by being the only student who could identify the spices that are common to every kitchen, Kapur was the first to present his three-course meal, starting with a dahi ka shorba, to Chef Saraswat. Kapur was expecting to earn brownie points for being the first, but for reasons he could not fathom, he only managed to send the master chef into paroxysms of anger. He had served the soup without a spoon!

The rookie chef who was driven to tears that day went on to work at some of the finest Indian restaurants of the Taj Group — the old Handi and Haveli in Delhi; Southern Spice at Taj Coromandel, Chennai; Karavalliat The Gateway Hotel, Bangalore; and at the Holiday Village, Goa, under the inimitable Urbano Rego. And he worked shoulder-to-shoulder with another fine yet under-rated master chef, Arun Tyagi, at Made in India at the Radisson Blu, Noida. It was this bundle of inspirations that Kapur brought to Diya at The Leela Ambience Hotel, Gurgaon, which has just completed five steady years.

And it was at Diya that Kapur perfected his brand of Modern Indian cuisine without the modernist drama of a Gaggan Anand or a Manish Mehrotra. Kapur’s style is classical with a contemporary twist, which expresses itself most interestingly in such creations as his multi-textural haleem kabab, or his grilled scallops served with the saalan of a baghare baigan, or the guddu kurma, where mutton shanks are cooked in a rich bone marrow gravy. His ‘Punjabi bruschetta’ — liver, kidney and diced mutton cooked in the tak-a-tak style, topped up with kachumbar salad, and served on toasted French bread — and the murgh malai shorba poured around a vol-au-vent island stuffed with murgh khichda have established him as the master of his unique style of presenting Indian cuisine in a way that appeals to contemporary sensibilities without taking the molecular gastronomy route.

This article first appeared in the eighth anniversary edition of Travel + Leisure India, which is circulated among all American Express Platinum Card holders. Copyright: Travel + Leisure India.