The Chef Gordon Ramsay Described as the ‘Antonio Banderas of Cooking’ On Maiden Visit to the Land of His Great-Grandfather
HE HAS been called the “Antonio Banderas of cooking” by Gordon Ramsay; he has dissed Jamie Oliver for tweeting a paella recipe with chicken and chorizo sausages (an unholy combination for Spaniards who love their national dish); he has held responsible positions in the kitchens of Ferran Adria, Marco Pierre White and Jason Atherton.
Omar Allibhoy has done all this, and more, but he’s most famous for being the head chef and co-owner of Tapas Revolution, a young chain of seven sleek yet no-frills restaurants serving Spain’s celebrated bar snacks, and piling up critical acclaim, to the high-spending and highly competitive English market since 2010.
What not many know about him, though, are his Indian roots. In Delhi for a tapas evening at Pluck, the Contemporary European and Indian Dining restaurant at Pullman, New Delhi Aerocity, Allibhoy said his Spanish great-grandfather used to be in the leather business with a man based out of Mumbai. His business kept taking him to Mumbai, till one day his daughter, Allibhoy’s grandmother, who’s now 94, also wanted to go along with him.
That was 75 years ago, when she was 19. On that eventful visit, she met Allibhoy’s grandfather, the son of her father’s business associate and a follower of the Ismaili sect like the rest of his family. They kept corresponding with each other after she returned home and two years later, he proposed to her. That was how Allibhoy’s grandfather came to Madrid — he had wanted to settle down in London with his wife, but he found the city’s weather to be too inhospitable for them to live happily ever after, so the couple moved to Allibhoy’s grandmother’s home city.
His grandfather became the first Ismaili to settle down in Spain; his father, a world-travelled coffee trader, is also a proud Ismaili. And it is this heritage that Allibhoy got to relive in parts (and even visit his ancestral home on Malabar Hill) in the two and half days he spent in Mumbai before coming to Delhi. His deep Indian roots notwithstanding, Allibhoy hasn’t been to India before — “I kept postponing my trip to India because I wanted to visit different cities and spend a lot of time here,” but when his grandfather passed away in December, he decided to come over, even if it was for five days.
I asked Allibhoy what made him become a cook. He said he “never wanted to do anything else”. He started out by wanting to become a baker — he was selling cakes and tarts from his backyard during his summer breaks since he was eight years old — but then, as he puts it dramatically, he was “drawn to the fire”. Remembering his youth, Allibhoy says he belongs to a family and a generation that expected young people to go to university after school, but he chose instead to join the restaurant business from the lowest rung of the ladder — as a kitchen porter in a busy neighbourhood eatery named Chicago Downtown Pizza.
From there he got inducted into the opening team of one of Ferran Adria’s shortlived restaurants in a Madrid hotel. It was the first restaurant to open in a hotel in Spain, which was naturally a departure from the country’s gastronomic tradition, so naturally, it upset foodies. For Allibhoy, though, it was an opportunity to study the master’s techniques and he must have done well, for Adria selected him to the team that was to set up another new restaurant. After spending three years in Ferran Adria’s shadow, Allibhoy moved to London with Michelin-star dreams and a desire to master the English language.
His London sojourn was to last for as long as it took for him to became comfortable with the language, but as he puts it, he “fell in love with the city and with the woman who became my wife” (they are divorced now). It was also in London, while working at Maze, a restaurant run by Gordon Ramsay’s acolyte, Jason Atherton, he discovered that the city, which is universally regarded as one of the world’s most vibrant restaurant capitals, didn’t have many Spanish eateries. So, when he was all of 24, he took over a distressed eatery at Notting Hill, turned it into a tapas restaurant named El Pirata de Tapas (The Pirates of Tapas), got rave reviews and the c ash registers kept ringing, and it reached the finals in the Spanish category of Ramsay’s Channel 4 series, Gordon’s Best Restaurants. El Pirata lost to a restaurant named Fino — Allibhoy blames it on the service — but it made him a star and got a serious investor interested in him.
Allibhoy wanted to open a fine-dining restaurant, but Britain was still reeling under the impact of the economic meltdown, which had caused many a Michelin-starred restaurant to shut down. The investor was interested only in a tapas restaurant that could be replicated across Britain. That was how Tapas Revolution was born, but not without some adventure. On a whim, Allibhoy drew a ‘T’ (for tapas) on the map of England and headed off on a 1,500-mile motorbike journey across all the places covered by the lines. Allibhoy and his travelling companion cooked Spanish food at each of the pit stops — restaurants, schools, people’s homes, and so on — to show that it is possible to cook his country’s cuisine “at any place at any hour of the day”.
This made him famous even back home in Spain, but Allibhoy acquired the kind of cult following he has only after the phenomenal success of Tapas Revolution, which he launched at Westfield Shepherd’s Bush in 2010 (today, he has seven outlets and two more are to open this year). The Tapas Revolution launch was followed by a cookbook with the same title, and then came Spanish Made Simple in 2016, which confirmed Allibhoy’s status as the “crusader for Spanish food and culture”. Ferran Adria has put Spain on the world map of cutting-edge gastronomy; Allibhoy has awakened the world to the simple, joyful world of tapas, where the culture is that of eating from shared plates in the spirit of friendship and camaraderie.
The Tapas Revolution menu has 28 items, of which 21 are special because they are classics, so Allibhoy changes only a quarter of his menu thrice in a year to keep out ingredients that are not in season. And how would he like to be judged? By the quality of his croquettes, he says, without blinking an eyelid. Unlike the croquettes we are accustomed to, Spanish croquetas are delicately made with bechamel sauce, and not mashed potatoes, which elevates it to a fine art governed by the `principles of science.
In Delhi, the highlights of Allibhoy’s menu were black cod carpaccio served with a mango vinaigrette and avocado puree, and pan-fried black cod loin with Jerusalem artichoke puree, smoked pancetta and a confit of leeks. He was worried that the diners here might find his tapas too bland to be worthy of their time and taste buds. India, as Allibhoy had once famously said, is the land of 21 spices, but Indians increasingly are not letting themselves be held back by their past reputation. As they explore newer frontiers of food, Omar Allibhoy is a name that will certainly be heard more often in the land of his great-grandfather.