Chef Sriram Aylur, the man in charge at the Taj’s Quilon, in London’s West End, knows a thing or two about how attached people get to their favourite foods. “We’ve had this very traditional Mangalorean chicken curry on our dish since day one. I was bored of making it, so one time, I got rid of it from the menu,” he says. The outrage that followed was something he will never forget. “There was one regular customer who had recently moved to the US. He came to the restaurant while on a visit back and without looking at the menu, ordered the dish. When he was informed that I had removed it from the menu, he said, ‘Tell Sriram, that I’m now in the US, where we sue over everything. So if the curry is not back on the menu, he’ll be getting a notice from my lawyer.’” Aylur laughs as he recalls this, “For me, this connection that people make between certain dishes and the restaurant, is very important. It means that whenever they think of the dish, they will think of us. So even if I’m no longer there, this is what will keep people coming back to the restaurant, because the place will become bigger than any person working there.”
Aylur, who also oversees London’s Bombay Brasserie, is currently in India and has collaborated with Chef Srijith Gopinathan of Taj Campton Place, San Francisco, to create a gastronomic extravaganza, featuring a four course meal. The pop-up, which was held in the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai from March 20 to 22, will be held in Varq at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi from March 28 to 30. For both chefs the emotions that their food evokes in patrons is what matters the most. Gopinathan says, “That’s why I say that in my restaurant don’t expect ‘Indian’ Indian food. What I do is make food that is different but which, when you eat it, reminds you of something you might have eaten before.”
The two chefs are recognised around the world for the finesse of their food and have both been honoured by the Michelin guide. Aylur, whose father had a catering business in Mumbai, had originally not intended to be in the food business at all. “I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer,” he says, “I had been helping my father out in his business and I was fed up of it.” But with some paternal coaxing, Aylur enrolled in the Institute for Hotel Management in Hyderabad. He joined the Taj group in 1989, going on to conceive and set up Karavalli Restaurant at the Taj Gateway in Bangalore before finally heading to London to open Quilon. “I was fascinated by the idea of staying true to ethnic cuisine while experimenting with different ingredients,” he says. Today, Quilon is known for its happy mix of traditional items like Mangalore chicken and more contemporary dishes such as Seafood Moilee. This balance between the comfortably familiar and the boundary-pushing earned Quilon a Michelin star in 2008, which it has retained ever since.
Gopinathan too had different plans originally. “Like most Indian parents, mine wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer, but that didn’t work out, so I took up hotel management. I learned cooking like every other student, but I began to enjoy it more and more until eventually, I realised that this was what I wanted to do.” He was appointed executive chef to the Taj Campton Place in 2008 and combined traditional south Indian flavours from his childhood with classical European cooking to create his own unique culinary style with dishes such as his signature Spice Pot and lobster cooked with coconut curry sauce. Under his guidance the Campton Place Restaurant earned the Michelin star six years in a row, culminating in two stars awarded in 2016.
According to Gopinathan, it was easy for him and Aylur to collaborate because both bring similar ideas to the food they cook. “The integrity of the core ingredient — be it the heart of palm or lobster or sugarsnap peas — is very important and we don’t use too much spice to mask the taste,” says Gopinathan.
Thanks to their Kerala roots, for both chefs coconut is a key ingredient and one that they have used in multiple ways. “For a long time, coconut was considered bad because of its fat content and now, it is being celebrated for the same reason,” says Aylur, “The fact is that we in India should have done some research and documentation, because so much of our food and our ingredients go unrecognised. We have not acknowledged the potential of Indian cuisine. Why do you think France is know for fine cuisine or olive oil seen as a ‘healthy’ oil? It’s not accidental; people and governments have worked hard to make that happen and we can do that too. Our food is our greatest soft power.”