One of New Yorks well-known chefs,Jehangir Mehta talks about his switch from desserts to savouries and why he serves graffiti for a meal.
Food,says Jehangir Mehta,is incidental to his life. I have a passion for business and love to work with my hands. If I hadnt become a chef,I would have been someone creative,but always an entrepreneur. As the New York-based chef deftly works the kitchen mixing,tossing,scooping it seems both easy and difficult to believe him. He is,after all,known for innovation for serving tomatoes and celery in a dessert of fennel sorbet,preparing a tart with tapioca and salted caramel,or rustling up an unimaginable licorice panna cotta with star anise and orange. But then,Mehta is also known for turning new businesses into successful enterprises,be it his mentor Didier Virots restaurants Compass,Virot and Aix or his event management company Partistry and his eateries Graffiti and Mehtaphor.
A conversation with the 40-year-old at the recently-concluded Taste of Mumbai event,however,reveals that his laurels,in fact,rest on a pile of contradictions. For one,he has an almost Ayurvedic approach towards the food he prepares,in strong contrast with the Zoroastrian cuisine he grew up on. During the summers I spent as a child in Mumbai,my grandfather would insist that I crack open the nut at the core of a mango and eat the bitter seed. It was supposed to balance out the heat that over-consumption of the fruit induces in the body. His interest in the effect food has on the body has shaped both my career as a chef and my philosophy towards the meals I serve, he says.
His food,therefore,is often put together keeping in mind that it should be healthy and wholesome. One can sample it in his signature pizza where tomato sauce is replaced by hummus and cheese by wasabi. Zucchini works as a topping and the crunchy base is made using puff pastry dough instead of refined flour. The salsa sauce he serves with shrimps,is prepared using moong and dikon,a Japanese radish.
This quirky sense of food has made Mehta one of the few Indian-origin chefs overseas who are not in the business of kebabs and curries. He attributes this to his training as a pastry chef in French restaurants in the US. After attending a culinary school in Mumbai,I did not work here at all. I went to The Culinary Institute of America in New York in 1993. A year into my career,I became a pastry chef,and it further distanced me from savouries, he says.
Working with some of the most reputed NYC restaurants,including Jean-Georges,Union Pacific,and Virots signature eateries,Mehta soon earned recognition. In 2001,at Virots Aix,he served an avant garde platter where his desserts could be confused for salads. The reception was extreme critics either hated or loved it but no one disputed that Mehtas creations were original.
This inspiration to push the envelope came from his dislike for anything too sweet. But what sealed his interest in pastry was his inclination for form and structure. In a regular kitchen,the napkins will be lying unkempt in a basket but in a pastry kitchen,they will always be folded and ready for use. The cooking is also very scientific if I overcook a cake,it is bound to taste bad. But a slightly charred chicken can be concealed in a gravy, says the man who was a runner-up at The Next Iron Chef reality show in 2009.
Yet,when the time came,Mehta traded his oven for the skillet. It started with his popular programme under Partistry,Candy Camp in 2003,which introduced children between four and 14 to cooking. It soon evolved into catering. We started with childrens parties,but it would not have worked if we only served desserts. So I changed my style and so did my assistant of 15 years. And now I find savouries more satiating, Mehta says. He launched the 20-seater Graffiti in New York in 2007 working on his book Mantra: The Rules of Indulgence alongside. It offered a closure for my stint with desserts, he says.
Despite his training in French cuisine and his background in pastry,there is an unmistakable hint of Indian,especially Zoroastrian cuisine,in Mehtas food. A strawberry ice-cream is spiced with pepper and dumplings come with sev and chutney,like a chaat. We often describe our food as a white lady in a sari. The fun is in tweaking the recipes just enough to leave the guest guessing, he says.
Mehta will experiment further with his roots in his third soon-to-be-launched 14-cover NYC eatery,Graffiti Me. The Zoroastrian mutton dhansak,usually prepared with lentils and trotters,will be made with pork ribs,for instance. This unique language of food finds expression in his restaurants names. I chose to call them Graffiti because,as an art form,it is personal and cannot be copied. Similarly,the food we serve stems from my experiences,which no one else can have had.