Chef Alfred Prasad is a culinary icon, having won his first Michelin star in London at age 29 and retaining the honour for 13 years thereafter. He now takes charge of the Oberoi Delhi’s new Indian restaurant, Omya, An interview with the chef:
I’ve built Omya on my food philosophy — heritage, health, happiness. We’ll be true to our heritage with authentic flavours. Food must be about wellness, seasonality, rationality, to eat according to what grows when, and what our bodies demand. India invented food science. Our grandparents had food remedies for ailments. Today, ayurveda and yoga are buzzwords internationally — Starbucks does a turmeric latte. I want to bring those elements home.
At Omya, I retain authenticity — that doesn’t mean the cuisine must be heavy. I make dishes lighter. One example is the Barra Chop. In a typical restaurant, that would be a whole lot of meat and a miserly salad at best. But I make it lighter, doing pomegranate baby vegetables, avocado, which looks at provenance, freshness. It’s about bringing together a lighter, healthier meal.
It’s so easy to do a main course Murg Makhni with just five or six pieces of tikka and the sauce. But I said, no, let me lighten it — so, it’s three pieces of tikka but I do a khurchan with crunch and the freshness of peppers and onions.
And, of course, happiness is at the core of hospitality. The reason people dine out is to feel special. We make that happen. That’s central to our beliefs, at Omya and the Oberoi.
Omya’s near Indian Accent, which began modern Indian cuisine here. What will the dynamics be?
I’m not concerned about any outside force as long as we focus on our belief system and please our clientele. Hopefully, we’ll get the recognition we deserve, but I’m mindful that all the accolades in London aside, in Delhi, I’m starting from zero. Secondly, I know Indian Accent’s Chef Manish (Mehrotra) really well. I’m very pleased for him. He’s had an uphill struggle. It has not come easy to him. But for me, Omya is a priority and I want diners to really enjoy this place. It’s great to have this homecoming when Indian food, having plateau-ed for so many years, is reinventing itself.
Tell us about your journey to getting — and retaining — a Michelin star for 13 years.
Well, in 1999, when I left India’s shores at 26, I’d only been to hotel school where we’d heard of Michelin stars. We were aware of chefs like Marco Pierre White, Michelle Roux Sr and Gordon Ramsay. Not for once did I think I’d be sharing that same platform three years later. In England, my first job was a shock. I was told to tone down spices, add more cream, more coconut milk. That wasn’t food I identified with. I moved in 2001 to Tamarind, which was true to its roots. By 2002, I got my first Michelin star.
Nobody knows when a Michelin inspector comes by. It could be a single, casually-dressed gentleman, who’d dine, pay and leave. It could be a smartly-dressed table of four. It could even be a family with a kid. Michelin’s total anonymity makes it the Oscars of the hospitality industry. The Michelin star was a huge surprise. It meant the world to me. But it’s about consistently creating great food and experiences.
Abroad, you’ve tackled food wastage. How will that work in a five-star environment in India, where surplus food is normally thrown away?
In London, I work for a small charity called Food Cycle. They persuaded supermarkets to put aside surplus fruit and vegetables. They collect this, organise free basic kitchens in local council-owned buildings or schools and cook these ingredients for the homeless. I was struck by their motto — ‘food waste and food poverty should not coexist’. One half of the city throws away so much good food; the other half doesn’t have one square meal. I’ve mentioned this to Chairman PRS Oberoi. They do social enterprises like the SOS Villages. I shared my experiences with Food Cycle, Action Against Hunger, and so on. The Chairman promised to look into it. The first step is to create awareness about not wasting food when people are going hungry.