“Phyanay bhaat is our answer to a good risotto. But we don’t eat it nor do we celebrate it.” That’s not a statement you hear every day. And you are not expecting that even from an accomplished chef. But then Priyam Chatterjee is not just another chef. The 31-year-old from Kolkata, who came into prominence after his stints as head chef at Rooh and Qla in the national capital, has just been awarded ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole’ by the government of France.
Chatterjee is the first Indian chef to get the honour. And this award is also a testament of how the gastronomic scene in India is exploding with Indian chefs winning hearts and minds of food lovers worldwide. Chatterjee is often credited with ushering Indian cuisine in a new direction, pushing the envelope of what is a highly regarded, but often dismissed, genre of food in its country of origin itself.
Known for his eclectic cooking style that honours French cuisine by revisiting the traditional Bengali dishes, if it were up to Chatterjee he would like the world to fall in love with other signature Bengali delicacies like Betki Maacher Paturi and Aloo Posto. Of course, with a dash of his own magic and twist.
The South Kolkata boy, who mostly grew up in a boarding school in hilly Kalimpong, never really aimed to become a chef. “I was hell-bent on joining the Army. But, yes, having born into a family of exceptional cooks, I think it ran in my blood. I have always been inclined towards art and I found food as my voice of expression,” says the young chef, who is currently honing his skills at a restaurant in France.
But why French cuisine? “Because it was the first cuisine that I learnt professionally”. He says he fell in love with French cooking from Day 1 and ever since has been “hooked”. It was under the tutelage of renowned chef Jean-Claude Fugier (from Maison TroisGros) at Park Hyatt Hyderabad that his tryst with one of the toughest cuisines in the world began. He still deems this one of his most memorable associations in the culinary world, spanning for a decade. Then comes his time at Rooh, working with renowned Indian chef Sujan Sarkar, celebrated for marrying modern cooking techniques with regional Indian flavours.
Chatterjee has his own unique take on Indian cuisine: “They key is to keep the taste and authenticity intact, but giving it a fresh perspective, a unique compelling curiosity and madness.” He believes Indian cuisine is grand and complex and packed with multi-sensory emotions and experience. “It is also in great need of elevation and perspective and ‘neo’ state of mind which will allow us to go beyond curries and bread and the global cliché of things, without making a fool of the cuisine by being ultra-ambitious and pretentious,” he goes on to add.
One look at his Instagram account and people will understand what his ‘neo’ approach is. From elevating famous street food like Daulat ki chaat and giving it a French vibe adorning it with hues of red-blue-and white or giving a doughnut twist to the world-favourite Vindaloo, his creations not only scintillate one’s taste buds but also plays with how one sees food. It’s a beautiful amalgamation of art and food.
For him, there are many inspirations: “Memory, history, thought process, mother nature, nostalgia and modernism.” But when one pays a closer look at his plating and names of the dishes, it’s hard to miss that its arts, be it painting or his knack for music, which is the main source of his inspiration. Being influenced by painters around the world from MF Hussain to Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso, his dishes resonate many famous paintings and comments on social media are often flooded with ‘too beautiful to eat’.
The young chef has a counter on the Instagram culture of picture-perfect food and craze around food photography. “For me, plating is secondary,” he says, on why he believes everything on the plate is not just to make it appear pretty, but to add a dimension to taste, even if it is a dash of edible flowers. “[Plating] it comes naturally to me, for some you have to cultivate it and study it. One must understand the gravity of this statement. ‘When to stop!’ while cooking or plating, one drop could be a disaster,” he explains.
Despite all the fame and glory, it’s the simple things that give him the most pleasures in life: pathar manghsor jhol (mutton curry) and rice cooked by his mother or playing the drums in his free time or munching on M&Ms and other midnight junk to a nice adda with old friends.
Having received many accolades and recognition, Chatterjee believes he’s just getting started, with his eyes fixed on a goal, to be achieved next. “Two stars in Michelin in the next six years,” says the rising culinary star who plans to “welcome the world standing outside ‘Annette’ (name of his future restaurant)”. With eyes set on his dream, all he needs is “one positive, visionary investor who lets me do what I want and enjoys the show.” But everything with the support of his loved ones, as he quickly adds to his list of things in the future, “A family to come back to.”