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Saturday, January 18, 2020

At His Table

Michelin-starred chef Vineet Bhatia on the inception of modern Indian cuisine, his rebellion against parochial prejudices around food and the need to respect indigenous produce.

Written by Damini Ralleigh | Published: December 17, 2018 12:12:29 am
“I became a chef totally by error. It was not planned at all. I couldn’t become a pilot so I went to catering college. I wanted to become a barman and serve drinks. When I applied for training, I was told that I was too short to stand behind the counter. They put me, like a discard, in the kitchen. And I fell in love with it,” tells Vineet.

For the first time in 2001, two Indian chefs clinched a Michelin star each for their London-based restaurants. One of them was Vineet Bhatia, who, at the time, helmed the kitchen at Zaika. The upmarket restaurant served — thereby laying the foundation — for an interpretation of Indian cuisine that is now hailed as a revolution by some and, by others, a passing fancy. Since, Bhatia’s ventures have focussed on modern Indian cuisine — Rasoi, Vineet Bhatia London — and continued to win the coveted honour. Hailed as one of the — if not the only — progenitors of progressive Indian food, Bhatia has taken Indian food to a global audience through his restaurants, global consultancies, TV shows and, now, Netflix. In the Capital to launch the Young Chef’s Association for Sustainable India at the Tasting  India Symposium, he talked about his initial plans of becoming a pilot, the need for sustainability and his partner, Rashima. Excerpts:

What do you consider the most important aspects of sustainability that need to be tackled in the context of India’s F&B industry?

It’s important that the up-and-coming generation focusses on local produce. It’s very easy for people to put up a restaurant and ape the West and import ingredients. But you should try and get your ingredients from within the Indian boundaries. Imports should be limited to ingredients we cannot get here. What we have within this beautiful country, is great produce. All these restaurants that are doing really well abroad are farm-to-table concepts. You have to be proud of what you have and ingredients that are indigenous to India should be given more respect.

You wanted to become a pilot with the Indian Air Force. How did you end up in the kitchen?

I became a chef totally by error. It was not planned at all. I couldn’t become a pilot so I went to catering college. I wanted to become a barman and serve drinks. When I applied for training, I was told that I was too short to stand behind the counter. They put me, like a discard, in the kitchen. And I fell in love with it.

What was your vision for Indian cuisine when you started out, particularly when you decided to move to London in the early ’90s?

When I left India, I was very disillusioned. I was trying to modernise the cuisine, modify it, to make it more beautiful and interesting but that didn’t work. The perception was that Indian food is never to be changed. A chola-bhatura has to look like a chola-bhatura and a chicken tikka must look like a chicken tikka. As a young chef, I was trying to rebel against that and I realised that I was not going to get very far. That is why I left India and, when I went to London, all I cared about was being able to cook and survive. There was no plan. I had no idea what a Michelin Guide was. I had never heard of it.

What happened after you arrived in the UK?

I landed in London with seven pounds in my pocket and had no idea about how the city works. Then, I realised that I couldn’t cook the way I did in India in London. I couldn’t call Rogan Josh, Rogan Josh or Gajar Ka Halwa by its name because they didn’t understand that. So, the words changed, the way we wrote the menu changed. We started taking out the fats and the oils to make the food look appealing and started blending spices in various ways. It doesn’t mean that you have to deviate from the core cooking process. You try and re-shape the cuisine. Actually, the changes we made initially, in ’94-’95, were just to make sure that I survive. That snowballed into something so big — I had never even dreamed of it. I’m very happy to say today that what we revolted for, the spark we ignited is now coming to fruition. Now, everyone wants to modernise Indian food. Michelin was a big boost and then came the Fox show and now there’s Netflix. Indian food is now reaching people across the globe.

In the India episode of Netflix’s The Final Table, you had said, “Indian cuisine is a sleeping giant, we need to awaken it”. Why has it taken so long for the world to take note of the potential of Indian cuisine?

The awakening has to happen in the country first and it has started happening with so many restaurants looking at regional cuisine, flavours within India. Earlier it was not the case. If you, as an Indian, do not respect what you have, what do you expect from outsiders who have no idea about what you are? These changes are taking place within India and, then, there are people overseas, who try and showcase India differently. As more and more get acknowledged and accepted, it will filter through.

Your wife, Rashima, has been credited as the person behind your success.  I bank on her for everything. She runs my life and I’m very happy with that because she understands who I am. I am basically a cook. I don’t understand finance or numbers. I like to be left alone and am a little reserved. She has sacrificed all her life, her career and everything to ensure that I could do what I wanted to do. She keeps saying that my first love is food and not her. I don’t think that’s true, it is her.

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