Why is india the hardest market to crack for modern Indian cuisine? I spent several days with master chef Vineet Bhatia inside his new Mumbai kitchen and got some startling answers.
Vineet Bhatia is the world’s only Indian chef to have two Michelin stars, and the only British chef after Gordon Ramsay to have one outside his home country. That still doesn’t make him a man-eater. The 42-year-old is alarmingly mild-lipped, keeping up a breezy flair both during and after service hours. He has the face of Puck the sprite.
Of course, all that might be moot since we don’t know what to do with him anyway. We’re in a curious moment when the idea of celebrity chefs has arrived in India but hasn’t dented our consciousness enough – yet – to demand major attention. In the West, chefs like Anothony Bourdain and Marco Pierre White have acquired the classic macho-but-sensitive profile, often through the terrific food writing in pop culture. But change is peeling in India faster than we perhaps realise. Amateur food blogs are gaining ground; one major television channel is considering launching an Indian version of the BBC’s MasterChef show this summer; and while the old guard like chef Hemant Oberoi and critic Vir Sanghvi are still mechanically esteemed (and an old guard is always useful for an impending revolution), clear young faces are also simmering – people like Manu Chandra, the 29-year-old chef of Bengaluru’s Olive Beach and Varun Tuli, the 27-year-old Delhi restaurateur. So when an expat prodigal like Vineet Bhatia – acclaimed everywhere else for his deep artistry of what’s possible with Indian rations – decides to quietly return to launch a restaurant in India, it might be worth a closer look. Worth spending several days with the master chef inside his new Indian kitchen as he dashed into the biggest opening of his life.
As part of The Oberoi’s post-renovation Mumbai opening after the 26/11 terror attacks, Bhatia had arrived in Nariman Point to launch a new restaurant – his 11th – called Ziya to replace the hotel’s iconic Kandahar. Bhatia pioneered modern Indian cuisine in London, elevating the balti menu of greasy curry houses to French-styled, pre-plated fine dining (pre-plated implies each menu item is one person’s complete meal already served and decorated on a plate before it leaves the kitchen, with balanced tastes, nutrients and colours). Bhatia grew up in Mumbai and actually began his career at the same Oberoi in the early 1990s – he ran Kandahar for about a year before leaving for London. After failing with a New Delhi restaurant in 2001, he had a few months ago begun a small tentative kitchen called Azok, a lounge diner in Mumbai’s Juhu, but still hadn’t gone the whole hog. Now he’d finally returned to the mother ship for a proper second shot at India, the world’s hardest market to crack for modern Indian food.
Pre-plated, ‘nouvelle’ Indian food has never really taken off in India but Bhatia is optimistic, pointing out how pre-plating is similar to Indian restaurants’ thalis. There are some agreeable indicators of such concept restaurants taking hold, at least in New Delhi: apart from their ‘classic’ Indian fare, Varq at the Taj and Monsoon at Le Meridien offer pre-plated modern Indian cuisine. Indian Accent at the Manor hotel, which opened about a year ago, is one of the few yet that matches Ziya’s ambition in being only pre-plated.
So what is the fuss about? Bhatia’s menu includes things like coconut soup with lime leaves, chilli and lemon grass; grilled ginger-chilli lobsters served with broccoli khichdi; foie gras coins with raisins and cashews; wasabi and roasted almond ice cream; paan-chocolate chutney. The flavours are kept carefully light to keep them distinct and not overwhelm each other.
And has this food’s time truly come in India? There is intense disagreement in the fraternity, tinged with business and culinary interests and, of course, the heat of fat egos. While many in the business claim that Varq and Indian Accent are not doing well, the restaurant’s chef Manish Mehrotra contradicts this and says they plan to open another in London soon. He says this cuisine is now “required” in India for a clientele that’s travelling and sampling it everywhere else. Bombay Elektrik Project co-founder and restaurant consultant Sudeep Nair says the food certainly works but people like Bhatia are walking a very fine line, since people either love it or hate it. “Yes, there’s always a market for snob value,” he says. “More than food connoisseurs, you’ll get people who want to be seen there.” Mehrotra predicts that most new Indian cuisine restaurants, especially in the better Indian hotels, will now serve nouvelle Indian food: “There will be these and the Moti Mahals and nothing much in between,” he says. But others like Olive Beach’s chef Manu Chandra remain sceptical about Ziya, saying that “Indian diners don’t necessarily want to be wowed. They might be well travelled and loaded but they want a familiar, comfort zone. I’ve learnt it the hard way!”
If you notice, though, all such restaurants have opened in five-star properties – for the good reason of having captive, hungry guests, self-selective external clients, and no rent. Restaurateur Zorawar Kalra, son of chef Jiggs Kalra, says that their Punjab Grille restaurants can also make this food but there’s no local demand for it. Mehrotra admits that half his guests are expats, which is surely a bad sign. But everyone is unanimous about one impression – Indians don’t like to be shown how to remake their own food. What chance does Bhatia have?
|Chef Manu Chandra of Olive is skeptical about nouvelle food and says, ‘Indians want a comfort zone’|
Ziya has the Oberoi’s standard-issue pale gold look, with 18 tables and 74 covers, a waiting lounge where Bhatia’s cookbook is prominently displayed, and a glass-fronted open tandoor section. But the real action is inside through the service double doors, into a curving corridor and past the bar-mixing counter and cutlery trolleys till you come to a small, bright-lit kitchen. From this hidden 10-by-20 feet room, Bhatia hopes to ignite a revolution in Indian food.
|Heat Chef Vineet Bhatia in the days before Ziya opened
PHOTOS: MS GOPAL
Bhatia likes to swoosh down the corridor into the kitchen, sliding on his feet like a rollerblader and halting with a grin. He still speaks with a Bombaya lilt. He’s about five feet four, the shortest man among his lumbering staff of 13 male cooks in the kitchen. Many have burn scars on their hands and arms. The senior sous chef Renji R, who’ll be the kitchen head once Bhatia leaves, is the oldest at 30. On Friday April 23rd, the night before the formal opening when they’d already started feeding guests, the kitchen was bumbling with restrained panic. The boys were frantic and Bhatia and his wife Rashima were trying not to worry. Bhatia didn’t shout when the dosa was too thick (they scraped it off) or when he intercepted a dal at the ‘pass’ – Renji’s counter where plates are completed before heading out – it had a little less salt (he let it go). “What are you guys doing today,” he moaned aloud, “You’re f***ing up big time. I’m only here for one week!” The cooks stood in line at their counters like tense rabbits. One of them, Umesh Singh Basnal, dropped a mushroom khichdi. “And now look at this,” Bhatia pointed in his soft voice. The boys hadn’t been home in two days. One was frying onion rings for a request of raw ones. Umesh dropped a serving bowl. All the while Bhatia kept instructing everyone to keep the counters clean and checking if the spices were working. “No, no, no Renji, don’t leave,” he called out after his tyro. “Never leave the pass. You’re like an orchestra conductor – tell them what to do from here. Don’t do it yourself.”
Bhatia may not have been shouting but the kitchen was more relaxed – and more at a loss – when he was safely badged in by a pair of grateful English guests. The guests included an editor from Femina magazine and Anil Dharkar, whose visiting card to the chef described him as Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and Honorary Consul for Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa. “Sounds fake, doesn’t it?” Rashima giggled. Bhatia would occasionally dunk his short frame halfway into the used-plates trolley to check if the guests were eating. “That lady,” he murmured another time, “she isn’t having any dessert. Give her some ice cream, she’ll feel better.”
Bhatia kept up his spirits, shouting out the order scores as the electronic machine spit them out: “Seven tasting menus. Well done, everyone!” But midway when he jerked up to ask about the chicken legs, nobody had started them. “Tomorrow, please come after reading the menu,” he said aloud. “I’m not going to change it!” Rashima, who supervises the service front of the shop, said later, “It’s like filling a tank – you find out the leaks. Better to do it now.” Bhatia only nodded.
As a hotel management student Bhatia used to stroll down Marine Drive and promise himself he’d someday work at that fancy new hotel called The Oberoi. When he finally met Biki Oberoi a few months ago as a short-listed possibility, he gently told his former employer that the group was too old-fashioned for him, that they were wasting each others’ time. Why did they want an Indian chef from London to come teach them how to make dal makhani? The Oberoi family was also uncertain but then affirmed their desire for change. “People want to change, but they don’t know how to change,” Bhatia said later on Friday night after the service. “There’s no godfather here. If we can do this humbly, I think it will change things here. In three-four years, it’ll come.”
|Nouvelle Indian chefs say they still love eating butter chicken. They just don’t want to be making it|
Bhatia grew up in middle class Juhu in Mumbai, dreaming of airplanes. Son of an accountant father and lawyer mother, he couldn’t afford flight school and was turned down for the Air Force, and found himself in a school for hotel management. This is where he discovered food. He went on to train hard with the Oberoi group, loving the discipline and proving his devotion to Indian cuisine – in the face of opposition from his seniors who feared Indian cuisine was a career quicksand – by doing double shifts. Bhatia went on to head the Oberoi’s Bombay kitchens in his early 20s. But frustrated with being told off for his experiments with fossilised recipes, Bhatia left for England with £7 in his pocket and a job offer in what turned out to be a run-down curry house called Star of India. After making Star a critical success, he left to start Zaika in London with investors recommended by Gordon Ramsay (and who both chefs eventually claimed were cheats). Zaika won a Michelin star but Bhatia says he never got any of the promised profits – he left to start his own restaurant called Rasoi with a loan on his house. He says at that point he didn’t have the 48 pennies to buy milk powder for his baby boy. Rasoi won a star the same year Zaika lost it. Apart from starting and consulting for 10 other properties around the world in places like Geneva (his second Michelin star) and Moscow, Bhatia has also been a consultant for British Airways and the Concorde. He travels almost half the year now but doesn’t tire of the flights.
Umesh was still scrambling around on opening day. In lunch service, he cooked lamb biryani when the order was for chicken – “Read the order!” shouted Bhatia in a tone that somehow managed to remain tolerant. “Listen to what the chef calls out. Listen!” Umesh scrambled to scoop some chicken in a pan, and in his hurry, dropped some over the stove. Everyone was still dashing.
Outside, there was the din of satisfaction and an occasional peal of laughter – the food, at least, seemed apace. The smoked salmon arrives covered with a small transparent bowl that’s whipped off at the table, giving off a puff of its smoke. “That’s just for effect,” smiled Bhatia. The lobster comes swimming in a reduction of its own shell’s juices, with light coca dust that gives it an after-hint of sourness. The hazelnut chocolate brownie comes with the impossible surprise of cumin – the spice keeps you eating, trying to finish the tang with its sweet chaser.
“Who is the foie gras for?” asked Bhatia at one point. “[That table] looks like they’re from Chowpatty.” Renji giggled, and Bhatia added, “No, it’s good, it means people are changing. They’re ready to try.” But the kids at that table left smears of curry and chocolate on the new chairs and Bhatia was fuming by the end of service. Rashima wondered how Indian parents wanted the restaurant staff to take care of their kids, and how in London the parents kept their kids in restaurants like miniature adults. “It’s bad here,” Bhatia commented. He quickly added, “It’s bad over there too, but not like this. And it’s even worse in the Arab lands. There they dirty the carpet.” After another kid destroyed a chair the next day, the team negotiated to bar kids under 12 and enforce a no-silver-service policy.
There were other problems. One table wanted extra biryani but such high-end restaurants take time to prepare each dish. Many guests, including the hotel’s architects, asked for the food to be served. And many wanted the pre-plated food to be distributed among their table. “A group sent back the lobster to be cut into small portions. That’s not the concept, it’ll go for a six,” Bhatia complained later. A quiet huddle with the hotel’s management left him even more disgruntled – they didn’t understand why the ‘servers’ couldn’t be allowed to ‘serve’. One of the problems in a city of intense upward cultural mobility like Mumbai is that it’s an important marker to be able to smoothly ask to be served by someone – to suavely throw your weight around. “It’s the slave mentality that’s been left over here,” commented Rashima. Of the need to share, she remarked, “What is this one-by-two, one-by-four business – it’s like ordering a blouse piece!” (Chef Manish Mehrotra is familiar with this problem and has designed his dishes to be easily shareable, including softening things like lamb shanks.)
Bhatia clung to the hope of Biki Oberoi’s response after dining at Ziya – the chef says his boss made him promise he wouldn’t change the Ziya’s concept. “I’ll talk to him again,” Bhatia mused at an empty table once everyone had left. Eventually, he didn’t need to – the management came on board and, to avoid sharing requests, Bhatia slashed out the small ‘Indian Classic’ section of three dishes he’d originally put on the menu.
By opening night, Rashima in the front saw the tank fill right up. The cap of 42 reservations meant nothing since diners kept using their influence with Oberoi management for a coveted table – they were up to 60 and counting. One group had wrangled to only arrive at midnight (they didn’t show up).
In the staff briefing before service Bhatia spoke so softly you could barely hear him, but his patience was thinning. “Let him wait for his food,” he announced about an Oberoi vice-chairman who’d insisting he dine at Ziya tonight even though he didn’t have a booking. Everyone looked at Chef dubiously. Bhatia wasn’t used to dealing with India’s wide social class divide between the servers and customers. (The economic divide, though, is closing – one cook quickly browsed his IPod in a lull between orders while junior sous chef Prashant Penkar had just got a Blackberry for his 26th birthday.)
Rashima was concerned with how long diners were lounging around (in the UK, they cap diners at 2 hours): “What’re you going to do for more than 2 hours – after that, you’re just taking a piss.” Renji was concerned the shops didn’t have enough lamp chops and scallops for a full service, and told the prim manager Aditi Kenjalkar, “Go easy on these. Sell the rest like the foie gras.” Bhatia was still tinkering with the menu, wondering if the almond-crusted pea cutlet was too heavy for a starter and should be a main instead (they thinned it). The table who’d called ahead for ‘Jain’ food were accommodated. Oberoi had already warned Bhatia about the city’s moneyed – and vegetarian – Marwaris and Gujaratis who were prime patrons.
By now the boys were finally getting the hang of it – they were buzzing and it made them smoother. The kitchen was cooking. At 10:10pm Bhatia skid into the kitchen and announced, “It’s full outside. You’ve worn a belt, right? Tighten it! We’re about to get ripped.” “I’m trying to teach them what I know,” Bhatia observed later. “In other places, the khansamas keep everything secret – that’s why the cuisine has been dead for so long. They want to hide their recipes.” There are many surprises in Bhatia’s plates. A clear winner is the beetroot khichdi – all of Bhatia’s celebrated khichdis are more like a non-syrupy Indian basmati risotto. The lamp chops come resting in a lake of dal sauce – dal makhani that’s first scorched and then scolded in a liquid grinder into a thin, intense buttery sauce, and finally laced with truffle oil to give it shine. Many, including Biki Oberoi, changed their minds about whether foie gras can be made into an Indian dish after tasting Bhatia’s lightly pan-seared, spiced version.
Bhatia congratulated the kitchen as they crossed the 50th guest mark. Later, the team brought out a surprise chocolate cheesecake for Prashant. By the end of Saturday, the first official evening, Ziya had sales of about Rs 1.5 lakh, averaging Rs 1900 per person – it needs the average to climb to Rs 3,300. The next day, a Bengaluru hotelier came to lunch and proposed a venture to Bhatia, who demurred for now – he’s preparing to launch his next place in Libya in June.
Restaurants like Ziya will need fewer guests who order expensive items (and some wine, hopefully). Bhatia considers the expensive restaurants serving traditional Indian food to be “glorified dhabas”, but both he and chef Mehrotra say they still love eating traditional dishes like butter chicken – they just don’t want to make them one more time. More than anything, Bhatia isn’t interested in making a museum of food – he refuses to lay down rules in high cuisine, unlike the French. His goal in each dish is to balance flavours and colours, trying to enhance an idea of something like a samosa (filled with light chocolate as a dessert) in fresh ways. He rattles off various “Indian” items – pepper from Portugal, kababs and biryani from Persia, cutlets from Britain, momos from China – and won’t stick any arguments about blaspheming a purist realm. “We have to respect our own food for others to take it seriously. As Indians we’re not less than anyone in the world,” he says. “Those days are gone.”
Nouvelle cuisine has already moved on in the West – there’s the Le Fooding French culinary movement and the back to basics, simple and local food movements in the US. Chef Manu Chandra says India too has caught on, skipping Western phases of evolution – he prefers the local bathua to spinach for his lasagne. “Sashimi-grade tuna from Chennai is the great revolution!” he says. Bhatia responds by saying he doesn’t keep up with the latest fads – unlike the younger Chandra, he seems more secure in wanting to do what he does, and just that.
‘Fusion’ is the dirtiest word in the business. Zorawar Kalra says, “Fusion can lead to confusion,” but the rhyme is too pat. Stuffing dosas with noodles or frying idlis in schezuan sauce is old news for us, but each chef still draws his own boundaries. Bhatia says he draws the line at using foreign ingredients like focaccia – chef Manish Mehrotra uses it as an accompaniment with his chicken main. Mehrotra says he wouldn’t make a dal makhani pizza – Bhatia does just that in London. But wouldn’t you like to at least taste both? In the same breath, Bhatia is also defensive about using truffles, saying he’s been told they’re also found in Kashmir. Fusing global cuisines – that word again – seems inevitable, and there can’t be any one measure or one person to declare what has remained Indian and what hasn’t.
Those who can’t keep up with the speed of this globalisation should opt out rather than slam it. Bhatia has brought his greatest hits from London and other places but is sceptical whether Indians are yet ready for his newest dishes. The problem with Ziya is not that it’s radical but that it isn’t aiming to be drastic enough. It’ll need the daring Bhatia displays at London’s Rasoi – tandoori duck tikkas or scallop and prawn brochettes with raw mango and black lentil khichdi. Chef Chandra warns that food should be vocational, not aspirational – but without Bhatia’s hectic playfulness, Ziya will become just another homogenous member of the global culture ministry – a crisis waiting to happen. Impure food is coming, is already here, has always been here – and not a morel too soon.
As evening service begins, it’s hot and smelly inside again. The kitchen insulates its people in more than just heat and noise. The Sunday crowds have gathered in force on Marine Drive but their sea breeze is a distant memory for those within. Bhatia is mindful of what he’s attempting. He had his parents in to eat the week before. He says, “You make yourself and your family proud. As an Indian, as a child, I was always an underdog. That’s why I wanted to excel. Coming back to your motherland, the urge is still there to showcase what you left. I don’t want to die with that baggage. I want to die and be burnt with pride. To know that I did it before I went.”