EXPRESSION OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 2010
EXPRESSION OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 2010
Facing page: Vineet Bhatia has stirred Indian cuisine out of its complacency with his ‘evolved’ take on the traditional. This page: Bhatia’s evolved Indian on a plate.
Photos: Lisa Barber
Haute & evolved Not content with the ‘shopping capital of Southeast Asia’ title, Singapore is now looking to woo foodies with a slew of new restaurants by celebrity chefs from around the world. Last month, Vineet Bhatia, the first Indian to be awarded a Michelin star, held a three-day showcase there of his ‘evolved Indian cuisine’. Gavin Nazareth meets up with him and also checks out some of the other new openings. The waiter places a rectangular platter in front of me, on it a masala crab cake served with a dollop of crab chutney, topped by a smidgen of mustard caviar. A contrast in flavours and textures, the cake is crisp with a soft, warm centre, the creamy chutney teasingly spiced, and the caviar – mustard seeds lightly fried in oil – adds a crunch and a hint of bitterness. It’s a delightful prelude to the meal to come. My dining companions and I are seated in the chic Yantra, located on Singapore’s Tanglin Road. It’s a fine dining restaurant that offers a Northern Indian menu designed to stimulate the palate and indulge the senses with
inventive recipes and alluring flavours. But what has us salivating in anticipation tonight is the five-course “Essence of Splendour” meal created by guest chef, Vineet Bhatia. He is one of a handful of Indian chefs to have blazed a trail across the global culinary firmament, re-thinking the cuisine and elevating it from its greasy relationship with cut-price curry houses to an epicurean experience, by adding to the recipe a modern presentation and his own unique twist, while maintaining the core values. Think “grilled chilli garlic lobster, dusted with cocoa powder”, and “classic lamb shank Rogan josh with North Indian spice, 24-carat gold leaf and roasted cashewnut khichdi,” or “cumin-infused chocolate and saffron cheesecake with cardamom ice cream”. Or even like our next course which is “oven-baked herbed sea bass, tandoori crushed potatoes, South Indian Moilee sauce and crisp okra”. All intricately plated. Culinary creations that have earned him,
the gastronomical equivalent of the Oscars, an accolade every chef covets, the Michelin Star, His first star came in 2001 for Zaika, a restaurant he co-owned on High Street Kensington, the first ever awarded to an Indian restaurateur. He then moved on to start Rasoi Vineet Bhatia in Chelsea, and five years later earned the second one. His third came late last year for Rasoi By Vineet at the Mandarin Oriental in Geneva. Today he oversees 12 restaurants around the world, including Ziya, which replaced Kandahar in Mumbai’s Oberoi Hotel, recently rebuilt following terrorist attacks in 2008 and where
he began his career. But the path to success was not always littered with glittering stars. As the legend goes, he arrived in London to work for a restaurant in Chelsea with just £7 in his pocket, where horrified at the “macho hot and spicy food” dished out there, he set about changing the model. “I wanted to showcase Indian food in the right manner. London is the curry capital of the world and had a huge curry culture in those days. When I started doing roghan joshs and gajjar ka halwa (carrot based confection) the proper way it is cooked, I was told this is not right. I was asked ‘where is the oil, the capsicum and onions in the roghan josh…’ You don’t put capsicum, but that’s the way the curry houses make it, because the people cooking there are not really Indian, they are from Bangladesh. I stopped calling the dishes by the classic names describing them instead as ‘slow-cooked Kashmiri lamb shank’, just to make it sound a bit exotic. And they would say this is nice… and I would say, yes, this is your roghan josh,” he tells me as I sit enjoying the epilogue to his five-act gastronomic theatre, a sumptuous “blueberry and black cardamom panna cotta, roasted pistachio ice cream”. “It took us a while but I think we cracked it,” he says, the satisfaction evident in his voice. “The biggest thing for us was when we got the Michelin star in 2001, because then people took you seriously. It changed my life, gave me a big boost, and that’s when we started pushing the boundaries a lot more, because we got confident. I started plating food around 1999 to make it look nice. But it took us a while, al-
most three years, before we could correct it. Now there is no stopping us. We do exactly what we want to do and people appreciate that. I think Indian food has evolved over the past decade dramatically.” His upward spiral not only attracted droves of devotees, but harsh criticism from detractors as well, who accused him of ‘Frenchifying’ Indian cuisine, or dressing it up in French nouvelle cuisine drag. But what most critics fail to take into account is that the sub-continent’s cuisine is one big melting pot, a fusion of culinary traditions and cultures that has been on the simmer over a 4,000 year-old timeline, with the Aryans, Monglians, Persians, or the Mughals, the Greeks and Romans, Chinese, Arabs, Portuguese, the British, French adding to the recipe. The Portuguese introduced the tomato, the red chilli and vinegar among other things; the Mughals brought the pilafs, biryanis, the naans, kormas and kebabs; the Chinese offered the stirfry, cooking utensils, aniseed and tea; the list is long. In fact the term “Indian
cuisine” is too generic, and fails to pay tribute to the country’s enormous diversity and variety, a country where the cuisines varies even more than its languages and traditions. But despite this diversity, the cuisine has flat-lined for decades, abetted by restaurateurs around the world, who tarted up their culinary showcases with store-bought furniture, boring maroon linen, cheap Mughal miniatures, and hackneyed brass tableware, their menus focusing mainly on North Indian or Mughlai dishes. Something Vineet was not willing to do. Flushed with the success of his three-day culinary showcase at Yantra, he explains why he calls his food “evolved Indian”. “It’s something I coined myself – modern evolved Indian. I was the first person trying to create food like that, because I was very disillusioned with what was happening in the UK, and even in India when I was training as a very young chef. I did not like the heavy oil and gravy bases,” he says. “Nobody ate food like that at home, but you had to serve it in the restaurants, as the diners want to feel luxurious. But I did not believe in that.” Culinary innovation, he adds, was also frowned upon by the senior chefs he worked with. “The European chefs would come to work in our hotels and they would be praised. I would ask why we couldn’t use the same techniques on our food. And I would be told to shut up, that I was a kid; that Indian food should never change. Once when I did tandoori lobster and
EXPRESSION OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 2010
EXPRESSION OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 2010
While In Singapore Guy Savoy: A modernist dining room and flawless service are paired with topnotch food and perfectly chilled wines at this Marina Bay Sands outpost of one of France’s most revered and award-winning chefs. The menu reflects his threeMichelin-starred Parisian flagship. Highlights include the thick and creamy signature artichoke and black truffle soup that is teamed with a toasted mushroom brioche smothered in a rich black truffle butter, or the pigeon served two ways – one a confit of pigeon thigh with scrumptious crispy skin and the other mouth-melting pigeon meat wrapped around foie gras and wrapped with ribbons of zucchini. If fish is your thing, then order the crispy seabass accompanied by delicate vanillaginger foam, while a dusting of black, Szechuan, and white pepper adds some zest. Tel: +65 6688 8513 Santi: Dark wood, custom artwork and glass walls accentuate Michelin-starred chef Santi Santamaria’s tapas eatery. Featuring an elegant main dining area, with private rooms, a wine cellar and bar and lounge, it serves basic and sophisticated Catalan cuisine, enhanced by the influence of different Asian cuisines. Nibble on delights like quail roasted to crispy perfection and served with foie gras and sweet Facing page: Vineet Bhatia in the Rasoi kitchen in London. This page: Chocolate samosas with strawberries.
raisins, porcini mushrooms in a robust bone marrow stew, and sumptuous Japanese tuna belly paired with anchovy vinaigrette, while you sip on one of their amazing wines. Tel: + 65 6688 8501
crab for some Southeast Asian guests, the management told me not to touch it as it was too expensive and only for the fine dining French restaurant. I was frustrated and moving nowhere. If you do not respect your own cuisine, then how can you make it grow further? And that’s why I left India and came to London. There too, it took a while to change things, it didn’t happen overnight,’’ explains Vineet, who wanted to join the airforce but was turned down because of his height. Under Vineet’s theory of evolution the dishes became “lighter and a lot more interesting. “People have now begun to follow it and chefs are starting to understand it,” he says. “It’s taken a lot of time to arrive where we are now, but then any kind of evolution takes time. The effort we put in now, the dishes we create, will become classics in the next 15-20 years.” Ask him why chefs who have left the shores of India have done extremely well (London now boasts five Indian restaurants with a Michelin star each), and he says his progression of the cuisine wouldn’t have been possible in his native country, comparing it to a “horse with blinkered eyes”. “Unfortunately they didn’t want to look around in my days and even now. Chefs were not allowed to develop or grow and that’s why we quit India. But I feel proud to go back to my native country and do my food. And now I’ve been asked to go back by the same company, which I had left back then.” It was a nostalgic and emotional homecoming for him to his career springboard, Kandahar restaurant at The Oberoi, in Mumbai (Bombay). The restaurant was totally gutted after a terrorist attack in 2008, and the owner looking
to start anew invited him to do something with. “I went to meet Mr Oberoi last year in August and told them that I wanted to see the hotel and restaurant first. It was black, gutted to the core. I felt like crying,” he says. “After that I went to see Mr Oberoi and we had a big discussion. I told him the reason I had left India and the hotel in the first place, how I wanted to do a lot more than butter chicken and roghan josh. He listened patiently for about 10 minutes and then told me ‘I am a maverick, a pioneer. I want you to come and change the whole dining scene in India. I am giving you carte blanche, to do whatever you want.’ And touch wood it’s done fantastically well,” he tells me. Despite some of the criticism he receives about his “fusion cuisine” as some have labelled it, he maintains that he will remain “very strong to his tradition. “I will not bastardise the food. I will evolve it, and push it further. If you look at cooking techniques around the world they all overlap with India’s. Take, the smoking of food, for example, the Chinese, French, Germans all smoke, as do the Swiss and Americans. In India, it is a very old
technique, done in a part of Rajasthan called Dunga. And food was smoked to preserve it, as there was no refrigeration. So it’s not that I am creating a new technique. It’s always been there, but you can adapt it to your modern cooking, to give it oomph, to make it better.” He adds in apparent answer to his critics, “It’s important when we chefs go to cook in restaurants around the world, to cook for the local audiences. You have to tailor your menus. Though the underlying thread is a quality product, you have to adapt to the local requirements. “I can’t be in Mauritius and serve game like we do in Geneva. It’s not going to work because the weather is hot, it’s the seaside. You want to see fish, lobster, and crab on the menu, and what you get locally is what you make. The same way in St Moritz, during the winters, they want something hearty; they want tandoori chicken, biryani, to feel warm, and that’s what we give. You also tone your food to the audience. The same food we make in India, I can’t be serving in Geneva, because there they are not used to the spicy food. But people say ‘you bastardise
the food, its not really Indian’. But how many Indians are there sitting in the restaurant in Geneva? That’s why we tell the staff, if Indian guests come in, ask them if they want their food like it is back home.” Last year in an attempt to preserve his legacy, Vineet released a book titled Rasoi: New Indian Kitchen, an extraordinary culinary tour de force. Crediting his wife Rashima as the motivating force behind him, Vineet says, “I won’t take credit for the book as I never wanted to do one. It was not my idea as I am quite media shy. The credit for this book goes to my wife, who forced me to write. She told me I would die without penning my ideas, so I agreed to do it only if it was a serious book. I told the publisher that my photo wouldn’t go on the front cover; that the book would be about the food, not me. They agreed. And it’s not a book for the novice, but for someone who’s passionate about cooking. The first print run was 10,000 copies, of which most were sold.” He hopes that people, especially, Indian chefs, will read the book, and pick out few things and do it. “I have seen things happening in India which are coming from here, or which are coming from my restaurant in Bombay.” But he doesn’t mind the fact that his ideas are being used, saying it makes him very happy. “It doesn’t bother me. I love to teach, so I don’t want to hide anything, which is why we document everything down in the book for everyone around to see.” Asking what drives him every morning to put on his chef whites and pick up his knife and he says, “For me, it’s the passion to excel everyday, to make a statement. This what we do, it’s India on a plate and we are proud of it. It’s a constant thing and I will never stop, my energy is boundless…”
Yantra: With its chic, monochromatic colours and elegant, minimalist décor and glass-enclosed open kitchen complete with four huge tandoor ovens, Yantra is not just another Indian restaurant. Chef Chintan Pandya’s menu offers wonderful alternatives to regular restaurant staples. Start with ‘dahakte jhinga’, or tiger prawns flambéed at your table, and ‘Galawati Kebabs’, finely minced roundels of lamb panseared over a slow fire, and work your way up to the mains like ‘Murgh Rahra’, which is chicken marinated in a roasted onion gravy, braised with clove and cumin and finished off with bhatti masala. Next door is the chic Soma Bar that serves an amazing selection of signature cocktails like the Watermelon Rose Martini, a handmuddled combination of rose water, fresh melon chunks, and Belvedere vodka; or the Genghis Khan with Absolut Vanilla, sake, Olive Brine and Wasabi. Tel: +65 6836 3088 Hide Yamamoto: Treat yourself to four different menus at the Grand Chef Hide Yamamoto’s eponymous minimalistic restaurant at Marina Bay Sands. With Sushi, Robata, Teppanyaki and Ramen. Choose from a variety of culinary styles. Recommended is Japanese Vegetable Symphony, a platter of eight seasonal veggies cooked in eight different ways. Or try Baked Wagyu Gyo-za with Citrus Soy and Sesame Sauce, and Edamame stir-fried with truffles. Tel: +65 6688 7098 Iggy’s: Founder Ignatius Chan has created an eight-course gastronomic menu that pairs delicate flavours with the finest ingredients from around the world. Menus change every month and Chan’s personal preferences inspire the flavours of his creation which include Kurobuta pork ragout served with home-made pappardelle and mushrooms; sea urchin in shiso jelly with cauliflower mousse; and sanma fish on wild rice, olive and thyme. Tel: +65 6732 2234 And that’s not all to Singapore’s culinary offerings. Marina Bay Sands has more celebrity chef restaurants in the pipeline. Soon to come are Mario Batali, Daniel Bouluud, Wolfgang Puck, Justin Quek, and Tetsuya Wakuda. On Sentosa, Resorts World will host Joel Robuchon, Kunio Tokuoko, Susur Lee and Scott Webster.
Interview with Vineet Bhatia, the first Indian chef to get a Michelin star. For Expression magazine.