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Wine & Dine
October 04, 2018

How 20 Years Of Marriage Helped Chef Vineet Bhatia Build His Brand

Text by Megha Shah. Photographs by Joshua Navalkar

The country’s best-known chef abroad, Vineet Bhatia, shows Megha Shah how his strong marriage has intensified his bond with food and why sharing plates can be an oddly emotional exercise

They call them restaurant widows in the business — the wives of important chefs, helming successful kitchens. Their husbands work unsociable hours — weekends, late nights, Christmas — essentially making them single parents or lonely partners struggling to adapt to a high-pressure, mercurial lifestyle unique to the world of hospitality.

Rashima Bhatia is not one of them. She’s around five feet tall, punk-haired, sharp-tongued and seems like the sort of woman who’s got her life firmly under control — and her husband, Vineet Bhatia’s, as well.

I meet them on their recent visit to India, where they’ve come to launch a new concept called Shared Plates at Ziya, the restaurant that Vineet helms at The Oberoi, Mumbai. I watch her attending to guests, moving from table to table and taking over most conversations. Vineet seems relieved by it. The first Indian chef to win a Michelin star is a man happy to listen to his wife. He’s profited greatly by it, too. “She is the drive behind everything I have,” he says, dressed in crisp chef’s whites. “I’m only the smiling face in pictures,” he tells me.

Between the years 2000 and 2007, the birth of a new kind of Indian cuisine took place in London — upscale modern Indian. At the helm was Vineet, who came to London in part because of his fascination with airplanes and a chance to see Heathrow and in part to escape the rigidity of Indian cuisine in India. In his early twenties working in the then Kandahar at this very Oberoi hotel he was chastened by the head chef for experimenting with a classic dal recipe. He completed his contract with the hotel group, but in his heart he had decided to move.

When he reached London, he faced a new kind of hurdle. The Bangladeshis ran Indian kitchens, “gaajar ka halwa was served frozen” and “bhel had chicken stock in it”. Also, for most punters, the greasy familiarity of an Indian meal was an important part of its appeal. A cheap, after-hours sustenance delivered to the door. But, Vineet was obsessed with the seemingly infinite forms a single taste could assume. He was the first to put truffle oil inside a naan, turn makhni gravy into ice cream, create a multi-course tasting menu with wine (unheard of in Indian food, then) and plate it all in a structured, upscale manner. He became the chef of the only Indian restaurant in the world to win a Michelin star — Zaika in 2001.

It was owned by Claudio Pulze, one of London’s top restaurateurs, who also owned Aubergine (where Gordon Ramsay won his first Michelin star). “I nagged Vineet for years to get out of it and start something of his own,” Rashima tells me. “I understand business; I knew how this association would turn out.”

“I was given a 25 per cent partnership and I kept telling Rashima, ‘He will give me my due’. Five years passed and I didn’t get a penny,” he shrugs, matter-of-factly. “Finally, I took her advice and started my own place.” Zaika lost its star when he left, and his new venture Rasoi, also in London, went on to win one. Today he owns an empire of consultancies from Mauritius to Geneva.

He met Rashima 20 years ago, thanks to a matrimonial ad his family posted — a package of 24 words, running on two consecutive Sundays in The Times of India — that advertised him as an award-winning chef seeking a bride. “Today, it’s difficult to know where I end and where she begins,” he says. She’s his first taster, and the one who translates his vision into words. “I can taste the food in words,” she grins.

She’s also made him refine his creative processes. “Earlier he would put in 20 different ingredients while trying out a dish and forget what numbers 12 and 13 were,” she says with exasperation. Now, he documents each step with a camera, makes a slideshow or a time-lapse, and shares it with a group of chefs on social media, who then try the process in their kitchens around the world.

It’s quickly evident that although Vineet is the face of his own brand, their empire is the fruit of a solid partnership. She’s a complimentary flavour, adding complexity to his repertoire of tastes. And while he loses himself in the daily cacophony of sauces, quenelles and tinctures, she ensures her voice always rings clear, keeping him firmly rooted in pragmatism and coherence.

Later that night, my husband and I try to find some of that chemistry in the dishes at Ziya as we sit down for dinner. The restaurant is a symphony of beiges, browns and creams, with a wash of blue from the sea outside, visible through the large windows. The walls have a blast of ornate and waitstaff in crisp chocolate-hued saris and jackets smile serenely. The menu is a complete overhaul, a testament both to the hotel chain and Vineet’s will and wisdom to reinvent while at the top.

“We had a choice; we could keep doing the same classic thing, for instance what Bukhara at the ITC Maurya does. That would be equivalent to playing a character role in Bollywood films, like Kader Khan, you keep doing the same thing — but be bloody good at it. Or you are the hero. You are Amitabh Bachchan and you keep coming back as something new,” Rashima had said with her characteristic biting honesty.

The concept behind the menu, Sharing Plates — which rejects the traditional starters, main course and dessert structure — is to order food in multiples of two, three, four and so on. Our waiter suggests ordering four to five dishes between the both of us.

Sitting down to eat a fine dining meal prepared by a Michelin-starred chef can be hard work. The appreciation of fine food, after all, is as much an art as cooking it. There’s pressure to notice and appreciate every nuance and trickery while throwing perfunctory nods of interest at a chirpy server guiding you through the usually lengthy and complex idea. With each tiny course that arrives, the expectation to be wowed rises. And after a whirlwind day of work, failed Uber bookings in the rain and squeezing your toes into pointy pumps, getting wowed can be exhausting.

Vineet’s food, however, doesn’t seek to overwhelm. It’s a philosophy that’s confident enough to not need to show off. Every dish is structured; however its appeal is a relaxed, convivial messiness. There’s an aloo papri chaat with a dahi bhalla ice cream, pav bhaji served as delicate pinwheels, Kochi prawns with uttapam and coconut chutney, goat cheese and smoked cashew gujiya served on top of a ragda and Rajasthani lamb chop with dill gatta. For dessert, there are his famous chocolate-filled samosas with coffee srikhand and paan kulfi served as a vibrant green candy bar.

The key to Vineet’s cooking lies in his control of the spice, those flavours that register at the back of the throat rather than on the tongue, as a gentle suggestion rather than a bang. The dinner has an effortless rhythm and as a result, so does our conversation. Each item comes with two individual servings as mirror images in the same plate so the feeling of sharing is intensified. There’s something about the way it’s served that creates a forced intimacy as we run our forks through different layers and textures, a simple bond that ties us to our plate of food.

As the night progresses, I can tell the combinations, the contrasts in flavours and the sheer expressive range of cooking come from Vineet himself. But the spark in every creation, the clever garnish that anchors the dish, the way the food sits on the plate, the manner in which the cutlery, the food and the concept get married together to form a cohesive whole — that’s all Rashima.

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