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Wine & Dine
December 13, 2015

Vineet Bhatia on His Delicious Deconstruction

Text by Shirin Mehta

The chef talks about rethinking familiar dishes and his contributions to Indian cuisine

Chef or entrepreneur? Chef Vineet Bhatia is more than a little of both and has 12 restaurants worldwide — London, Dubai, Geneva, Mauritius, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Mumbai — to prove this. No wonder it has been a struggle to pin down this travelling creator of eateries. Awarded Michelin stars thrice already, Bhatia’s contribution to modern Indian cuisine is paramount. Ziya, at The Oberoi, Mumbai, stood witness to the increasing popularity of his cuisine, as he made chocolate samosas iconic in 1994 and, with dexterity, changed the colour of chicken tikkas to an unlikely black. Today, his signature Rasoi in London is on the brink of shutting its doors forever but this ‘chef cool’ is confident of rising from its ashes like a phoenix reborn.

Where do you start while rethinking familiar dishes?
“When you plan a dish, it is not about yourself. Who is your audience? What are the expectations? In my cuisine, the roots of the cooking skills remain intact, the style remains classic. The flavour profiles, however, will change. We mix ingredients that you may think cannot be mixed together, but it works! Take the classic khichri which is made of dal and chawal. Our version is made with mushrooms, topped with ice cream and a makhani sauce, with a papad keeping them apart. But, when you eat it with a spoon, the flavours just blend and it is wonderful — the hot and cold, the spicy and sweet…. To marry tradition with modernity, that is what our cuisine is based on…. It is evolved cuisine which remains Indian at heart.”

How far have you played with the tastes and dishes of your childhood?
“All the time! As you grow older, you crave flavours from your childhood. Eating pani puri on Chowpatty beach; chaat at Elco Market…. As any chef will tell you, childhood flavours are key — they are given to you in your formative years and stay with you forever. I still long for the vada pav with the thin green chutney and the matka kulfi that we would get outside our school. How to recreate these flavours, that’s the challenge.”

How do you spot good fusion from bad?
“The main thing is that food has to taste good. When people create fusion without understanding the basics of the cuisine, it is a fiasco. But, take a chef like Nobu. He lived in Japan, spent years in Peru…he understood both cuisines while creating his fusion food. I spent seven years in India and had a strong foundation of Indian food. So when I went to London, I was basically taking an ingredient often very classically cooked and serving it in a new avatar.”

What has inspired you to create your particular brand of cuisine?
“It was purely made out of survival. When I came to the UK in 1993, what was being served here as Indian food was embarrassing! I was the only Indian chef in the Indian restaurant that I worked at! The first thing I cooked was gajjar halwa and the customer sent it back saying that it should be served cold and shaped like a cube, like a barfi. That is what they were used to! I cooked a lamb korma or nalhi and it came back with a message saying that we are not dogs to eat bones. I realised then that if I cooked classic, I would get a slap on the face. So, my lamb shank korma became something different and it was accepted and liked. The dishes snowballed into something else.

Who knew that 25 years down the line, it would become the rage. You have to cook for the audience… you can only re-educate them slowly.”

What is the greatest skill required to change the traditional and make it work?
“The biggest change is in the mind. You need skill to ‘decompose’ a dish and recompose it. That is the challenge. How to reinvent and remodel Indian khana for the 21st century.”

Who has been your biggest influence in the industry?
“I look towards chefs in Europe, like Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon, both of whom have had classical training but have created modern restaurants. They are no longer chefs but entrepreneurs. Their influence is not just in the kitchen, they have a presence globally.”

What has been your biggest contribution to Indian cuisine?
Trying to lift it out of the greasy doldrums, and into something light. I want Indian food to be appreciated by a global audience, give Indian khana the respect it deserves.

With Rasoi closing down after 12 years, what are your plans for the future?
“Rasoi will close but a new avatar will emerge — a newer, bolder, bigger venture — a game changer for Indian food….”

Favourites: burnt garlic-olive chicken tikka, smoked edamame beans and spinach with chenna kofta in coastal coconut masala, whisky flambé paneer recheado with beetroot galauti and Goan sauce.

Small screen presence: Twist of Taste.

Style quotient: hats, scarves, jackets, custom-made footwear, trendy glasses.

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