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Kitchen King

Master chef Manish Mehrotra has become a name to reckon with amid epicures sitting across the table. But little do we know that the 38-year-old chef, who won the culinary battle in the reality show — Foodistan — is from Patna and has carved a niche for himself in the crowd of culinary stalwarts with his distinct style of cooking. The winner of the NDTV Good Times show has not only bagged a contract to write his own cookery book, but also the license to travel to any three cities in the world and understand the cuisines there. On his list are Australia, America and northern Europe. In a conversation with t2, Manish talks about his journey from classroom to the kitchen as a pro. An excerpt.

Why did you want to become a chef?

Well, it wasn’t my grandmother or mother’s style of cooking and recipes that intrigued me about food and inspired me to enter the kitchen. It was my own decision. After Plus Two, I decided to pursue hotel management and joined the Institute of Hotel Management (IHM), Mumbai, where cooking interested me. The rest is history, I guess.

Tell us about your formative years in Patna?

Growing up in a small town is simple, you know. Childhood was fun in Patna as I lived in a joint family on Dakbungalow Road I studied at St Xavier’s School and used to hang out with friends. Those days, there weren’t many options to go out and chill out with friends. My father was a strict vegetarian, so if I wanted to have non-veg stuff I would go to my chachi’s place. She used to stay in the same apartment where I stayed and she was a master cook by her own rights.

You are based at Mayur Vihar in Delhi now, so how often do you get to visit Patna?

I go to Patna quite frequently as my family, friends and relatives are there. Whenever I go to Patna, I ensure that I have chicken or egg roll from the roadside eateries. You don’t get such food in Delhi. They are quite lip smacking. Patna is close to my heart.

You were already an established chef, so what prompted you to participate in Foodistan?

I wanted to participate in Foodistan out of sheer curiosity. It was a contest between chefs from India and Pakistan. It was a wonderful learning experience to know about different styles of cooking. We hardly know about culinary genius of our neighbouring country. Foodistan was quite an eye-opener. I was taking part in competition after my college days. For me, winning or losing was not that important. I was taking it light, though there was pressure to perform well and be innovative.

What do think was your USP and helped to win the contest?

I feel I was fortunate enough from rest of the contestants in terms of exposure. I started my career with Thai cuisine, moved on to pan Asian cuisine at Oriental Octopus, New Delhi and then went on to open Tamarai, Old World Hospitality’s pan-Asian restaurant in London. London helped me in broadening my horizon. I stayed there for almost four years and during my stay, I picked up nuances of making different cuisines. For a man coming from India it was an enriching experience. My work has made me travel far and wide and I have had the opportunity of eating at some of the best restaurants in the world. So I feel this knowledge and expertise helped me reach where I am today.

Who was the toughest competitor and what did you prepare in the finale?

Poppy Agha from Pakistan gave me a tough competition. She had all the qualities of a winner. We could use exotic ingredients to prepare the delicacies; however, the essence had to be Indian. So I prepared in for starters Crispy Soft Shell Crab, Flame Roast Coconut Chips, Crispy Curry Leaves and Indian spices, in the main course it was Pan Seared Basa, Haaq Saag (grown in Dal lake), Kashmiri Chilli Butter, Walnut Pulao and for the dessert it was Chiraunji Makhane ki Kheer, Banana Caramel, Rose Petal Chikki. I have now added these delicacies in our menu at Indian Accent, New Delhi.

How has life been post-Foodistan?

Good. It has brought modern Indian style of cooking in the limelight. When customers come to Indian Accent, they ask for dishes prepared during Foodistan. We’ve seen more and more footfalls in the restaurant, which is brilliant.

Don’t you want to open a restaurant in your hometown?

Well, yes. I would love to open a restaurant in Patna. But the downside is that people there are not very experimental in terms of taste. The palate is far behind compared to other cities of the country. Though, Patna is developing I feel that it will take some time for people to develop taste for something contemporary.

Which country do you feel has an extensive and rich cuisine?

China, without doubt! I’ve been there several times and have realised that there is so much more than Noodles!

What would be an ideal meal according to you and what is your favourite delicacy?

Ideal meal depends from time to time. For instance, if I am with friends for a drink, then it would just be something chatpatta (spicy). At home it would usually be simple ghar ka khana like dal or rajma chawal but if I am dining out it would definitely be Mushroom Risotto, which is my favourite.

Who is the one you love to cook for?

My daughter - Adah. She is a foodie and loves prawn.

Any celeb you would like to invite for dinner?

Amitabh Bachchan - My favorite actor. I believe he is a vegetarian, so I will prepare as many vegetarian dishes as I know…if ever I get to cook
for him.

You have your fingers in too many pies? Looking after Indian Accent, Oriental Octopus (Delhi Noida & Lavasa) and Tamarai in London? How do you juggle?

I guess it’s all because of the great team that I have. I experiment with them, share my experiences, my techniques, the ingredients, and the recipes and also ensure they follow it well. I have full confidence on them and am very proud of them.

Who has been your inspiration?

Chef Rick Stein. He prepares out-of-the-world recipes. There is honesty in his cooking. Nothing fancy, yet delicious.

Cooking apart, what else you love to do?

I love watching movies and cricket matches.

Which are the ingredients you swear by?

My favourite ingredients are garlic, coconut and oyster sauce.

What’s next on your agenda?

Lots! Can’t talk much about it right now.

What tip would you give to aspiring chefs?

Working hard is the only key to success. Hotel industry is very demanding so you have to live up to the challenges. However, I feel, full dedication and commitment is required for any profession.