Brexit has put Chef Alfred Prasad’s dream on hold
Post-college Prasad joined the ITC group as part of their kitchen management training programme at New Delhi's Maurya Sheraton. It was here that the foundation for his cuisine was laid. He worked at Bukhara, Dum Pukht and the Indian banquets.
Prasad trained under Imtiaz Qureshi at Dum Pukht and Madan Lal Jaiswal at Bukhara. But more than anything it was training under chef Nisar Waris at The Rajputana in Jaipur – in a two-month programme - that shaped Prasad's work ethos. 'Waris is not only a genius but also one who would hold your hand and teach.'
Prasad feels that most great chefs are reluctant to teach beginners. They treat recipes as family secrets and are unwilling to disclose them. 'The chef would send you off on an insignificant errand, like getting ginger garlic paste. When you returned you would see that the colour of the sauce had changed. He would have added some potli masala that he had hidden in his pocket. You had to peel onions for two months before he taught you one small thing,' he says, laughing.
Prasad's first posting was in Chennai where he headed the south Indian cuisine restaurant, Dakshin, for six years. In 1999, Prasad joined London-based Veeraswamy, owned by the Chutney Mary Group. And in 2001, he moved to Tamarind as sous chef. Within a year he became the executive chef. In 2002, when Prasad was just 29 years old, the restaurant got its first Michelin star, making Prasad the youngest Indian chef to receive a Michelin star. From then - Prasad was at Tamarind until 2015 - the restaurant received a star every single year.
'For an Indian chef, London is both challenging and exhilarating. Taking classic dishes and adapting them to an international palate was very satisfying,' Prasad says. One such dish was the Kashmiri Nalli -- a roganjosh inspired lamb shank -- a favourite of Prasad's. He loves working with lamb. 'I am a great believer in the magic of low and slow, that is slow cooking on a low flame and lamb is ideal for that.'
His lamb has had many celebrity fans - Tom Cruise was one of them. Every time he was shooting within two hours flying time of London, he either had his crew pick the dish up or he would pick it up himself.
The Kashmiri Nalli is on the Omya menu too. Prasad thinks this dish exemplifies his philosophy - heritage, health and happiness. While consulting for MCC Lord's and Gleneagles in Scotland, he visits Omya every three months to tweak the menu.
Like most chefs, Prasad is very finicky about his ingredients. 'It is important to know where the ingredients are being sourced from. I believe in encouraging small farmers.' At Omya, market visits are scheduled not just for the purchase department but for the entire senior management. “We go to chicken farms, duck farms, geese farms,” he says.
Has it been hard readjusting to India? Prasad feels moving from a big hotel kitchen in India to a small restaurant kitchen in London was more challenging than coming back. “You get used to the space, having a large team, the latest equipment. Then you move to a smaller, cramped kitchen. It takes time.”
Forty five-year-old Alfred Prasad, under whose guidance the London-based Indian restaurant Tamarind received a Michelin star for 13 consecutive years, is not happy with Brexit.
In 2015, Prasad, who grew up in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, quit Tamarind to set up his own restaurant in London. 'I had crossed 40 and I was, like, I don't want to be an employee chef for much longer than this. I need to go out, spread my wings, do my own thing.'
But London has put no wind beneath his entrepreneurial wings. Prasad's plans have been stalled, thanks to Britain’s decision to exit the European Union. As a chef entrepreneur Prasad now has to worry about getting the economics right.
'While over the last 10 years it was already hard for Indian chefs to move to the UK, now even hard-working Italians, Greeks and Romanians will not be allowed. So who is going to run our restaurants and hotels? The British don't work, they don't have the stamina for the service industry,' says the chef, who currently spends time between India and the UK as a consultant.
He says that the UK-EU divorce makes it more expensive for him to get started. 'Everyone is competing for the limited skills available. To retain my employees I'll now have to pay higher than average.” Challenging times, we agree.
The positive fallout is that Delhi-ites are enjoying his expertise. While he looks for the right place and the right staff in London, he has started Omya, at The Oberoi. Prasad is perfectly happy to have come full circle and got a chance to showcase his global expertise in the national capital. “I see this as a perfect homecoming,” he says. The universe always has its own plan.
Prasad anyway considers himself an accidental chef. Growing up with an Anglo-Indian mother and a Tamil Brahmin father in Vellore, Prasad’s dream was to become an air force pilot. But fate, and his mother, had other plans. Post-school while Prasad sat for the National Defence Academy (NDA) exam, his mother secretly filled up the forms for the Indian Institute of Hotel Management, Chennai. She convinced him to sit for the exam for a lark. When the results for both the exams came, Prasad flunked the NDA entrance but made it to the hotel management institute. He now had to choose between waiting another year to take the NDA entrance or going ahead with hotel management. Thankfully, for hundreds of diners across the world, he chose the latter.