How can we not start with this question. You’re known as the pioneers of modern Indian food. How would you describe it?
What I think is that it’s very difficult to explain. It’s nothing modern as such. It’s just an upgradation; if you want to call it modern, that’s fine. If you call unique combinations, then it is modern. For example: if I do a mutton curry where oil is not floating on top, it is modern. It’s basically about getting the flavour, texture and feel of the dish. And honestly speaking, we don’t have to invent dishes. India has such rich cuisines and culinary history and heritage that all that we need is already here, we just have to dig it out, polish it and present it.
What made you push the envelope to create the kind of food that you did?
It was a requirement because when I travelled the world, I saw how rest of the cuisines were presented in an acceptable manner. Gore ko hamare khane se darr lagta hai. They’re scared because our recipes are intricate, and so detailed. You’ve to make your cuisine less intimidating and more relatable. Look at Chinese food, they’ve made their cuisines so simplified that today everyone in the world knows and eats it, even if not in its authentic form. Look at pizza for instance, Italy mein pizza banana wala must be turning in his grave hearing of paneer tikka pizza but it’s actually still qualifying as Italian. So I thought why can’t we make our cuisine so comfortable that people aren’t afraid of trying to make it or eat it.
How do you think that the trend has manifested itself in current times?
Now eating out is no longer a rare luxury. It has become a necessity and hence food needs to be more adaptable and palate friendly. Earlier there was a clear demarcation between what we make at home and what we eat outside. But now that has dissolved. And with that change, modern Indian food has adapted really well in today’s times.
Were you always passionate about cooking, or was it a love that slowly took shape?
No, for me it was purely work oriented. I joined hospitality institute and kitchen and its creativity fascinated me and thus began my journey. I have no childhood memory or inspiration of wanting to cook. (Chuckles)
As a chef, what are the rules that you live by?
Food should be tasty. No matter what you’re cooking or how you’re making it, food must be tasty, and appealing. Another rule that I follow is that I don’t mix two cuisines in a dish. I try to incorporate different combinations of ingredients. I don’t understand the term authenticity. There’s no such thing as specifically authentic. You can’t go and find an authentic recipe of any dish so going into that debate is pointless.
If you had to cook for three people living or alive, who would they be and what would you make them?
Amitabh Bachchan, Julia Roberts, and chef Rick Stein. I don’t know their dietary requirements as of now so no clue of a special dish. But I would feed them good stuff.
What’s your signature dish?
There’s no single signature dish but my Daulat Ki Chaat, Blue Cheese Naan, are some of my favourites that we make.
Apart from Indian, what’s your other favourite cuisines to experiment with?
I don’t have a favourite cuisine. I’m more of a craving-centric person. Sometimes you really want a van-style noodles and a dark spicy gravy to eat it with. Chaat, sushi, risotto. It all depends on the craving.
A chef you admire and want to collaborate with?
All the good chefs I would say I would love to work with. Chef Rick Stein I would say, because of his honesty towards his food.
What are some of the ingredients you can’t do without?
Oyster sauce, Parmesan cheese, chaat masala, garlic and coconut.
What are some ingredients that you don’t like working with?
Once upon a time when I was in college, I had bad memories of a beetroot and dill salad, and I ended up disliking it because we were forced to eat it in the mess. But now gradually, I’ve come to love it as I started travelling and eating beetroot in some of the best restaurants.
What’s your comfort food?
It totally depends on the time. 2am it’s Maggi. Last meal of my life: Mushroom risotto. In fact two days ago my daughter made a mushroom risotto and it was phenomenal. It was al dente and she knows my taste.
How different is the food market when it comes to India and New York?
Delhi palate is evolving and New York is evolved. Cities such as New York, London, Melbourne are super cosmopolitan and you get all sorts of evolved and finely tuned cuisines. Delhi and Bombay are slowly evolving. Ten years ago Korean and Japanese cuisine weren’t here in the market, but now there are some great ones in the country.
Bengal has a very rich cuisine of its own. What are your favourites from the cuisine?
Kolkata biryani is my favourite biryani. I love the biryani here.
What’s your family’s take on your food? What are some of the dishes that they love?
My father never ate in my restaurant because he ate no onion and no garlic. My wife was also a chef, she was Tamilian, born and brought up in Pune so she had good Maharashtrian cuisine. I’m from Bihar living in Delhi, so we have a melting pot of Indian cuisine. My daughter is a foodie, and we love to take vacations to eat and explore new food.
What are some of the restaurants in India and abroad that you think are doing a great job?
Thousands of them are there. Chef Prateek Sadhu is doing great. Hussain Shahzad of O Pedro is going great. I’ve heard great things about Ekaa in Mumbai, haven’t tried it yet.
Pictures: B. Halder