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Chef Diaries

There’s nowhere else I’d rather live in India than Kolkata: Shaun Kenworthy

In his birthday month, the UK-born chef talks about finding work, passion and love in his 21 years in Kolkata

Karo Christine Kumar | Published 18.01.23, 08:49 PM
“I love Bengal and'I've always been fascinated with it. I think it’s one of those unknown jewels in the Indian culinary world particularly when it comes to vegetarian food,' says Shaun

“I love Bengal and'I've always been fascinated with it. I think it’s one of those unknown jewels in the Indian culinary world particularly when it comes to vegetarian food,' says Shaun

We’re at The Glenburn Penthouse, an elegant and discreet boutique hotel on Kolkata’s Russell Street.

A group of chatty “leather wives” from Tangra are seated at one of the tables.

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A couple of officials from a city consulate are meeting at another.

And UK-born, Kolkata-based chef Shaun Kenworthy and I on the plush velvet red couch, catching up on what will be his 22nd year in Kolkata.

It’s always tough to write about someone you’ve known for years. In the early 2000s, Shaun was the only “white boy” in the city and the talk of the town when he became the executive chef at The Park. I was a trainee journalist at the time. His marriage to one of the top models, Pinky, made them a “celebrity couple”, scarce in those days in a city like Kolkata. They were present at almost every social event and party, getting featured in Page 3 and doing some wonderful work in their respective professions. They still do.

A photo from the early 2000s after just joining The Park and (right) at an event at Olive Bar and Kitchen, Mumbai, around the same time

A photo from the early 2000s after just joining The Park and (right) at an event at Olive Bar and Kitchen, Mumbai, around the same time

Courtesy Shaun Kenworthy

It was the era when Indian tastes were just awakening to international cuisines. Soon, he was writing a food column and his British brand of humour suggested we call it ‘Chocolate, Chillies & other Culinary Vulgarities’. It was well-read and I suppose all that writing and thinking led him to pen a book during the pandemic.

It’s a beautiful yet-to-be published book on his life, dotted with recipes that will take you down memory lane. As a chef, he’s always played with tastes and flavours; he calls it “a sort of bastardisation of Bengali food”. Things like a Bengal black rice crab-stuffed arancini, almost like a fritter, served with a coulis of the much-loved Bengali tomato chutney. Or a Kolkata bekti with hand-tossed ivy gourd or kundru topped with Gondhoraj foam. Heck, even before people were petitioning for a GI tag for the indigenous Bandel Cheese, he had put it in his dishes. Shaun has a way of finding the ordinary and making it extraordinary.

L-R: Crab and Bengal black rice arancini with sweet and sour panch phoron spiced pepper coulis, and Bengal farmed soft shell crab with homemade kasundi mustard and gondhoraj foam. “My friend Surojit started farming soft shell crabs in Bengal. I'm his only customer because whatever else he makes he sends to the UK,” says Shaun

L-R: Crab and Bengal black rice arancini with sweet and sour panch phoron spiced pepper coulis, and Bengal farmed soft shell crab with homemade kasundi mustard and gondhoraj foam. “My friend Surojit started farming soft shell crabs in Bengal. I'm his only customer because whatever else he makes he sends to the UK,” says Shaun

glenburnpenthouse/Instagram

He’s even dared to toy with the classic ‘Calcutta biryani’ and it’s surprisingly good. The biryani is deconstructed, so the rice is overcooked and made into a puree, there’s a little bit of 12-hour cooked lamb, some confit potato, a soft boiled egg, and some crispy onions.

Shaun wears the teacher's hat with IIHM students

Shaun wears the teacher's hat with IIHM students

Courtesy Shaun Kenworthy

As a professional, he is innovative and easy-going. As an educator, students love how “chill” he is. If you bump into him socially, you’re likely to get one of the best hugs in the city from this chappie! As the Britisher steps into his 22nd year of making Kolkata home, we deconstruct his love for the city.

Kolkata - a historical diamond in the rough

Shaun, aged about 18, with his mother and (right) aged about nine, with his father

Shaun, aged about 18, with his mother and (right) aged about nine, with his father

Courtesy Shaun Kenworthy

Shaun grew up in Stalybridge, a small working-class town just outside of Manchester, northern England.

He arrived in India in 2000 and spent a year with India Habitat Centre, Delhi. He planned to go back after his contract ended in October 2001 but 9/11 happened. He met Priya Paul of The Park that year, and she said, ‘We’re opening a hotel in Bangalore and one in Chennai, and there are quite a few things happening. If you're interested in staying in India, then we might have something for you’.

“Everyone said to me, “India! Why India? Who goes there? There’s nothing there! Nothing is happening there!” This was a time when most of the chefs in London were heading out to work in Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong, but for sure no one was going to India!” says Shaun.

But when he came to Kolkata on November 6, 2001, he already felt more at home than he did in a whole year in Delhi. “If you look at any former colonial city in the world, that beautiful architecture and history has been exploited to death, really. But in Kolkata, almost all of it still exists. It’s still standing here, not demolished, down to the warehouses near the river, even if not in great condition. Within a couple of weeks I had fallen in love with the city. Just walking around, jumping on and off buses. It really is that diamond in the rough,” says Shaun.

Atrium Cafe and Flurys to The Blue Potato and The Glenburn Penthouse

At Atrium Cafe and (right) the Blue Potato partners (l-r) Shaun, Pinaki Mitra and Naveen Pai. The modern French restaurant on Outram Street ran for around 18 months

At Atrium Cafe and (right) the Blue Potato partners (l-r) Shaun, Pinaki Mitra and Naveen Pai. The modern French restaurant on Outram Street ran for around 18 months

Courtesy Shaun Kenworthy

The first thing Shaun did when he joined The Park was open Atrium Cafe. In those days, it was an iconic coffee shop, busy round-the-clock. People would step out of Tantra or Someplace Else and head straight for breakfast to Atrium!

The last thing he did with The Park was reopen Flurys in December 2003. “When I first entered the factory, I was blown away by an old baking oven made by ‘Baker Perkins’ and shipped from the UK to Calcutta in 1896. It had spent its early years in The Great Eastern Bakery up until they upgraded and sold it to Mr Flury himself and it remained wood fired up until 1993!”

When he left the hotel, he opened a modern French cuisine restaurant called The Blue Potato “with incredible ingredients, the likes Kolkata hadn’t seen since the roaring sixties.” Anyone who visited Kolkata dropped in, including Antonio Banderas and Ricky Martin, who were both associated with a charity in Calcutta. “The only reason it shut was because it didn’t serve liquor, being within close proximity to a church,” he says, his fingers patting his Japanese Enso Circle tattoo, symbolic of imperfections.

Homemade Piccalilli and Kalimpong cheese toasties and (right) Shaun’s take on the Anglo-Indian classic pork vindaloo and rice

Homemade Piccalilli and Kalimpong cheese toasties and (right) Shaun’s take on the Anglo-Indian classic pork vindaloo and rice

glenburnpenthouse/Instagram

Even though it shut shop, it opened many doors. “A lot of people started asking me, ‘Why don't you open a restaurant for us or consult for us?' So since 2005 I’ve worked on around 150 projects in India in retail, wholesale, bakeries, confectioneries, hotels, QSRs, curated menus, consultancy, product launches and masterclasses. Then I decided after lockdown that I wanted to take fewer projects but nicer ones,” says Shaun.

Glenburn Tea Estate’s Anshuman and Husna-Tara Prakash used to visit The Blue Potato and they loved the food. They told him about a nine-room hotel and asked if he’d like to help. “I designed the kitchen around eight years before the Penthouse opened. It was built keeping in mind only ever 18 guests a day; initially we didn’t plan to let in outsiders,” says Shaun.

Husna-Tara Prakash and Shaun at an event at The Glenburn Penthouse

Husna-Tara Prakash and Shaun at an event at The Glenburn Penthouse

Amit Datta

The Penthouse took a couple years to open and another year to get permission to do a little infinity pool on the terrace. Shaun wasn’t so involved when it opened but a chance meeting with Husna-Tara during the pandemic led to a discussion on the F&B. “We started table d’hote and tasting menus, which is a bit of fun for me because I get to tell 20 years of stories in food. I said, let’s do nice things, you know, because nobody does really nice things in the city. I don’t want to get into trouble but five-star hotels cater to the mass, the upper middle class. Nobody’s doing beautiful, curated menus for special occasions so let’s do something nice but let’s not be cheap about it,” says Shaun. Suddenly, The Glenburn Penthouse became this magnet for bespoke dinners, private parties and special occasions.

Finding love in the city

Shaun and Pinky after they were just married 18 years ago

Shaun and Pinky after they were just married 18 years ago

Courtesy Shaun Kenworthy

When Shaun worked in The Park, he would meet Pinky, who was one of the top models at the time, and a fashion choreographer, teacher and grooming professional today.

He would bump into Pinky when she was walking into Tantra at 2am and he’d be walking out for work in the morning. “We used to catch up and have coffee in the afternoon. I would sit with all the pretty models chatting… why wouldn’t I?” he grins.

The couple at their marriage registry

The couple at their marriage registry

Courtesy Shaun Kenworthy

“Then her divorce came through a couple of months before I’d split up with my girlfriend. One day we were chatting and I said, come home for lunch. I asked her a couple of times and she said no. Then eventually, she agreed and we stuck together after that. Within three months, we were married. She was this well-known person and I was the only white boy in the city so it made news,” he laughs.

In October 2022, the couple celebrated their 18th anniversary.

The question oft asked - what are you still doing in Kolkata?

Trifle Bengal, a piece of sponge with some Angoori Rasmalai, mango and a quenelle of 'mishti doi' ice cream, and (right) Basque-style chhena and nolen gur cheesecake

Trifle Bengal, a piece of sponge with some Angoori Rasmalai, mango and a quenelle of 'mishti doi' ice cream, and (right) Basque-style chhena and nolen gur cheesecake

glenburnpenthouse/Instagram

“It’s difficult to explain why I love Kolkata but I think it’s the people and cities are all about people,” says Shaun.

Recently, work has taken him to Rann of Kutch to consult for Rann Riders by Kaafila, Jaisalmer for a luxury property called Suryagarh and yet-to-open Sitara in the Himalayas. He’s also spent some time at The Tollygunge Club in Kolkata trying to evolve their F&B despite the challenges of old clubs.

Calcutta fish fry, homemade kasundi, paanch phoron beet puree, sour cherry dust and (right) Smoked Bandel cheese and caramelised onion galette

Calcutta fish fry, homemade kasundi, paanch phoron beet puree, sour cherry dust and (right) Smoked Bandel cheese and caramelised onion galette

glenburnpenthouse/Instagram

There are plans to open more Glenburn Cafes in Kolkata in 2023. “It’s a good functional space. We want to make more of them,” reveals Shaun.

Over the years, he’s gotten offers to move to Mumbai and Bangalore but home is where the heart is. “The city has its own pace. I don't think you have to be anybody you're not, here. I think you can just be yourself in this city which is a rarity.”

On a rare free day, he loves to roam around his favourite pockets in the city - the Lakes, Maidan, the riverside, Kumartulli, Dalhousie and the old watch shops… and just wondering what they were like in their prime! Or spending time with buddy Paul Walsh on the ‘Crow field’.

“There’s nowhere else I'd rather live, really, in India. It’s like going back to that diamond in the rough kind of thing, isn’t it?”

Last updated on 19.01.23, 03:13 PM
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