Vineet Bhatia – The Face of Progressive Indian Cuisine

Vineet Bhatia arrived in London way back in 1993 with little more than a suitcase full of books, a lofty ambition, his love of Indian cuisine and a passion for cooking! Fast-forward a few years and Bhatia has now published a  few successful cookery books, recorded a TV series, opened several restaurants and is the first Indian chef-patron to be have been awarded a Michelin star, and is now seen as the face of progressive modern Indian cuisine.

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Born in India in 1967, Vineet grew up in a middle-class family in Bombay (now Mumbai). He initially had his heart set on the skies and not the kitchen. Failing his medicals brought his dreams of becoming a pilot crashing down to earth. In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened to him, as then he turned all his attention towards his other passion, food. What better place to follow his dream than Bombay, a melting pot that combines a diverse range of culinary influences from many different regions of India. Fascinated by this diversity and his mum’s shared desire for cooking, he enthusiastically ventured into the world of food.

Vineet Bhatia is one of the world’s most sought-after chefs at this point, he talks about his hunger for cooking…. which was latent in his formative years.

“I grew up in Bombay near Juhu aerodrome and every morning my alarm call at 6:30 was the Gulf Air flight to Bahrain. My brother and I loved waking up to the sound of the engines, we would cycle down to school to Vile Parle just so we would go through the Juhu aerodrome… the idea was to spot the helicopters and airplanes along the way. In the mid ‘70’s there were no security guards so you could walk in and out without any hindrance. We were a very middle class and simple family. My father was an accountant and my mother a lawyer. Other family members were in different services like doctors or engineers as was the norm in India. I never was never keen on those lines; I wanted to be a pilot and serve my country. I wanted to do my engineering first and then start flying, the whole idea was to go into space, be an astronaut!”

Vineet Bhatia truly wanted to join the air force when he took his defence exams but to his dismay was turned down. The medics told him he didn’t meet the height requirements to be a pilot. He tried textile designing for a while but that wasn’t his “cup of Darjeeling” either. That’s when he got the idea about being a barman, the thought of mixing drinks sounded exotic to him. A summer job landed him this opportunity to work behind the bar but that didn’t last long and he was told he was too short to stand behind a bar. “So, they put me in the back, in the kitchen.” That opened a whole new world, one that was incredibly disciplined and intense with activity. It was enough to sign up for a degree in hotel management.

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He goes on to tell us that 1985 was an eye opener for him, he had no love for food but the opposite as he used to shy away from it except Mithai(Indian sweets) and other sweets.  When he walked into a kitchen at Oberoi Towers, (now Trident) at Nariman Point, Bhatia still remembers, it was so well disciplined and organised and this was at 6:45 in the morning. They made him stand in line to his check shoes, nails, haircut, his shave, the uniform and if it was not correct, he would have been sent back. “I thought, wow this is great, this is some kitchen, it’s clean, its well run, well-mannered and people are not abusive or shouting at each other.  So, I decided then, that this is what I wanted to do. So, I actually learned to cook.”

Vineet would spend hours and hours in the kitchen on his off days and made sure to put in the extra hours to learn. He did this for himself as he was greedy for knowledge and could do it at that time as he was only 17. Bhatia wanted to experience what the world was about through cooking. While most of his friends were enjoying, going to movies, he would spend his spare time working in the kitchen.

At the age of 20 he joined the renowned Oberoi Hotel School (now OCLD). It is here that he was handpicked from candidates from all over India to be trained for a further two years. He tells us “I went through the training, six days a week: three days in college and three days on the job experience and finally we had the Sunday off. I used to finish college or work by 4:35pm and would get into kitchen by 6:30pm on my own, and even on my off days. “My batch mates used to say, ‘this guy is crazy he is trying to save money’ but it was not about saving money, it was about learning.”

Part of their training was to work in various kitchens whether it be the Patisserie, Chinese, Indian, the coffee shop, in banquet, the soup section or the butchery and all had fixed timings. Vineet used to come half-hour early to spend even more time in the kitchen and created a fixed habit to always be early.

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“We never finished at 4.00, the staff go on time but we, as a trainee and apprentice had to put in the extra hours; it would be past 4:30 or 5:00 before we would go back to the locker room, shower, freshen up, change and back in the kitchen at 6:00, where I could do whatever I wanted.” Vineet used to go back and work on the tandoor or in the curry section, and would work till 12:00. He would struggle to sleep for 5 to 6 hours but the fire and passion would drive him back to work and with a keen interest of how he could grasp whatever possible in the shortest space of time kept him going.

Vineet Bhatia was finally ready to work “When you finish your two years you’re asked for your placement. I asked for Bombay, because besides being home ground, this property was the flagship (and has always been) as well as the busiest hotel in the group. Fortunately for me the gentlemen who came for the final interview was the senior vice president and was based in Bombay and so I was granted my wish. The second important part was the kitchen that one would get assigned to. And as we lined up, being the shortest and youngest in my batch, I was right in front. Despite that I was spoken to last as each one of us was asked their (kitchen) work area of preference. Someone said Chinese, someone said French, someone else said patisserie and I said Indian. The senior chef assigned the chef-candidates to their kitchens (they had asked for) but I was asked to stay behind for a chat. It was less of a chat and more a telling off, of my life. The crème de la crème were assigned French kitchens (and this also presented a scope of an International placement) and here I was requesting Indian! My chef mentor was severely disappointed as hitherto I was his winning horse, his star pupil, but with my choice of Indian kitchen, was now letting him down.  I can still hear his booming voice, ‘why do you want to do Indian food, as there is no scope in that kitchen. Do you want to do kababs, biryani and breads for the rest of your life?” My explanation that Indian food and cuisine felt very close to my heart, one that I could relate to, fell on deaf ears.

Vineet was deployed to a continental section under the watchful eye of both the Continental chef in charge as well as the senior chef mentor. However, whenever possible, after work or during his off hours he would go back to work in the Indian kitchen and was invariably found there. Finally, the powers that be were fed up with him and by way of punishment Vineet was placed in the butchery. The banquets (akin to most banquets in India) are fueled by Indian cuisine and heavily reliant on butchery. And having worked in the Indian kitchen Vineet was well versed with the butchery spec that formed a part of the Indian cuisine and so was quick to notice that often the wrong cut of meat would be given from the butchery.  So that was the task he set for himself – to ensure that the right cuts left the butchery for the Indian kitchen! His’ butchery stint/ punishment’ lasted for six months after which he was called to report all that he had learnt to the head chef.  “I handed in an eight-page report, that the Executive chef reading only the first two pages, tore and threw in the bin. He looked me straight in the eye and enquired as to where my heart lay?  “The Indian kitchen of course and without anything further to say I was sent there. That day I did loose my chef-mentor but gained the Indian Kitchen. Few months later, seeing my happiness and dedication, the chef-mentor was back on my side and on talking terms”

It is in this post as Chef- in -Charge at The Oberoi, Bombay that Vineet’s determination was tested and talent revealed. Here he was somewhat underwhelmed and disappointed by the disparity that existed between the French and Indian cuisine. Whilst his French cuisine counterparts were applauded for their creativity, he was instructed to keep well within the rigid traditions of Indian recipes, which didn’t allow any attempts at being creative. These inflexibilities and above all, tradition-oriented kitchens didn’t give him the leeway he needed to unfurl his creativity and satisfy the urge to elevate Indian cuisine to a global platform.

Exploring options outside of the Oberoi, he had four options in front of him: Dubai, Bangkok, Tokyo, and London and he chose London. Why London? Not because of anything else but the Heathrow Airport with all the aircrafts and the love of grey, rainy weather as the hot, humid Indian summers gave him headaches. Once he had moved to London, it was eerily deja vu as from his bedroom window, on the third floor above the restaurant; yet again (every evening between 4:30 to 5:00) he could see the majestic crafts fly. This in some strange way was a comforting, reassuring sign. He would stand there, mesmerized oblivious of the fact that in just a matter of 10 years he would get real close with these flying birds as the consulting Chef for British Airways and the Concorde.

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However, once in London Vineet was unaware of what lay in store for him and what Indian cuisine really meant to Londoners, i.e. overly spiced curries washed down with pints of beer.

Boy, did he have his work cut out at the first outpost, the Star of India where he stayed for five years. He used everything he’d learnt to create a professional environment, followed by changes to the menu bit by bit. After a year, he’d not only changed the entire menu but had also transformed the clientele from the typical late night curry eaters to true gourmets. It wasn’t long before he was hailed as the “Star of India” himself.

Keen to have more independence, Vineet partnered up and opened Zaika in 1999 – and just two years later became the first Indian chef-patron to be awarded a Michelin star in the Guide’s 104-year history and rightly so. He had proved that Indian food could evolve and go beyond the stereotyped “curries” with floating oil, cooked by non-Indians in the many curry houses all over the United Kingdom.  His food could not be pigeon-holed into the norms of traditional Indian cuisine. Instead, the combinations, contrasts in textures, flavours and temperatures and the sheer expressive range of his food came from Vineet himself. His light and imaginative dishes displayed a clever balance between innovation and an immense respect for the history of Indian cuisine.

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In 2004, Vineet finally realized his life-long dream of having his own restaurant, when he opened Rasoi (Hindi for “kitchen”) with his life partner. The restaurant held a Michelin Star since 2006. Rasoi allowed him to showcase his “Evolved Indian” approach with dishes such as grilled chilli-garlic lobster dusted with cocoa powder and 24-carat gold leaf crusted black-spiced Chicken Tikka. His most copied Chocomosa or Chocolate Samosas, filled with dark and white chocolate, redefined Indian cuisine.

This wide acclaim drew the attention of many hotels worldwide who approached Vineet for his expertise and in 2005 Indego by Vineet was launched at Grosvenor House Hotel, Dubai and led the way for others to follow. In 2009 his other venture Rasoi by Vineet in Geneva was awarded a Michelin star, thereby putting him back in the history books as the only Indian chef to have the much sort after star for restaurants both in UK and outside.

When asked what he felt like to be the first Indian chef to hold a Michelin star? Chef Bhatia replied, “I was blank, absolutely blank, it came as a shock as it was so unexpected. We had not anticipated getting any awards or such recognition because just prior to the opening of ‘Zaika’ we had gone through tremendous turmoil and so receiving a Michelin Star or being in The Sunday Times Top UK Restaurants wasn’t the driving force but to be able to serve food that I strongly believed in and related to was! Michelin came totally out of the blue, we were totally unaware and it was not until we received an early morning call from The New York Times asking what it felt like to have won did the reality dawn on us. I replied, ‘I don’t know, it’s not something which we were aiming for, or I could have wished for in my wildest dreams!

“In hindsight having Michelin stars, means that people take you seriously and are able to equate it with excellence. It is a game changer especially in those days when the media and Google weren’t as prominent”. “Although you may have broken the mould, burst the bubble and made history in some shape or form, what is more satisfying and tangible is when a Mr. or Mrs Smith who come to dine leave happy and pleasantly surprised discovering another side to Indian cuisine”.

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All the awards and accolades received heart-warming as they were wouldn’t feed the family particularly as he was in a parasitic partnership that did not translate to any financial gain. It was now time to get out of this relationship. When he opened Rasoi twelve plus year’s back, if somebody had asked him what was his long-term plan he would’ve said “There was no plan. There was not even a five-month plan at that time. The whole idea was to be able to do what one wanted to without seeking approvals, giving justifications and seeking fair share.” So, they applied for loans.

When the bank representative named Harry was sent to interview and gather information (Vineet and his wife Rashima), he was rather taken aback as was expecting to see an English gentleman but instead walked in to find an Indian guy sitting there. “Several questions later when we were asked ‘what is your break-even?’ my wife Rashima answered “2,520 odd pounds”. Harry looking slightly confused asked us how we had arrived at that figure and again Rashima replied, “that is the cost of the mortgage and our children’s (Independent) school fees, and as long as we can get that we would be okay. Food will come from the restaurant, however education cannot be compromised.”

Further conversation revealed ‘Safran Restaurant’ at the then One & Only Le Touessrok Hotel in Mauritius where Vineet consulted and Harry who coincidentally was Mauritian and had dined and experienced Safran was suddenly very receptive. It was as if everything made sense and they were reassured on the level of cuisine that would form a part of this new project in London. The bank offered the loan for the start up and as they say, rest was history.

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Today when one talks to Chef Bhatia he is relaxed and humble as always. He tells us, “Good food is about eating with your eyes closed; enjoying a meal and being amazed by what you can taste. I enjoy composing a menu first on paper, sketching it as I see it in my minds eye. For me good food instantly transports me to happy memories, the food, the flavours I tasted as a child growing up in Bombay and visiting relatives all over India and I hope to be able to transport my guests to that same state of comfort triggering happy memories and creating fresh memories with every bite”

When composing a menu Vineet draws on his heritage. He ensures that each dish is a balance of flavours, a harmony of all senses that come together to make a memorable meal. “It is the visual presentation, the sound, the smell, the touch, the temperature, the way your mouth feels, that all blend together and give you a complete and balanced experience of dish.” When balancing a menu Bhatia often refers to as composing a musical piece, there are ups and downs, peeks and troughs, all should not be boring and plain flat. Textures, colours, temperatures form vital components that help bring the experience together.

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Bhatia tells us his greatest influences in the kitchen are the people that he works with. “Food is food, you have to open your mind and as a young man I did not have the opportunity to travel around India much. I had never been to Kerala or to most of south India. I was making south Indian dishes that I had learnt from the cooks I worked with.”  Vineet feels, it is the buzz and excitement you get from being in a restaurant, the constant innovation and an ever-evolving menu that keeps him going at the end of the day. He has people of Chinese origin working in the kitchen or Spanish guys in the larder or a French guy who is a food runner. This way, he is always surrounded by different views on life, a different feel for food, culture and style. He is always on a constant learning curve and the interesting suggestions and honest feedback from the team help but the strong gut instincts and how he reacts to them mostly help shape his ideas and dishes.

Vineet’s biggest inspirational ingredient and what motivates him is passion, the passion to cook. Often people remark his Chocolate Samosas or his Mushroom Khichdi served with Makhni ice cream as legendary and to be his signature dishes whilst there are some that query what these signature dishes might be. He replies, “There is no signature dish, just a signature approach towards food.” He feels it is hard to point to one singular dish. Over the years there are so many, some get reinvented, some move on and some remain the same. He goes onto to say, “Food (in restaurants) is not to be viewed only as an art form but also that satisfies your soul and is cooked with passion, if that’s missing, then all is lost.”

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Chef Bhatia never wanted to write a book, it was Rashima’s idea. “I am not a paper and pen guy at all.” So, Rashima took on this challenge and with Aunty Marge, an 81-year-old English neighbour (in London) appointed as the home economist most of the recipes were actually trialled out before making it into the book. Aunty Marge had no idea about Indian food or how to cook it but was an enthusiast and wanted to give it a shot.  She would toddle off to the local supermarket armed with nothing but the recipe and shop the necessary spices and ingredients. They figured, if Aunty Marge could find everything she needed and follow the instructions and get the flavours right, they were onto a winner with “New Indian Kitchen”. If she could cook the dishes at home, then anyone could do it, so the book would work. Yet the first line of the book says: “This is not for the novice cook” only to prepare one for a new approach to cooking and for some of the tedious restaurant style preparations that do also form a part of the book.  The first fifty odd pages are dedicated to the building blocks and technique needed for Indian food, and then it goes into detailed cooking and assembly of a dish. Vineet had made it very clear that he was not going to be on the cover as he did not want to be the face of the book, it is not about him but about the food he cooked.

My Sweet Kitchen, a dessert book is the latest volume in Vineet’s arsenal. A collection of his most treasured and iconic dessert dishes – inspired by a lifelong sweet tooth. My Sweet Kitchen is a plethora of innovative, experimental treats from one of the world’s most renowned Indian chefs. Each unique recipe, designed to appeal to a ‘non-Indian palate’, explores Vineet’s imaginative use of ingredients and techniques, made entirely achievable for the passionate home cook. With recipes merging influences from east and west, playing on sharp versus sweet, warm versus cold and soft versus crisp. The book begins with the basics (pastes, curds and tuiles) before moving on to the creation of those show stopping desserts. Divided into ingredient led chapters, such as ‘Milk’, ‘Fruit’ and ‘Chocolate’, recipes include Chai Panna Cotta, Peach-Pecan filo Moneybag and Chocolate Cumin Fondant. The penultimate chapter, ‘A piece of cake, A slice of tart’ takes recipes inspired by people and places including Vineet’s beloved homeland of Mumbai. Suitable for all occasions, this isn’t by any stretch a typical dessert book, rather an expression of creative freedom in the kitchen, a celebration of that often-underappreciated final course.

In November 2016 Vineet Bhatia London (VBL), the new flagship restaurant from Vineet Bhatia, heralded a new beginning for the award-winning chef and restaurateur. Set within a lovingly-restored Georgian townhouse, Vineet Bhatia London (VBL) opened its doors to Londoners, in what was formerly the chef’s long-established restaurant Rasoi at 10 Lincoln Street, just moments from the Sloane Square off London’s King’s Road. Reimagined and redesigned, VBL’s Indian inspired cuisine and the restaurant’s personal interiors reflect the chef’s 23-year journey from his birthplace of Mumbai to Chelsea and the vision that he and his wife Rashima set out to accomplish more than 20 years ago. Offering a tasting menu of between five and six courses preceded by a selection of delicate canapés and ending in a flourish of desserts; in a single evening guests will experience a culinary exploration of Vineet Bhatia’s life in food. Marrying east and west, his dishes are an accumulation of three decades spent pushing the possibilities and challenging the perception of his native cuisine, and display his continuous devotion to creating something new.

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Having travelled extensively for work yet each time the biggest thrill for Vineet is that he gets to fly. The buzz of going to the airport and getting into an aircraft still gives him a sense of joy. However, being a pilot may have been his childhood dream but his passion is truly fuelled by what makes him happy the most and that is being around food all the time.  He tells us “I still see a good plump piece of chicken thighs and I know something good is going to come out of it. Like an artist when you paint something, and it comes to life there is an immense sense of joy. It is the same when you are plating, sometimes it is the simplicity of the dish that really is inviting and alluring.” At some point Vineet stopped being just a cook and evolved into a restaurateur but hopes that he also becomes a mentor and is able to impart all his learning via a culinary school. “We have only been able to grow because we have a good team around us otherwise we would never have had these twelve restaurants. Eventually the plan is to setup a culinary academy back in India where I can give back to society. The whole idea is to train about 20 kids at a time, out which we hope to give five impoverished kids from the street a chance to acquire skills that would make them employable by any restaurant and help break that poverty cycle.”

Chef Vineet describes his cuisine as, “Very simply, evolved progressive Indian food cooked with lot of passion and care.”  His name has become synonymous with revolutionizing Indian cuisine. His reputation as an “elite fine dining” Indian chef was reflected in his impressive portfolio of exclusive consultancies at hotels around the world, including Geneva, Mauritius, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai and even back in his hometown of Mumbai, where it all started.

To read the article in full visit https://issuu.com/wogoa/docs/wo_goa_something_is_always_brewing._49afcb3298c625/87?e=11152346/32642982

Happy Reading!

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Gigi Martin

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