This month’s guest contributor is Vineet Bhatia, one of the most influential chefs in both Britain and India today.
Chef by chance – “I really wanted to be a pilot”
Vineet was brought up in Mumbai, where, as a child he was woken up every morning by the roaring engines of a DC10 taking off from a nearby airport. The experience engendered a strong ambition to fly but unfortunately he didn’t meet the physical requirements to become a pilot. Crestfallen, he resolved to go down a wholly different path, and, inspired by his mother’s passion for cooking, he decided to train to become a chef.
Both his parents were professionals and they wisely advised him also to study for a degree in economics – a qualification which later proved very useful.
Later, Vineet was to become part of the British Airways Taste Team,
“I used to live under the flight path of the Concorde, and every evening I would watch the Concorde fly pass. On the last flight of the Concorde, they served my chocolate dessert”
he explains. So his yearning to be involved in aviation was not entirely left behind.
One of the Oberoi’s rising stars
Vineet was talent-spotted by the Oberoi Hotel Group where, already identified as a rising star, he was encouraged to ‘go French’. The maverick Vineet, however, resisted the pressure, and remained firmly in the Indian kitchen. But there were downsides to this decision – in the Indian kitchen chefs had to stick rigidly to traditional methods and ingredients whereas his gone-French counterparts were allowed the freedom to try out daredevil experiments.
Moving to Britain, a land of gloopy stews masquerading as curries
Vineet thought he might be allowed greater lassitude to create by a move to Britain. He was wholly unaware that he would be moving to a country where an Indian meal was universally considered to be a gloopy, unauthentic stew masquerading as a curry, washed down with a pint or two.
He began working at the Star of India in South Kensington and was soon attracting a much more discerning clientele and began to turn heads, including that of The Evening Standard‘s Fay Maschler who wrote:
“Bhatia has lifted the cooking into a new league; providing convincing proof that Indian food is capable of evolving.”
The first Michelin star, then a television series
In 2001 Vineet was the first Indian chef patron to be awarded a Michelin star, and finally, in 2004 he was able to open his own restaurant, Rasoi (which means ‘kitchen’). His new restaurant was soon included by Egon Ronay in his top 25 UK restaurants, with Vineet being named as one of his ‘Magnificent Seven’ British chefs. You can watch an interview with Vineet at Rasoi by following this link.
Next Vineet returned to India to make the highly successful television series, Twist of Taste With Vineet Bhatia, (follow this link to see a sample episode) and to publish his first book Rasoi: A New Indian Kitchen.
Latest venture, Vineet Bhatia London
Vineet’s latest venture is Vineet Bhatia London (VBL). By reservation only, a visit to this shrine to Indian cuisine is more like dining at an, albeit very talented, friend’s house. You ring the bell to gain entry, you’re welcomed in and treated to a series of culinary gems, each presented as a work of art: there’s no à la carte. Vineet’s wife and partner, Rashima, has decorated the interior of the Georgian townhouse (in a quiet street just off the King’s Road) with an eclectic quirky elegance – I was especially taken with the vintage sewing-machine-table-turned-washbasin-stand in the ladies’.
VBL is in demand, and no wonder when you consider that its chef-owner earned the following accolade from no less a food writer than AA Gill who, writing in The Times, said of him:
‘‘Despite all the advances made in Indian food, I think Vineet is still the finest modern –Indian chef anywhere. His ability to make complex flavours clear and harmonious, while keeping dishes light and fresh, is unmatched, and his seasoning is always pitch -perfect.’’
Saucy Dressings is delighted to have Vineet Bhatia as a Guest Contributor.
SD: I understand that Rasoi had an á la carte menu, and Vineet Bhatia London has a fixed menu (albeit very extensive!), but what are you aiming to do with VBL which distinguishes it from Rasoi?
VB: Rasoi was a development of Zaika and what I created there. At Zaika I presented Indian food in plated manner ( not shared and then took it a step further by serving it as a Tasting Menu matched with wines. This was a new approach because hitherto Indian food had never been presented in restaurants in this manner. This unique interpretation was noticed and accepted, and in 2001, rewarded with a Michelin star. Rasoi carried on the same concept as Zaika. The only difference was that Rasoi was a personal venture and did not rely on partnerships. So I had more freedom to get adventurous and evolve.
Today there are many Indian restaurants serving Indian food in a similar manner and so I thought it was time to present yet another side to Indian cuisine and how it can be experienced. VBL was conceived with this thought – to present yet another way of experiencing Indian food and its vast repertoire (as well as differences) as we travel the length and breadth of the country
Our guests at Rasoi were increasingly choosing the tasting menu and by offering only a tasting menu at VBL we are able to experiment more with what we offer, creating a spectrum of dishes that flow in a way that an á la carte offering cannot.
VBL is also about experiencing Indian food in a very personal way. It’s food as I see it, my own interpretation, my combinations of flavours and sometimes, for example, it involves combining a dish from the North with something classically from the South, a mix that one could certainly never experience in India.
“It involves combining a dish from the North with something classically from the South, a mix that one could certainly never experience in India.”
Each dish on our Experience menu, as we like to call it, is like a note within a larger piece of music. The concept is that together these dishes create a symphony and allow us to take our guests on a complete flavour journey.
SD: Has developing a fixed menu enabled you to be more creative and playful with the dishes you offer? If so, could you give an example?
VB: Typically in an á la carte menu, one dish would consist of many components each of which would often get lost on the table. At VBL, each component is now given its own podium, its own moment of glory and this allows the dish to stand out and be appreciated for what it is, without the fear of it getting lost. So whilst each course on the VBL tasting menu is part of a whole journey of flavours, it stands alone and in focus, and as such can be much more inventive.
One such example is my take on papad. That is almost always the start of the journey in a traditional Indian restaurant, and they’re accompanied by two or three different chutneys. Here at VBL we showcase another preparation of the papad that is not the usual lentil preparation but instead is made with sago and then topped with tuna and mango kachumber. This allows the diner to explore the different types of papads that are possible and different ways of savouring them rather than with the usual chutneys.
Another example from the our Experience Menu version two is the Amritsari haddock. Traditionally Indian Amritsari fish is served in a heavy batter, dyed red. At VBL we use squid ink in a light, fluffy batter to play with the senses: we serve the black battered haddock on a bed of black stones, creating a sort of playtime for the eyes. And then, after the first bite, our guests are met with the visual contrast of the white flesh of the fish against the black batter and experience, and their taste buds experience a much lighter flavour and texture than the traditional Amritsari preparation. For me, the magic of this playful dish would be lost on an à la carte menu.
“And then, after the first bite, our guests are met with the visual contrast of the white flesh of the fish against the black batter and experience.”
SD: What ingredients does the UK have to offer which work best with Indian recipes and techniques? Again, could you give an example of a dish which does this very effectively?
VB: The UK has exceptionally high quality meats and it is this that really helps to elevate dishes and flavours. At VBL we source ingredients locally where possible from the UK or from mainland Europe. Even the spices, although imported from India, are now all locally available. London is truly such a melting pot of culture!
When you start with a high quality protein you require fewer spices to mask the lack of flavour inherent in the base ingredients. We use masalas*, sauces and techniques from India, but use a lighter touch to preserve the flavours of our ingredients. For example, on our previous Experience Menu we served Scottish lobster and used only three masalas to ensure the delicate flavours were not overpowered.
SD: Which creation that fuses UK taste and ingredients with Indian food are you most pleased with?
VB: There is not one dish where this marriage of Indian cuisine and European influence is most accomplished; rather, our entire Experience Menu expresses this signature approach to flavour combinations.
To take one example from our current Experience Menu, our beet foie gras marries foie gras, a quintessentially European ingredient not found in India, with spicing in the form of cardamom, chilli and fennel, presented alongside a classic French macaron flavoured with beetroot. While European ingredients and techniques inspire many elements of the dish, it is the spice that cuts through the sweet undertones of the foie gras and beetroot to really elevate it.
“Our beet foie gras marries foie gras, a quintessentially European ingredient not found in India, with spicing in the form of cardamom, chilli and fennel, presented alongside a classic French macaron flavoured with beetroot.”
SD: The restaurant is beautiful… Every detail from the plates to the washrooms. How did you and Rashima conceive of the interior, and what constraints did you have?
VB: I should really give Rashima 100% of the credit for the design of VBL; whilst I can put colour on a plate, I have no skill at putting it on the walls and floor! Aside from my advice on the operational needs of the kitchen to ensure a smooth workflow, Rashima really took the lead on reinventing the interiors of our Georgian townhouse. The building is over 140 years old and as such we had to deal extensively with the council regarding planning constraints, as well as addressing long-term issues such as wiring and plumbing, a process that meant we were closed for over three months.
Rashima’s aim was to enhance the restaurant journey and experience. A lack of space was our main constraint, but she built this into the guest journey; we decided to operate a closed-door policy, guests ring a bell to gain entry, leaving their worries at the door as they take a seat in our dining room.
We hope that the interiors bring the food at VBL to life. Rashima has created a British home with Indian accents, which reflects our approach to flavours and to the marriage found reflected in every dish on the tasting menu. With all aspects chosen to be soothing, the design creates a retreat in which the food can transport our guests. Every aspect is important to the overall effect – for example, our cutlery rests are made from Welsh slate and each plate is bespoke and created by a potter in North London – these small touches create a sequence of service that flows and ensures our guests remain engaged throughout their 11-course VBL experience.
SD: I’m particularly interested in the wine pairing. Most people think that wine does not go well with spicy Indian food, and yet you offer some perfect pairings with your menu. What is your advice on finding the right wine to go with various Indian dishes?
VB: Classically wine does not feature well on Indian menus as with most Indian dishes you can only taste the sauces, which tend to be rich and fatty. When you have a high quality cut of meat, it doesn’t need camouflaging with heavy sauces and spicing, in fact you want each flavour to come through discreetly. When cuisine is clean and you can taste all elements you need a wine that enhances those flavours, not heavy beers or lassis.
We have found that working with the smaller houses has allowed us to create a varied wine list that matches our food more harmoniously. Working with small vineyards means we get more interesting flavour profiles. It provides a talking point for those guests who are interested in finding out more about lesser-known producers.
There are no strict rules to matching wines with Indian food, but wines should be able to hold their own on the palate. For example we recently found an Argentinian Malbec that works perfectly with the pork chop on our current menu, it can take the sesame and strong spice notes of the pork, whilst still talking about itself as a wine, so to speak.
Another example that sticks in my mind is a mango-flavoured wine from India, which sang of mango on the nose but washed the palate with the crisp flavours of a Sauvignon Blanc, so we knew it would be an exciting match with white fish.
Ultimately, there has to be a rhythm to every pairing and that requires tasting. Since launching VBL we’ve cut our wine list from over 450 wines to a little over 100 and we are constantly updating the list as our Experience Menu evolves.
“a mango-flavoured wine from India, which sang of mango on the nose but washed the palate with the crisp flavours of a Sauvignon Blanc.”
SD: You have recently been back to India – how is Indian cuisine evolving today?
VB: I left India in 1993 because I couldn’t express myself in my cuisine. I still return six to seven times a year and I have noticed a big change in the last decade. I opened Ziya at The Oberoi, Mumbai in 2010; catering for international travellers, the Oberoi’s guests understand and appreciate the progressive approach we take at Ziya, and this helped to ignite a fire in the local community, making people more open to experimentation. Around six years ago I was on an Indian TV show showcasing local food in a modern manner, which further helped to galvanise these changes.
I feel that Indian cuisine is now catching up rapidly with what is happening internationally and the internet has also played a part in this, giving chefs greater access to food trends and international influences. Now we are seeing a lot more Indian food showcased in a modern manner with a real focus on the elevation of traditional regional cuisine. It feels that the days of curry and rice are finally over with younger diners looking for a meal that is lighter, healthier and more focused on the dining experience.
“Indian cuisine is now catching up rapidly with what is happening internationally….the days of curry and rice are finally over”
SD: What do you cook for yourself on a quiet night off?
VB: If I am alone I like nothing more than a big bowl of dahl** with roti*** and yoghurt or an (Indian) omlette with spices, tomatoes, coriander and onion. For me, I like the simple dishes.
However, I am often cooking with my wife and our two sons and the boys definitely prefer more complex meals. It isn’t a chore for me to cook for them, when you are cooking with the ones you love it is calming and relaxing. I enjoy cooking at home and even back in the days when the boys asked for fish fingers, I would find ways to plate them inventively, stacking them with ketchup dotted around the edge. In my view my family are my biggest and most important critics.
Below you can watch Vineet explaining how to make one of his favourite dishes…. dahl.
This post is dedicated to Rashima Bhatia, with thanks for all her help.
* a ‘masala’ is a mix of ground spices
** ‘dahl’ is a dish of lentils
*** ‘roti’ is a type of flatbread
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