No one tests chef Nitin Kulkarni’s skills like a vegan. Satisfying the dietary restrictions of an ethical eater can get quite tricky for the 45-year-old chief of Indigo’s kitchen, especially because there are no vegan options on the Mumbai restaurant’s regular menu. But that’s how he gets creative.
“I usually do a three-grain risotto,” he says. Ingredients: Barley, wheat and red rice, combined with spiced aubergine, palm hearts and cherry tomatoes. And how does he bind the ingredients of a dish otherwise built on a solid foundation of dairy products? “I use leftover starch from the rice for the smooth consistency, instead of cream and cheese,” says the chef. Vegans are just one sort of Indigo’s client population who call for items that are, literally, off the menu. Kulkarni remembers one typical guest who refused to look at the menu and asked simply that the chef make him a bitter leaf salad and a prawn starter.
Maybe no one goes so far as to call them secret dishes, but most restaurants do more than just alter recipes to please guests, offering a veritable menu of impromptu options that don’t come on the official bill of fare. For instance, at Mumbai’s Olive Bar & Restaurant, celebrity clients such as former model and actor Arjun Rampal loosen their dietary restraints for one of chef Massimillano ‘Max’ Orlati’s finest creations—the Carbonara, which, incidentally, finds no mention on the mostly light Mediterranean menu. Since the chef is Italian, with a special love and competency for that cuisine, guests know they can’t go wrong.
And no, you don’t have to be famous to ask; the problem is that most restaurant-goers are sheepish about requests that veer too far from the usual pleas for less sugar, spice and salt. If you do, then good calibre restaurants will go out of their way to be accommodating, and ‘make do’ with anything that’s in the house. “We consider our clients friends and if I have the ingredients, then we do everything we can,” says Orlati.
Amarjeet Singh Bhatia, a.k.a. Bubble, a Delhi-based businessman, is especially fond of the restaurant Fire at The Park Hotel, Delhi, because they alter the Dab Chingri—a Bengali prawn dish—to a fish preparation. For Bhatia, who doesn’t indulge in crustaceans because of the cholesterol content, this is a speciality he would otherwise have to pass up on. Now, he just asks for “woh wali dish” (that dish) and the restaurant knows exactly what he’s talking about.
The Park’s executive chef, Bakshish Dean, remembers by name Anil Kapoor, a Mumbai-based businessman, who used to carry recipes of dishes he’s tried in other countries with a request for the chef to replicate them. “I quite enjoyed his enthusiasm for food and never minded putting together a dish he wanted,” says Dean. For Rahul Verma, a food writer based in Delhi, a favourite meal is Jerry Wong’s prawns with a “wee bit of soy and green vegetables”, sans ajinomoto. He hates the three-gravy-multiple-ingredient style of most Indian-Chinese restaurants and usually asks the waiter to make this concoction at his preferred restaurant.
The key to not being met with quizzical pessimism, if not an outright “no”, is to ask the right question. Scan the menu for an idea of what ingredients are available and what cooking style is an option. Also, be aware of seasonal changes: Don’t ask for mangoes in winter. And if you don’t see Portobellos, truffles and Italian cured ham (thanks to the bird-flu scare, there’s an embargo on imported meats) on the menu, then that’s off as well. The ingredient you need to bring to the table is time: Changes mean working outside the line of duty, so the kitchen will take more than the usual 10-minute average to deliver. The service staff is your best guide to how much deviation the chef is open to. For instance, Orlati, a fiery Italian, refuses to make Indian corrections such as adding chicken to a bowl of pasta with pesto sauce because “it is like a sin... disgusting”.
While Orlati has a philosophical reason for not attempting certain changes to the regular menu, some eateries have a more practical problem. “We can only tailor it so far because the food is pre-cooked to some degree and, if we change the way it tastes, it might not meet the customer’s expectations,” says Augustin D’Souza, manager of Mumbai’s suburban chain, Urban Tadka. So, if it’s a gravy train you’re on, then you won’t have much luck with out-of-menu requests; the best they can do is add or deduct spices. But since not everyone errs on the side of caution, who knows, you might just be able to devise a special menu of your own.
Seema Chowdhry Sharma contributed to this article.