A Michelin star is not a title awarded by the government, unlike a “Lord” or a “Sir”, but when a chef receives a star, the honour tends to precede his name. In a rare feat, Michelin star chef Vineet Bhatia has had two of his restaurants awarded the coveted star—Rasoi Vineet Bhatia in London and Rasoi by Vineet at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Geneva.
Star power: Bhatia often uses ingredients of various European cuisines in his dishes. Shriya Patil Shinde / Mint
It’s been more than a decade since Bhatia took Indian food to Europe and now he’s bringing it back to his homeland. Oakwood Premier, a luxury service apartment at Juhu, Mumbai, has roped in the chef to lend his culinary artistry to their rooftop lounge and restaurant Azok. Bhatia’s menu doesn’t read like any ordinary menu at an Indian restaurant.
Uttapam lasagne layered with masala paneer, vegetable coconut masala, south Indian-style lamb nalli korma and coconut khichdi are just some of his experiments. Edited excerpts from an interview:
How would you explain your style of cooking?
I am a global traveller. I pick up influences from wherever I travel and try to blend them into Indian food, as long as the ingredients don’t overpower the dish. India is one big state without borders and I combine cooking styles from everywhere. I make classic Indian dishes but present them in a different way. I don’t want my food to be compared to Dum Pukht or Bukhara.
Why is this the right time for you to come to India? Why Mumbai?
I left India in 1992 because I wasn’t happy with the way my profession was perceived here.
I was called a bawarchi. But things changed over the years. I came to India and opened a restaurant in a hotel nine years ago in Delhi. But it was badly managed. I packed up the place in some months and decided that I would return only when I was sure of the dedication of the people involved with my restaurant. When this offer came by, I took it up because I was born and brought up in Mumbai. People of Mumbai are more open to adventurous cooking styles.
How do you deal with the pressure to maintain your Michelin stars?
My aim is to stay humble and go on like this every day without getting complacent. I have always wanted to cook Indian and my restaurant has helped put Indian food in the highest league and that is most important to me.
What was the biggest misconception about Indian food in London?
For them, Indian food was about curry and rice. You go to a bar, get drunk and have some cheap Indian food. Everyone thought only chicken tikka and samosas were Indian food. You could find silly things like prawn dhansak and lamb vindaloo on some menus. I wondered why Indian food could not be like a French fine dining experience. It took me many years to break the mould. I stopped calling the dishes by their Indian names on the menu. I would serve classic Indian dishes but give one-line descriptors in English instead. Soon I started doing specials of the day using lobster, duck, quail, giving them an Indian touch. That’s how my style of cooking evolved.
Where in the world is Indian food most popular?
In London, mostly because of the British association with India. Otherwise, Dubai has a lot of good Indian restaurants. There’s a large variety of restaurants—you can get Indian food from 2 dirhams to 350 dirhams (approx. Rs25 to Rs4,375) Surprisingly, my restaurant in Geneva is doing well. I was sceptical about having an Indian restaurant there but we cracked it. The tourism is fantastic and spending power is phenomenal.
What are the ingredients that you cannot do without?
Ginger, curry leaves, jeera and mustard. They are vital and can change a dish dramatically. I can make a mustard flavoured chicken tikka with curry patta, rai tadka and garlic.
Your forthcoming book is called Rasoi: New Indian Kitchen. What according to you is the new Indian kitchen?
Indian food presented in a new avatar—the thought process behind the dish, the way it’s plated and the ingredients that go into it. One example of this is black chicken breast that’s my take on the bhatti murgh. I make it black using squid ink, which is used in risotto. I marinate it in a mix of saunf, dhania, jeera, imli and cook it in the tandoor, cover it in gold leaf and then serve.
What are the three classic Indian dishes that you would never tamper with?
Rogan josh, maa ki daal and lamb biryani.