Farrokh Khambata: Back to the basics
Farrokh Khambata has been in the business of food for over two decades now, right since he started his catering business in 1995 to the opening of his first restaurant, Joss, in 2004, followed by his restaurants by the Arabian Sea at the iconic National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai. He has experimented with formats and food trends and reinvented himself through the years, winning accolades, seeing closures and learning a little more about the food industry every day. His latest outpost, Izaya, opened on 23 November at the NCPA and will be Khambata’s third restaurant at this venue, apart from the Amadeus lounge and the all-day Café at the NCPA. This robata focused fine-dining restaurant will mark the chef’s entry into lesser-known flavours from the different regions of Thailand. The restaurant’s modern and minimalist design complements the back-to-the-basics style of cooking with a focus on clean flavours and top-notch ingredients. Lounge met the chef just before the opening night. Edited excerpts from an interview:
It’s been 22 years since you started off in the food business and the culinary landscape in India has changed dramatically since then. How difficult is it to launch a restaurant today and bring something new to the table?
It’s almost as if the food business runs in my veins and to keep things exciting for myself, I have to take risks and try new things. Like in the case of Izaya, we tried pairing Thai food with a robata grill. When people in India think of Thai food, they think of red and green curries. During our research trips, we traversed the length and breadth of Thailand and discovered a variety of regional food which we have tried to incorporate in our menu. My team trained with chef Piyarat Ruangsang, a big name in Thailand’s culinary world, and learnt nuances of the cuisine. Some of the best food in Thailand is to be had in small family-run restaurants and hole-in-the wall eateries and this is where we tried several unusual dishes which we have incorporated in the menu. These include dishes like sa khoo (a paper-thin rice flour dumpling) or a frilly egg salad (a crisp fried egg with a runny centre and a palm sugar dressing). Certain dishes like the delicious charcoal-grilled freshwater scallops from a little stall at the Amphawa floating market in Bangkok, lent themselves well to the robata grill.
You stress a lot on clean and authentic flavours and this depends on the right ingredients. So how do you go about sourcing the same?
That’s really a nightmare and I don’t know whether the problem lies in Thailand or India. Six of us went to Thailand for research and we returned with 300 kilogram of ingredients! Chef Ruangsang told us that we had to cook with specific local ingredients to get the right flavours. So we had to run around town sourcing sauces, dried chillies and spices. Most of the fresh ingredients are available in India, from kaffir lime to galangal; it is the sauces that are tricky. A fish sauce bottle with the same label tastes different in India from what it does in Thailand and I have no idea where this adulteration is taking place. Chillies are another thing that we have to get from source as the Thai chillies have a smoky flavour that cannot be substituted. Use a local chilli and it starts tasting like an Indian curry.
Why did you decide to use the robatayaki, a typically Japanese method of cooking, for a restaurant that specializes in South-East Asian cuisine?
We were in Thailand for around 30 days last month and we found that a lot of their food especially the more rustic dishes, seafood and satays, are prepared on coal and wood and it fits really well with the robata grill concept, which keeps flavours clean and fresh.
Why do you keep returning to the East for culinary inspiration?
My training is in European and French cuisine and yet, this is not something I prefer to work with due to the unavailability of certain ingredients. If you go to Spain or France, ingredients are championed in the dish and everything is extremely fresh and straight off the vine or from the sea. Tomatoes have an amazing flavour, the seafood is freshly caught and the meat has been butchered that morning. And it is difficult to source that quality of ingredients here. The Indian palate is very open to Eastern flavours, especially Thai flavours. Just like Thailand, we are also on the coast and have access to a similar spectrum of fresh seafood. The challenge is to find the right vendors to get the best catch. In our restaurant, we try and use as much fresh produce as we can and we have adapted some of the Thai recipes to fish that are easily available here, like red snapper and sole, and which don’t interfere with the flavour of the original dish.
What is your take on fusion and molecular gastronomy?
I gave both fusion and molecular food a shot but they are not relevant to how I cook anymore. My idea of food now is good recipes, solid flavours, great ingredients and simple and elegant presentation. With Izaya, I really wanted to go back to the basics and by that I mean grinding pastes in an old-school mortar and pestle and cooking food according to traditional recipes.