Chef Joymalya Banerjee was executive chef with Oh! Calcutta before launching his “nouvelle Bengali” restaurant Bohemian in Kolkata. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What’s the one new ingredient you’re working with right now?
I have always taken pride in the ingredients of Bengal and they continue to intrigue me every day. At present, I’m working with mustard in various forms and the liquid jaggery of Bengal. I’m trying to blend them together to achieve a sweet and pungent taste which I intend using in a dessert and in an appetizer.
The cooking method that’s got you all excited.
I find all methods of cooking really fascinating, and each of them extremely difficult to execute perfectly. The perfectly executed shallow-fry is as difficult as barbecuing the perfectly succulent kebab. But right now, steaming and sous-vide cooking intrigue me the most. The perfectly steamed fish is moist and succulent, an absolute treat. So is the perfectly Bengal-spiced pork belly cooked sous vide.
The cuisine that inspires you the most.
I am in awe of the work of great chefs like Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, Massimo Bottura, Alex Atala, Juan (Mari) Arzak, Grant Achatz, Imtiaz Qureshi.... To me they are the gods of cooking and have reached an extreme high level of perfection and excellence. So, more than choosing any particular cuisine, if I could ever work with them and understand that level of perfection and detailing—that, to me, would be the ultimate learning.
Your favourite city for food. And a memory.
In India, my favourite food destination is Delhi. A lot of places in Old Delhi still make really great food, cooked with a lot of love. Internationally, I really like southern Californian cuisine—the high point was an amazing meal at The French Laundry by chef Thomas Keller. Thailand is also one of my favourite food destinations. The local fare is really varied and great fresh ingredients make that food a heady mix of great flavours.
Starter, main course or dessert? Which do you prefer cooking—and eating—and why?
When it comes to cooking, making a choice like that is really not possible as each of the dishes I make is like a child, and they make up my family. As for eating, I prefer starters as they are usually the gateway to a meal. If the appetizer is nice, that prepares your mind for the rest of the meal experience.
Your favourite protein to cook with—and how would you do it?
Cooking any protein perfectly takes years of dedication and trying to excel every time. Though I personally love cooking fish, each kind of meat or, for that matter, vegetables requires expertise to cook them, keeping in mind doneness and textures and colour.
Cooking fish starts with the best quality of ingredient and the first step is always the deodorizing of the fish. Though this step is frequently overlooked or entrusted to the junior kitchen staff, to me it is probably one of the most important steps of preparation as this ensures the correct flavour and texture of the fish.
Next is the marinade, which has to be perfectly balanced: The acidic component will act on the connective tissue of the fish and a long marination will eventually make the fish fibrous after cooking. Finally, when one cooks the fish, the level of heat applied is as important as the duration of cooking. Each step has to be very precise and perfect.
The best thing about being a chef?
It is not a profession—it is a lifestyle. You tend to find intriguing and inspiring flavours and aromas around you all the time and you want to create something with them.
And the worst thing?
It’s really difficult to keep your weight in check.
What’s in your fridge? And what’s for dinner?
I like having fresh products. So I buy small amounts of fruits, meats, vegetables and fish. Also, I keep looking for really high-quality salami, ham and sausages so, whenever I can lay my hands on some great stuff, I splurge. If I’m not dining out, then dinner for me is usually a homely affair consisting of chapatis, vegetables, dal and some kind of meat or fish curry