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Vineet Bhatia. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Vineet Bhatia. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Chef Vineet Bhatia and butter chicken in London

The Michelin-star chef on Indian food, perceptions of it, and his journey in the culinary world

Vineet Bhatia grew up in a middle-class Punjabi family in Mumbai. Through most of his childhood, he wanted to fly the Cessnas he saw taking off and landing at a flying club on his way to school. He took exams in the hope of joining the air force but failed the physical test. Then one day he decided to work as a chef, and enrolled in catering college. He joined the Oberoi group of hotels in 1988. Five years later, he went to England to try his luck at something new. Since 1993, when he first arrived in London, Bhatia, 50, has worked at several restaurants and opened a bunch of others in different parts of the world. He has also received two Michelin stars, the first Indian chef-restaurateur to receive the honour since the inception of the guide.

Dressed in chef whites and sporting a scarf, hat and Hublot watch, Bhatia spoke to Lounge recently on the sidelines of the World Food India event in Delhi about Indian food and perceptions of it, and his journey in the culinary world. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is the one problem with Indian food that you want to address?

The problem with Indian food, even in India, was that people were reluctant to change. Everyone told me aise mat karo, waise mat karo (don’t do it like this, don’t do it like that). The idea was, if it’s not broken, why fix it. But we were thinking of how to make Indian food even better. Take butter chicken, for example. Everywhere you go, the colour of the gravy is orange. The butter chicken that I do is white. When you do a blind tasting, and I did it in Delhi, the flavour is unmistakably that of butter chicken. But when you take the blindfold off, people say it is korma. This is what we want. This is the reason why we have been fighting for desi khana all these years and how we can make it better.

Is that why you left India? Are you happy with the move you made? Have you found solace?

Yes, I have found my peace. I think you learn to accept things as you grow. I left India because I wasn’t -accepted here for what I wanted to do. I wasn’t allowed to innovate and when you see a gora (foreigner) do the same things and win accolades, you feel frustrated. It happened with me several times and I was only 23-24 then. It wasn’t a battle I was going to win, so I decided to leave.

When I reached the UK, I was appalled to see what they called Indian food. I left a five-star hotel to work in an Indian restaurant in London where I was the only Indian. The rest of the kitchen staff was from Bangladesh. I don’t have anything against them, but they were not trained in making Indian food. They were cooking in vests and shorts. It needed a cultural overhaul. I remember the first time they had to wear chef’s jackets and hats, they looked like clowns; the hats were falling on the sides, the jackets were uncomfortable so they would keep itching.

But I am happy to say that one of the guys I employed in 1993 still works for me. So it has been hard work, but I am happy.

What is the secret to your white butter chicken recipe?

We call it Safed Murg Makhni. The secret is tomatoes. We take very ripe tomatoes and crush them roughly, add coriander stalks, garlic, ginger, chillies, add sea salt and mix lightly. Then pack all of it in a muslin pouch and let it hang overnight and extract the colourless essence of the vegetables. This resultant liquid is the secret of white butter chicken. And the chicken tikka that we use in the recipe is malai tikka made with dahi (yogurt)and not malai (cream).

What is more important? The look or the flavour?

Both are equally important. But in the Instagram generation, looks have become more important. When a dish arrives at a table today, people spend the first few minutes clicking photos. Sometimes, the food even gets cold, which is very sad. But this is something we can’t change. We have to move with the times. But I will never do a dish that is style over substance.

Banana flower or asparagus? Local or exotic?

Always local. But asparagus is local now. Those days are gone when avocados and artichokes were imported. Now they grow everything in India. But there are so many things in India we don’t even know about.

I would say try and use local ingredients as much as you can. If you can grow asparagus and kiwi locally, do it and don’t import them from Peru and New Zealand. The carbon footprint that you will generate and the costs you will incur doing that are huge. As chefs, we also have responsibility towards the local economy.

If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Kuchh bhi meetha (anything sweet). Jalebi will do.

You recently closed your iconic Chelsea restaurant. What now?

We had to close because the partnership (did not work). We are trying to relocate.

How important is the Michelin star?

It’s very important. It is the Oscars of the culinary world. It helps create awareness. I must say that I have always cooked for my patrons and not any critic or guides and the goal was to promote our desi khana but ironically, it is after the Michelin star that people got to know who I was and what I cooked.

When I reached the UK, I was appalled to see what they called Indian food. I left a five-star hotel to work in an Indian restaurant in London where I was the only Indian. The rest of the kitchen staff was from Bangladesh. I don’t have anything against them, but they were not trained in making Indian food. They were cooking in vests and shorts. It needed a cultural overhaul. I remember the first time they had to wear chef’s jackets and hats, they looked like clowns; the hats were falling on the sides, the jackets were uncomfortable so they would keep itching.

But I am happy to say that one of the guys I employed in 1993 still works for me. So it has been hard work, but I am happy.

What is the secret to your white butter chicken recipe?

We call it Safed Murg Makhni. The secret is tomatoes. We take very ripe tomatoes and crush them roughly, add coriander stalks, garlic, ginger, chillies, add sea salt and mix lightly. Then pack all of it in a muslin pouch and let it hang overnight and extract the colourless essence of the vegetables. This resultant liquid is the secret of white butter chicken. And the chicken tikka that we use in the recipe is malai tikka made with dahi (yogurt)and not malai (cream).

What is more important? The look or the flavour?

Both are equally important. But in the Instagram generation, looks have become more important. When a dish arrives at a table today, people spend the first few minutes clicking photos. Sometimes, the food even gets cold, which is very sad. But this is something we can’t change. We have to move with the times. But I will never do a dish that is style over substance.

Banana flower or asparagus? Local or exotic?

Always local. But asparagus is local now. Those days are gone when avocados and artichokes were imported. Now they grow everything in India. But there are so many things in India we don’t even know about.

I would say try and use local ingredients as much as you can. If you can grow asparagus and kiwi locally, do it and don’t import them from Peru and New Zealand. The carbon footprint that you will generate and the costs you will incur doing that are huge. As chefs, we also have responsibility towards the local economy.

If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Kuchh bhi meetha (anything sweet). Jalebi will do.

You recently closed your iconic Chelsea restaurant. What now?

We had to close because the partnership (did not work). We are trying to relocate.

How important is the Michelin star?

It’s very important. It is the Oscars of the culinary world. It helps create awareness. I must say that I have always cooked for my patrons and not any critic or guides and the goal was to promote our desi khana but ironically, it is after the Michelin star that people got to know who I was and what I cooked.

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