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The Great Chefs: Unplugged

A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with one of the world’s greatest chefs.

We were off the record so I won’t name him but if I tell you that he is the greatest British chef in history and a household name even in non-foodie households, it shouldn’t be too difficult to work out who he is.

 

Our lunch went on and on. Partly this was because the food was great (those kakori kebabs!), the ambience was lovely and the wine was terrific. But mostly it was because I decided I could have listened to the chef in question for hours (we stayed seven hours, as it was) because he was such a fascinating man. It wasn’t just the insights into food (which, I guess you would expect from a chef of his stature) but it was the way he spoke about life, about philosophy and about the world. He could take a seemingly mundane subject like water and make it seem fascinating because of the depth he brought to the discussion.

 

   Ever since that lunch, I have been thinking: are there any other chefs who are quite as fascinating? Would I be too willing to buy tickets just to listen to a chef’s conversation? Was there anyone else that interesting?

 

   The short answer is: no, there aren’t. But there are lots of interesting chefs.

 

   In the era of MasterChef and Chef’s Table, people are always asking me what famous chefs are like rather as they ask what movie stars are like when they are off-camera.

 

   Well in most respects they are like other successful people with the same curiosity about their colleagues, the same love of gossip and professional-talk and the same mixture of arrogance and insecurities.

 

   I will exclude the ones who are my friends (Gaggan Anand, Ritu Dalmia, Asma Khan, Vineet Bhatia and others) because we can talk about our shared experiences.

 

   Of the others, many are not what you expect them to be. You always suspect that TV chefs will turn out to be shallow when they are off camera. But often, the opposite is true.

 

   Both Ranveer Brar and Kunal Kapur are easy to underestimate because they are good looking TV stars. But both are solid chefs who have gone deep into their craft. Ranveer trained with a master in Lucknow and will cheerfully discuss the secrets of a good kakori – how far should the skewer be from the flame if a membrane is going to develop over the keema in the kebab? Kunal knows his stuff inside-out. He has a dessert project in the works and went and spent time with the guys who make daulat ki chaat in Old Delhi. I asked him how the dish differed from the malaiyo of Benares. His view was that they may not be two separate dishes at all. Many of the cooks who make Delhi’s daulat ki chaat come here from UP in the winter.

 

   I once spent a week travelling through Japan with Sanjeev Kapoor and was impressed not just with his business sense but with his grasp of the fundamentals of global cuisine. At every demonstration of Japanese cuisine, he was able to offer some insights into why each dish worked. Why did they cool the batter for tempura in an ice bucket? Well, because it affected the gluten in the batter and made for crispier tempura. And so on.

 

   The one TV chef who I knew was going to become a superstar the very first time I met him was Vikas Khanna. We had lunch (well, I had lunch, he doesn’t eat much) at 360° before the first episode of his MasterChef aired and I just knew that Vikas’s charisma transcended the food genre.

 

   Years later, the chef Atul Kochar said to me that there was something of the young Rajesh Khanna in Vikas and that was such a perceptive observation that it helped in putting my finger on the nature of Vikas’s charisma.

 

   It is impossible not to like Vikas. He radiates goodwill and star quality. And he is a genuinely nice guy who never has a bad word to say about anybody and is always willing to help at any time. Now that he has become an award-winning film-maker, my original hunch about how he would transcend the cooking space has been borne out.

 

"I have many stories about Daniel Humm’s single-mindedness: he ate only Indian food for 15 days when he was in India and went back and put a dosa on his New York menu."

   I don’t know too many foreign TV chefs but I once did a three-city tour with Gary Mehigan. I was at a huge disadvantage because I hadn’t watched much Australian MasterChef but Gary was a lovely guy, relaxed and humble.

 

   When you meet the big name Indian chefs, you see why they have got there. I first met Manish Mehrotra when he was cooking at a Pan-Asian night club called Tamarai in London. (I kid you not!) I thought his food was amazing and when Indian Accent opened in Friend’s Colony, I was convinced he was a genius. He is now world famous but remains the same, decent down-to-earth guy.

 

   Jiggs Kalra introduced me to Manjit Gill in the late 1980s when Dum Pukht opened. Manjit struck me then as being a real scholar of Indian food and over the years, he has become my guru on the subject, the first person I call when I need to find out something. Of his many protégés, the one I really rate is Manisha Bhasin, whose talents are often underrated because she never draws attention to herself.

 

   Of the many great Taj chefs, my greatest friend was Ananda Solomon. We share a birthday and a love of both Thai food and the food of India’s West Coast. To strangers, he can seem like an odd man: supremely confident of his own abilities but completely unwilling to give much of himself in any conversation. He doesn’t gossip, he doesn’t go out, he doesn’t make new friends easily and only relaxes when he is with people he knows well.

 

   F&B managers (and general managers) were always wary of him but his chefs loved him (Manish was among those who started out in Ananda’s kitchen) and even though he has now more or less dropped out of sight, Ananda remains a very special person.

 

   For many years, till the TV chefs took over, Hemant Oberoi was India’s most famous chef. Because he was such a celebrity (and knew it), he attracted envy and resentment. But while his detractors noticed Hemant’s arrogance (I am sorry but there is no other word!), they missed his enormous contribution to food in India.

 

   He took over at the Bombay Taj just as India was liberalising and he dragged the hotel industry, kicking and screaming, into the new century.

 

   He was the first Indian chef to understand modern French food, the first to hire cooks from the Chinese mainland, the first to focus on the world’s finest ingredients and the first to recognise that Japanese food was the future.

 

   My guess is that he needed to throw his weight around to push Taj Bombay’s notoriously treacherous kitchen in the direction he wanted. And as much the managers hated him, it was Hemant who raised the stature of all chefs in India.

 

   He is still my friend, is more laidback now and is still held in awe by chefs. I took him for lunch to Indian Accent (he loved it) and the kitchen was thrilled to have the great man in the restaurant. In some ways, he is as important to Indian restaurants as Paul Bocuse was in France. And yes, they called Bocuse opinionated and arrogant too!

 

   There is a new generation of Indian chefs now, not all of whom I know very well. Of the ones I do know, Rohit Sangwan (soon to be Executive Chef of the Taj Land’s End) is not just the greatest pastry chef of his generation but a fun guy to be with. I have known and liked Prateek Sadhu for years through his many jobs (Land’s End, Leela Bangalore) and he is one of the nicest and most sincere guys in the business though I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the tasteless, joyless food he is turning out at this stage in his career.

 

   Himanshu Saini will probably be Manish’s spiritual successor and another former Indian Accent chef, Saurabh Udinia has found a bold and distinctive voice of his own.

 

   And the standalone sector is booming. I have known Julia De Sa since her days at the Aguada in Goa and despite a tendency to be slightly highly-strung (sorry!) she was always a brilliant chef. Along with Jatin Mallick who is not just supremely talented but is also a very nice guy, she runs the excellent Tres in Delhi, Delhi’s best chef-run restaurant. I have known Vikramjeet Roy through all the twists and turns in his career, and he is that rarest of all chefs: a man so obsessed with his craft that he is miles ahead of his contemporaries. It’s good to see him doing so well at Delhi’s new, red-hot Kimono Club.

 

   That’s just the Indian chefs. I have many stories about Daniel Humm’s single-mindedness: he ate only Indian food for 15 days when he was in India and went back and put a dosa on his New York menu. About Massimo Bottura’s love of art.

 

   But that’s for another column!

 

 

Posted On: 21 Dec 2019 01:05 PM
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