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It’s always fun to be in Kolkata

I never need much persuasion to go back to Kolkata.

So when Sumit Dasgupta, my former colleague at Sunday and now a big-shot Kolkata editor, invited me to conduct a conversation with Roni Mazumdar, I grabbed the opportunity.

It was also that though Roni and I have done Zoom calls and exchanged mails, we had never actually met.


   And yet, I have been a huge admirer of his achievements from afar. Roni linked up with the Chef Chintan Pandya and the two of them started Adda in New York which soon became a rage in the city. They have since had other successes of which the best known may be Dhamaka, which has risen above the ‘ethnic Indian’ category to become one of New York’s hottest restaurants and is always being praised by the New York Times critics and other important reviewers. Roni’s group was in the news a couple of weeks ago because Semma, another of the group’s restaurants became the only Indian restaurant in the US to win a Michelin star.


   Roni is a Cal boy and he was coming back to the city after eight years and Sumit had got him to agree to a live event at the lovely Glenburn Penthouse. It was a small, invited audience of just 40 or so people and I was the interviewer.


   The whole interaction will be available on the net (through My Kolkata and Culinary Culture) so I wasn’t say too much about it except to say how much there is to learn from talking to extraordinary people like Roni.


   He went to the US in 1996 when his family migrated there from Kolkata. Roni qualified as an engineer and only opened his first restaurant to give his father (who is a naturally warm and hospitable person) something to do. At that stage, he recalled, he tried putting Kosha mangsho, khichuri and other home-style Bengali-dishes on the menu. When they took time to be accepted by customers and the chefs suggested that they try to play it safe with Chicken Tikka Masala etc., he agreed.


   A few years later, when he met Chintan who was already an established chef (he had taken Vikas Khanna’s place at Junoon), the two men begun to rethink their approach to food. Did they really want to make ‘Indian restaurant food’. Or did they want to explore the diversity of India’s culinary traditions and make food they enjoyed cooking and serving?


   Fortunately, they chose to do what they enjoyed. But it was a close run thing. Roni says he had been bowled over by the things Chintan could do with the simplest dishes: one of the first things he cooked for him was a slightly tweaked version of that Parsi standby Papeta par Eeda.


    But even so when he saw Chintan’s menu for Adda, he was worried. Were Americans really going to eat a dish of Bheja Fry? What about Gurda Kapura? Where were all the old-crowd-pleasing dishes? He told Chintan that he thought the menu was too uncommercial. But Chintan held firm.


   To Roni’s credit, he says that when he went away and thought about it, he decided that Chintan was right and that he was wrong. So he was content to let the menu stay the way Chintan wanted it. Which was a wise decision because in a couple of weeks, the restaurant was packed out.


   He learned several lessons from that experience. First, cook what you enjoy yourself, not what you think people will enjoy. At some level, he had always believed this but with Adda, Chintan and he put their money where their mouths were.


   Secondly, what passes for Indian food abroad is only a fraction (and not necessarily the best fraction) of what India has to offer. Now, Chintan and he will put dishes on the menu that Americans have never heard of, like champaran meat from Bihar.


   Thirdly, we often focus only on the food of the rich and the middle classes. We never bother to go into the countryside and see what villagers are eating. At our event, he told the story of Vijay Kumar, the chef at Semma, whose family would forage for snails in their Tamilnadu village. Vijay was always too embarrassed to admit that he had grown up eating snails till he got to the big city and discovered what a big deal snails were in French cuisine. Now, you will find snails on the menu at Semma.


"Even so, when Anil told me that they were bringing Avartana to Kolkata, I was a little sceptical. Wasn’t the food too sophisticated for Cal? I asked."

   And finally, Indians have got to learn to stop apologising for our food. It’s stupid to Frenchify our presentation, to focus so much on our plating and to lie about our ingredients (why does every menu say ‘lamb’ even when the meat we eat is goat?) in the hope of appealing to the West. Roni’s company is called Unapologetic Foods and that’s what he is, he says. He is not going to apologise to anybody for being Indian and cooking Indian food the way it is meant to be cooked.


   Roni and Chintan have taken this philosophy and climbed to the top of the most competitive restaurant market in the world. There is so much to admire in that.


   With a bit of luck Roni and Chintan will come and cook in India soon enough. Previously arranged pop ups have fallen through but this should be the year it happens.


   Our conversation took place in the living room of the Glenburn Penthouse. It is, as the name suggests, a penthouse in the centre of Kolkata with spectacular views of Victoria Memorial and the Maidan, beautiful rooms and good food. Its owners also run a tea garden in Darjeeling with a lovely, small hotel attached.


   We went for dinner after our conversation to the home of my old boss Aveek Sarkar (who is currently Chairman of PTI) and even Roni, with his vast experience of the best restaurants in New York was impressed by the eight course (largely Western) meal that Aveek had cooked for us. I had eaten Aveek’s food relatively recently so I was not entirely surprised.


   But I learned something from that dinner. Aveek is the doyen of Indian journalism. He has mentored, discovered and created more editors than I have eaten golgappas. (And I have eaten a lot of golgappas!)


   When he was in his late sixties, Aveek suddenly decided that he was going to teach himself to cook. Because his reference points are the world’s best three Michelin star restaurants, he pushes himself to cook at the highest level. And, God knows how, but he manages it.


   How many of us, I wonder, would master a new skill late (well, late-ish) in life only out of passion? I guess that passion is what keeps Aveek young and alert.


   And the final lesson of my Kolkata trip: never underestimate the Indian customer. I was reminded of all the things that Roni had said when I went to Avartana at the ITC Royal Bengal the next day.


   I always feel a special connection with Avartana because many years ago, the Chef at the ITC Grand Chola in Chennai, Ajit Bangera and Anil Chadha, who then ran the hotel, asked me to try various dishes they were thinking of putting on the menu at a new restaurant. I ate my way through their dishes and though I had tiny quibbles, my overwhelming feeling was one of (I am ashamed to admit) total surprise. How had these guys managed to create an entirely new repertoire of terrific dishes using South Indian flavours? I told them this was Indian Accent quality food and then watched as they opened Avartana which became the best fine dining restaurant in South India.


   Even so, when Anil (who has now risen to the top of ITC Hotels) told me that they were bringing Avartana to Kolkata, I was a little sceptical. Wasn’t the food too sophisticated for Cal? I asked.


   The day after my conversation with Roni I went to the Kolkata Avartana and was blown away. The food was even better than in Chennai. And as for my scoffing about the Kolkata palate, I was completely wrong about that too. The restaurant is a runaway success, full every night.


   In the end, I guess it comes down to what Roni said. Don’t try and second guess the customers. Cook the best food you can. If you cook it, they will come.


   It’s always fun to be in Kolkata. And this time, thanks to Roni, Aveek and Avartana, I learnt some important life lessons too!



Posted On: 26 Dec 2022 06:35 PM
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