Michelin-starred chef Vineet Bhatia on his pioneering experiments with Indian cuisine – News

His empire stretches from London, Mauritius, Mumbai to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain

Published: Fri 11 Feb 2022, 00:25

The UK National Day experience at Expo 2020 Dubai on February 10 was complemented by a taste of British food and drink. Vineet Bhatia, an innovative Michelin-starred Indian-born chef who runs two fine-dining restaurants in Dubai, co-curated a British-focused menu at 1851 Restaurant in the British Pavilion.

Bhatia is the world’s first famous Indian chef and is widely regarded as the father of modern Indian cuisine. He recounts how he “began to see himself as the father of modern Indian cuisine in 2001, around the time I received my first Michelin star”. “The phrase has been used in a number of reviews by well-respected food critics after learning about my style of cooking,” he says. “I was the first Indian chef to offer diners an experience of Indian cuisine, with beautifully prepared and visually stunning tasting dishes, accompanied by wine. It was a far cry from the ‘traditional’ Indian style and clearly resonated with diners and critics alike.

Despite its rave reviews in London, it made inroads into the Middle East more than 17 years ago. And Dubai was his first stop. “When I decided to leave India to pursue my culinary dreams, I was approached from London, Japan and Dubai. I chose London as I felt there would be more acceptance of eating out with Indian food when the other options at the time were perhaps not as developed as far as palates were concerned culinary,” he says. “When we opened the Rasoi restaurant in Chelsea in June 2004, on the very first day, we had some executives from the Grosvenor House Hotel in Dubai who were dining with us and they had come with the intention of approaching me to open a restaurant Indian at their next -at the launch hotel. They approached my wife Rashima who was doing the front of the house and she laughed it off and said we could discuss it tomorrow, unaware how serious they were. It soon became apparent when they returned the next day.

He adds: ‘We had our apprehensions but it was left casually to the point of asking the leader to take a look at the proposed location and take it from there. When I traveled to Dubai it was completely different from what I had seen on previous trips in the 1990s. At the time Dubai Marina did not exist, but it was clear that the city was buzzing with rapidly growing activity, which elicited immediate excitement from me. When we found out we would be located in the new developing area it immediately brought me back to the difficult days of kitchen reform and development in Old Brompton Road when I first arrived at London. I’ve always said that if your gut tells you to go, you go. That first visit was in March 2005. We launched three months later and I’m proud to say it’s still going strong 17 years later.

Today, he owns six gourmet restaurants in the area (see box). However, it plans to expand further in the Middle East. “We already have a number of restaurants in the region, including in Dubai, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (SA) and Bahrain, but we continue to seek other opportunities for expansion. The love of Indian cuisine is well established in the United Arab Emirates and after so many years of activity in the region, we have a good understanding of the adjustments we can make according to the tastes of our audience. With this in mind, and the continued growth of the Middle East, we are delighted to continue to grow and it is one of the reasons why I am so happy to have represented the culinary expertise of the UK at Britain’s National Day at Expo 2020 Dubai on February 10. ” he says.

Over the years, the Bhatia Empire has grown by leaps and bounds, but has also faced a fair share of challenges due to the raging Covid-19 pandemic for the third consecutive year. “We have consolidated with nine restaurants and a few have matured their terms and some had to close during the pandemic. Plans are underway to launch other restaurants around the world and we look forward to sharing our cuisine when this materializes,” he said.

Bhatia is the mastermind behind several Indian culinary innovations, such as blue cheese naan, mushroom/truffle naan, dahi bhalla ice cream, kheer ice cream and makhni sauce ice cream.

He explains how he came up with the pioneering experiments with Indian food. “Some of my most famous experimental dishes were created in London – with my blue cheese naans and mushroom truffle naans first produced at Zaika in Fulham Road when I first received a Michelin star in early 2000, while dahi bhalla ice cream, kheer ice cream and makhni sauce ice cream were established in Rasoi in 2004,” he says.

Looking back, he says, “I was lucky to be surrounded by such wonderful ingredients and dishes. So I always aim to try something new and bounce back from diners’ tastes and feedback once they’ve tried something for the first time. I often wonder what they like to eat but also look at what I like to eat before finding common ground. Take blue cheese naan, for example. I first tasted blue cheese in London and Indians like bread the same way Italians do, so I wondered if we had stuffed naan, why can’t I stuff it with blue cheese. So it was my newfound love of blue cheese that led me to experiment. As for my ice cream creations, I wondered why ice cream always had to be sweet. If you can have salted caramel ice cream with this sweet/salty balance, why not experiment with other savory flavors? So I started experimenting with dahi bhalla ice cream and served it as an amuse bouche, which is often how we tested immediate customer feedback. It was an instant winner and it was very exciting to watch them taste it and try to place themselves where they had experienced the flavors before. They loved the flavors and when we told them it was dahi bhalla you could see appreciation in their eyes. It’s an exciting journey for them.

Other highlights of his illustrious career included signature dishes like chocolate samosa or flavor combinations, like grated chocolate on lobster or coffee on skewers. “A lot of my signature dishes have interesting stories behind them,” he says. “Take the chocolate samosa, for example, which is one of the first signature dishes I created in 1993 when I had only been in the UK for a few months. There was already so much positivity around my food and changes to our menus, including a great review in the Evening Standard. This caused an English gentleman to visit the restaurant several times and on one occasion asked to speak to me personally. I did and he bluntly told me that the review was the only reason he had come to dinner with us and he felt the food was ‘okay, but nothing amazing’ and asked me a question that stuck in my mind that day – “why do you think your food is different from other people’s?” All day the next day, I took it upon myself to see things differently and look at traditional Indian food and give it a makeover.

I remember realizing that a samosa will always be a samosa no matter the filling, so I went back to the kitchen and started trying different samosa dishes. I started experimenting with a number of sweet fillings before realizing it had to be chocolate, arguably Britain’s favorite sweet food. From there, he worked out the logistics and figured out a way to produce a chocolate samosa with a filling that wouldn’t melt under the intense heat of the frying process. I produced the dark and white marbled chocolate combination and the rest is history. I then invited the gentleman back to the restaurant to introduce him to the new creation and the smile on his face when he tasted the chocolate samosa for the first time is something I will never forget.

Other signature flavor combinations came from traveling with my wife. We were in Geneva, which is chocolate country, and it inspired me to produce a chocolate-inspired five-course tasting menu, which included not only the chocolate samosa but also a grated chocolate lobster dish. It was definitely an eye-opening experience for the diners and myself, as it was not something I had done before. Likewise, the coffee kebab flavor combination was born out of a TV show I was working on with my wife while we were visiting a coffee plantation and it inspired a new set of innovations in my mind.

No wonder, he likes to “see the satisfaction on a diner’s face when they try something new for the first time and realize how well the flavors go together.”

Bhatia’s wife Rashima was the biggest influence in his life. He unequivocally recognizes his larger-than-life presence. “Rashima’s influence is unquestionable – she has played a crucial role in the growth and success of the company. I would even go so far as to say that 95% of the company is due to her hard work, I don’t am that artist, chef and smiling face for the cameras. Her contribution can be clearly seen in everything from restaurant design and concept planning to marketing, finance and working with our partners. She is most definitely the no-nonsense person in our relationship and truly is the unsung hero behind the success we have had globally If it weren’t for her I’m confident in saying I wouldn’t be in the position that I am today. She is my rock and I am grateful to her for her positive influence on a daily basis,” he says.

At present, is the famous chef readjusting his operations in a post-pandemic world? “The pandemic has shown us another side of the world and brought many of our most frightening nightmares to life. Hospitality has been hit hard across the world and this has unfortunately forced some restaurants to close, including Rasoi in Geneva, due to visa restrictions for the staff we had there. In many ways, it made us realize what we cared about and brought us back to basics. I am happy to say that we managed to retain all of our staff and it became clear that if you are nimble and nimble enough to adapt, you can survive any obstacle placed in front of you. From bringing some of our food online and delivering it for the first time to meeting the expectations of our diners who are increasingly looking for plant-based diets, anything is possible,” says- he. “We kept adapting and moving forward and it has served us well.”

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