A Long Journey Home
The words “Michelin- starred” are often prefixed to Vineet Bhatia’s name, the unintended consequence when you become one of the first Indian chefs to win the gastronomical gold star (he currently holds two, one for Rasoi London and another for Rasoi in Geneva).
The Mumbai-born chef’s accolades are many and far reaching. Bhatia trained at Dadar Catering College and then at the Oberoi’s catering school in Delhi. In the UK, where he has been based since 1993 , Bhatia is widely regarded to have elevated Indian cuisine from its greasy associations with cheap curry dives to an elegant world-standard cuisine in its own right. His flagship restaurant in London, Rasoi, has a mere 14 tables serving the kind of modern Indian cuisine (Bhatia and his wife call it “evolved Indian”) that has made London the gastronomical centre of great Indian food.
In town to oversee the opening of his eleventh restaurant, Ziya, that is set to replace Kandahar at the Oberoi when it re-opens on Saturday, April 24, Bhatia, and his wife and constant collaborator Rashima spoke to us about maintaining his brand, why the customer always gets what he asks (even if that includes onions and pickle), and why the return to his hometown is bitter-sweet. Edited excerpts:
You started your career at Kandahar, which you ran for three years from 1990 to 1993. Now you’re here to re-invent it after it was destroyed in the 26/11 terrorist attacks.
Vineet: I would have loved to have come back in much happier circumstances. We wanted to come back and have a very clean start, and remember what has happened here. When Mr. Oberoi asked us to come back, the idea was to get the best back in town, and return the city back to its glory. I said, “What you want to do is put Mumbai back on the world map.”
What did it feel like to see the place after it was destroyed?
Vineet: I mean I started my career here, these were my mentors, and I knew every nook and corner of the kitchen so when I came back last August to have a look at the kitchen, I brought my camera with me to take pictures of whatever there was. When I walked into the building lobby I had a lump in my throat, and I almost cried. It was sad, absolutely sad what happened. I said okay, that’s the lobby we’ll go see my baby Kandahar, and I went in there and I didn’t know what to do. It was all burnt out. Kandahar was no more what it was. So what we said is we won’t bring Kandahar back, but we’ll start fresh. It’s a new avatar for the hotel, for everybody here.
What kind of food will it serve?
Vineet: The food is going to be a very modern take on Indian dishes. Very contemporary. Rasoi is very contemporary. You can’t forget your traditions, the authenticity, but at the same time we want to modernise the restaurant and bring it to on par to what we’d have in the best of restaurants around the world.
Can you give us an example of some of the dishes?
Vineet: There’s a classic spiced smoked salmon, smoked with spices and charcoal, but served into a cloche, and closed in the smoke. So the smoke is on the table when you take it off; it just evaporates in front of you. So it’s quite theatrical. We have our signature dish of grilled chilli garlic lobster, which is dusted on the table with cocoa poweder and finished off with chocolate samosas. We have a Ziya gulaam. Rashima coined the name. Gul and Aam. It will be a carpaccio of gulab jamun sitting on aam ki kheer. We have saffron grilled pineapple, which is caramelised pineapple with a saffron flavour that is served with kheer ki ice cream.
You have several restaurants around the world. How do you manage all of them?
Vineet: We have 12 currently (a restaurant in Libya set to open in June will be their 12th). Each place we take on, we actually train the chefs in London or we send the team from our side. In this instance, because all the chefs are from here, we had them with us for almost two months to train in London. We will have a web cam in the kitchen here. So I can still sit in Dubai or Mauritious and log on.
With 12 restaurants around the world, do you worry you might dilute your brand?
Vineet: We are worried. We are cautious because we’ve seen people dilute themselves and cut themselves too thin.
Rashima: That is why’re we just 12. We could have been 42. Offers come every day. At same time, we want to maintain balance. We don’t want to have a third or fourth person in our team. We stil want to be two, and have quality.
What things bug you when you eat at other restaurants?
Vineet: I don’t like people with attitude. Staff with attitude. I’ve seen it in a few places here. You’re waiting for people to serve you and they’re not bothered. Chatting amongst themselves. Slow service, sloppy service.
Rashima: In Rasoi London, we always tell our staff forget about what they’re paying, £120 a head or whatever, but you see the reason they are coming to you is because it’s their special occasion. And in spite of having 14 tables, you have got to make that table feel like it’s the only table for you. And if you feel ignored, not attended to, that’s the worst feeling you can get. Whether it is in terms of I don’t like this, can you do something for me, of course we can. You are allowed to feel like you want to make a change. Aap ke liye karege.
Vineet: Nothing is a problem. We always tell our staff firstly, smile and secondly, put yourself in the guest’s shoes. See what they want. Punjabis want to go to the restaurant and they want laccha pyaaz and limbu and mirchi, so give it to them. Why make a fuss over it? How much is it going to bother you? De do.
Call 6632 4343 to make a reservation at Ziya.Tags: Azok, Oberoi, Rashima Bhatia, Rasoi, restaurant, Special Top Story, Vineet Bhatia, Zaika, Ziya