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The chef who stirs the global melting pot for India

We’ll start on a high. Chef Vineet Bhatia has good news for the incorrigible Mumbai foodie: “The city is fast catching up with Delhi,” he states, when we nudge him to speak about the endless Mumbai vs Delhi debate. “Space, of course, can be a problem here. Though the number of standalone restaurants are far more in Delhi, Mumbai has emerged as an influential destination as far as eating out is concerned.”

Pic courtesy/Aashith Shetty

He adds, “Because of the way Delhi is planned, which is circular, with more space, there is more scope to maximise on key factors like restaurant design. Mumbai has grown lengthwise, but it does have it’s own charm. Its restaurants offer countless options, as far as choice, budgets and cuisines — these are all good signs. Honestly, there isn’t much difference.”

Bhatia recalls when as a rookie chef, 15 years back, the Mumbai foodie would dine out once in two weeks: “But these days, I’m seeing people eat out, at least 5-6 times a week. It’s become more a necessity than an enjoyment. It’s largely due to changing patterns in urbane lifestyles with late and long working hours.”

India for the world 
The chef has been instrumental in taking Indian food to the world and to Europe in particular. His restaurants Zaika (London) and Rasoi (Geneva) have not only earned Michelin stars but have also shot him into the limelight for a style that isn’t purist but also doesn’t fall under fusion food. “Food can evolve; there are no boundaries,” he reiterates, reminding us that it isn’t such a bad idea to incorporate Western techniques to enhance our food. We’ll believe. After all, we must take advice seriously when it’s from a chef who has worked around balancing techniques, ingredients and cuisines across continents, with ease. 

Return of the original
Talk veers to trends, elements and ingredients that are making headway on our side of the culinary hemisphere: “I am witnessing a resurgence and reinvention in India. Black garlic and super grains are making a comeback into our kitchens. We’ve become more health conscious.” The worldly-wise chef maintains that in the West, such practices are common. “It’s only now that we are looking at these as great sources of fibre and protein. Organic markets are sprouting across big cities. Cooking techniques like vacuum packing and thermal blenders that have been around in the West for ages, are also entering our restaurants,” he adds.

What’s cooking in 2013?
We are keen to hear what Chef Bhatia has to say about gastronomic pursuits to look forward to in 2013 — new tastes, flavours and palate inspirations. “From where I see it, cuisine from Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Japan look set to impact our food-scape. Besides, some of their ingredients like scallions, vegetables, strong flavouring, as well as their meats, which includes small cuts, will tempt the Indian palate.”

The chef also adds that cuisine from the southern parts of Italy, Spain and Portugal will also appeal to us because of “…similar weather in those regions and flavours from ingredients like chillies”. In contrast, the chef believes that Franco cuisine can be boring with predictable menus. “Look at a Japanese menu — there’s always something fresh to offer; I’ve seen businessmen and celebrities frequent such spaces more than French restaurants (once in six months, perhaps),” he explains, supporting his statement. It’s tough to miss out on his emphasis on desi khana, clearly.

Within minutes, he’s back to his favourite subject — “Promoting regional cuisine must become a movement. I don’t understand why people are scared to experiment with fine dining for Indian cuisine. To change the scene, we must make it innovative.” His parting words are food for thought — “Our training is comparable to the world’s best, now. I didn't even have a mentor when I started off. My greed for knowledge and that I never shied away from questioning things played a huge role in my growth.” Little wonder, when the chef tells us of plans to take Indian cuisine to North Africa, Saudi Arabia and the rest of Europe. He’s got the world eating out of his hands, literally. 

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