Delhi, are you ready for KelC?
As the capital readies for a taste of this city's celebrity chef Kelvin Chueng's cooking, we catch up with the "Mumbaikar at heart" to speak of re-debuts
When I heard Chef Kelvin Cheung had moved to the capital last October, I was eager to exchange notes. And the opportunity arrived when he said that his latest project in Vasant Kunj opens in a month.
"The produce is so good, right?" Cheung, chef and partner on the business with Aman Kumar and Arjun Jain, the duo behind food festival The Grub Fest, says. "This [the move to Delhi] has come as a blessing. If only the pollution would go away," he quips, wearing an apron and a pencil tucked behind a ear. We walk through Kikoba, the restaurant named after a Japanese mythological character, who is a shape shifter from heaven travelling across the country spreading good fortune. An open robata-style grill is where Cheung will take centre stage.
Chinese lamb dumpling
Below, on the ground level, Dadel—an adult cocktail named after Greek inventor Daedalus—will be served. The bar down below is starkly different from the simple insides of the restaurant. It’s English dandy, with a large onyx bar station, high chairs with feline prints surrounded by colourful sofa nooks.
"A good snack, a good drink and some live jazz. Most restaurant bars are clubs with loud music. Here, you can have a conversation without shouting," he says. This Cheung is different from the one we left behind in Mumbai. A four-year stint at Bandra’s favourite seafood station, Bastian, ended on a sour, abrupt note after a fallout with the owners last August. He packed his bags for Toronto, to be with family and conceive a restaurant in Canada. But, India wasn’t done with him.
Aman Kumar and Arjun Jain
Cheung seems to have moved on, as he talks with newfound maturity that he admits has come with fatherhood. He refuses to discuss "the last place".
Kikoba features flavours that he helped rustle up at his father Eddy Chueng’s chain of Cantonese Hong-Kong style restaurants Ocenia, Mandarin Palace, Phoenix and Centura, along with what he has learnt on his travels. "I am paying respect to everyone I’ve ever learnt from, and adding a bit of my style," he says.
The style is Shanghainese bun with the filling of an American burger, or roast chicken inspired by his time in northern Thailand. "You will see locals stumbling out of bars at 2 am and following the aromas to nearby stalls. I want my guests to get a whiff of the food that’s being prepared," he smiles, adding that his cooking focusses on ingredient-driven ideas and local produce. "I am taking advantage of the fresh produce available in Delhi, and working with three local farmers to create a special section on the menu, using over-ripened produce that they can’t sell," he says.
Cheung is willing to work hard. The first-generation Chinese migrants to Canada, his family took the kids to work. His father manned the kitchens and mother handled accounts. "Too young to do much, my older brother and I would be packed off to the bakery where we learnt to make almond cookies. As the years passed, my brother would press dumpling dough while I learnt to sort and chop vegetables. Our eldest sister would help mom stack the bills," says Cheung, the memory bringing back the nostalgia associated with Chinese barbeque. "I remember the sounds too. The woks being tossed in, old women pushing dumpling carts and shouting the names [of their wares]. An aunt opened a fast food shop to cater hot dogs and fries to three skating rinks nearby."
His father who passed on last year, left him many lessons. "He had a knack for remembering every dish he had fed a customer. He welcomed his staff in too, asking them about how their families were doing and how their day was."
Chueng can now practice some of those lessons. Bodhi Rye, his 16-month-old son is a delight to track on Instagram. "I wasn’t sure I would be a good father, but this phase has changed me—my personality, even the way I want to run my kitchen and build my team," says Cheung, stirring up a select few dishes for us to try. A comfort broccoli soup turns into a bar snack of gnocchi in broccoli and cheddar sauce, and the Japanese scallops come on crisp sushi rice cakes on a bed of corn dashi. Drops of soy and ponzu add the acid punch. "For the yuzukosho, I fermented grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange, sweet lime and green chillies way back in November," he shares. The kick comes as a subtle aftertaste.
A take on his father’s braised lamb, Cheung makes classic dimsum dough for parcels in Chinese lamb seared in a French technique with red wine and lamb stock. "It won’t go soggy while you take a picture," he smiles.
He is right. Crispy on the outside, and juicy inside, the shredded filling is as good as it gets.
Over the last eight years in India, Cheung has had a hugely successful career. At 31, he opened Colaba’s Ellipsis. He’d visit Sassoon Dock and Vashi market for ingredients at 4 am, drive back to the kitchen to prep. "But after all this, at service, no one wanted to try our food. We had dishes with 18 kinds of garnish. It was as if we had a point to prove. Then, I changed my perspective. I decided I would do honest food," he says, introspecting.
Four years later, he opened Bastian, a modern seafood restaurant in a city that was in love with Konkani kekda. The new-found fascination for Delhi gives way to a mushy admission of his amour for Mumbai. "As an outsider, I realised that Mumbai celebrated its traditional seafood. But no one was doing a modern take. It helped me build a deep bond with India. It was a snowball effect. I miss everything about Mumbai. I made some deep personal connections. I met my wife here, and we had our son in India, so I have a deep love and bond with India," he says wistfully about the place that made him a celebrity. Sharing plates and tables with the stars brought with it the trolling. "I got into trouble for not going to [the other] tables. Ninety nine per cent of the time, I interacted with everyone [ I could], something I learnt from my father. But I am still a chef first.
Interacting with customers is a perk I love, but when the kitchen needs me that’s where you’ll find me."
Cheung on Delhi V/S Mumbai
Gnochi in broccoli and cheddar sauce
You must eat nihari at the Muslim Cultural Centre. The regional food in Delhi is excellent, but Mumbai does continental and Maharashtrian better
Cooking across political and financial capitals
Classic Chilli Chicken
"Mumbai doesn’t want to sleep even at 3 am. The guests will sit even after the lights are out!" says chef Augusto Cabrera of Townhall, who came to India 15 years ago, working in Delhi in the pre-opening team of Oberoi’s much-loved 360 restaurant and then later, launching Tiffin at the chain’s Nariman Point hotel. "In Delhi, 90 per cent of my clients are non-vegetarian. In Mumbai, it’s 50 per cent vegetarian, Jain, vegan and gluten-intolerant. Sometimes, they order dishes that are not on the menu, but we accommodate."
Impresario’s Gresham Fernandez calls out the cultural difference. "If I serve vada pav in north India, or misal pav, they won’t get it because it’s not nostalgic for them. Likewise, in Mumbai, no one gets excited about daulat ki chaat because it is not cold here," he says. In Delhi, Fernandez cooks for the St Jude’s Swine Dine Project, a celebration of pork and every part of the pig, a concept that he launched in Mumbai and continues to organise. "For that menu, though, I don’t tweak a thing."
Killa kulcha thal
Executive chef, Impresario group, Shamsul Wajid, says that guests in the northern Indian states eat heartily. "We have a lot of orders for the thali and fuller meal options, because they want to eat well with their drinks. We do a mix of Kashmiri, Hyderabadi and Punjabi dishes. Mumbaikars prefer munchies with their drinks. And they love their spice. Mumbai’s Socials have a spicier chilli chicken than the Delhi outposts."
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