Eating with the stars

Jul 29, 2012, 08:36 IST | Anjana Vaswani and Phorum Dalal

Mumbai restaurants and hospitality giants are vying to get Michelin star chefs � the French mark of gastronomic excellence � on board. Anjana Vaswani and Phorum Dalal speak to winners of the accolade and their Mumbai hosts to find out what these coveted chefs really whip up and why Mumbai is mesmerised

Last week, a dignitary and a regular at F Bar, Mumbai walked into the restaurant at Elphinstone Road without any prior notice. Wanting to ensure that they served his favourite dishes just the way he preferred them, head chef Rakesh Talwar turned to consulting chef Vineet Bhatia for his opinion. “Add an extra dash of black pepper and peanut butter to the chicken wings. He likes it that way,” Bhatia told him.

Michelin star chef Vineet Bhatia personally visits F Bar six to 10 times a year, but is connected to the kitchen through the webcam almost every day. Pic/Satyajit Desai

This would seem like a regular routine, but for one thing. Bhatia is sitting in London and is witnessing the preparation and plating procedure through a video chat. Bhatia, a Michelin star chef, has been part of the F Bar team as a consultant since its inception since May this year. “I play the role of an extra pair of eyes,” says Bhatia, who is based out of London, where he runs his Michelin star restaurant — Rasoi.

At F Bar, Bhatia lends his experience to help design and reinvent the menu, train the staff and add new food and beverage concepts. This time, he brought along golden-coloured bathroom tiles and got them cut into small rectangular pieces. This, he uses to serve appetisers. “I come down at least 10 times a year and the rest of the year, I am connected to the kitchen through the webcam. I work closely with Rakesh. It doesn’t matter whether I am in Geneva, Greece or London, we speak every day and go over the glitches report,” says Bhatia, who is also the consulting chef at Ziya, Oberoi, Mumbai.

“When I am travelling the world and working with different kitchens, it gives me a better perspective. I am free of any form of monotony and my mind never ceases to create new dishes and concepts. I was on a bus in London and saw a girl eating white candyfloss. That led me to create an Elaichi-flavoured candy floss to add to F Bar Indian menu,” says Bhatia, who has introduced dishes such as Goat Cheese Samosa, Lasagne Rasmalai and a Bailey’s Kulfi at the three month-old restaurant.

Chef Miguel and Chef Enrique from Valencia, Spain who were part of Miro’s Spanish food festival this year

F Bar is just one of the many restaurants in the city, including Miro of Svenska Design Hotels in Andheri (West), JW Marriott in Juhu and The Oberoi at Nariman Point, that are reaching out for the star chefs. Michelin reviewers assess restaurants in five categories — the quality of the products, mastery of flavour and cooking, personality of the cuisine, value for money and consistency between visits.

Spanish festival
In January, for its Spanish
festival, Miro, a Mediterranean-Spanish restaurant by Svenska Design Hotels, invited Chef Miguel Lajarin, who worked at the Michelin-starred restaurant Torrijos in Valencia and Chef Leon Benmergui Rosetti, who served as Chef de Partie at La Hacienda Benazuza, recipient of 2 Michelin stars. “We felt we wouldn’t have been able to find chefs with our desired level of expertise for the festival. So, we decided to invite chefs who were at the absolute top of their game to train our staff. Consequently the chefs were here for two months,” says Zia Sheikh, CEO, Svenska Design Hotels.

The visiting chefs worked closely with the team to devise something ideal for the Indian palate. Describing the culinary creations of the Spanish master chefs as nothing short of art, Miro’s 26 year-old head chef Rahul Bisht says, “The chefs hailed from different parts of Spain but they actually had their own line of ingredients so sourcing authentic Spanish supplies became a lot easier.”

Michelin star chef Sergi Arola

Though the master chefs came armed with special gadgets and tools, they also showed Bisht how to use his own tools to create different effects. “They used a garlic-foam-gun to create Parmesan foam that we infused into mushroom soup. It was incredible to observe the ease and simplicity with which they transformed good dishes into great ones.”  It seems Mumbai knows and recognises the worth of that stamp. “People here know that it promises authenticity, consistency and the highest quality of food. We don’t have local Michelin-rated restaurants here yet, so the best we can do is form an association with chefs whose skills have earned restaurants overseas Michelin stars.”

The perfect taste
As far as the star-quotient goes, Thomas Guss, general manager, JW Marriott Mumbai at Juhu asserts that Chef Sergi Arola, the Catalonian chef after whom their Spanish restaurant is named, “is more interested in the cooking and the food, in offering the perfect taste and experience. Indian diners have a passion for food that you don’t really see in other countries,” says Guss.

For promotion’s sake
That’s also why The Oberoi Hotel at Nariman Point rolled out the red carpet for Michelin-starred chef Daniel Hebet, who received the title of France’s best pastry chef in 1997, in January this year. Cedric Klein-Jochem, executive assistant manager, food and beverage, The Oberoi, says, “To sustain a restaurant’s fame, you need to maintain awareness, to introduce a feature that creates a buzz every now and again.”

Patata bravas. File pic

Hebet created a special menu for the length of the promotion at Fenix, the hotel’s all-day dining restaurant. “Such is the Indian customer’s appreciation of the French star that Michelin has actually been considering creating a guide to the country’s restaurants. That is the future of restaurants here,” says Klein-Jochem.

Marriott hospitality group’s decision to inaugurate Spanish restaurant Arola, was based, in part, on the fact that they already offered Italian cuisine and felt Spanish food would suit Indian preferences better than other European cuisine. “India is on the brink of a culinary revolution. I am very excited about bringing the Arola experience to India. The menu will include specially selected mix of all the popular dishes from Arola restaurants all over the world, while also creating signature items for Mumbai. The aim is to surprise the Indian audience with eclectic European cuisine designed especially for their increasingly discerning palate,” says Arola, who is the three-time recipient of Michelin stars — once for La Broche, the Madrid restaurant he headed and twice for his own Sergi Arola Gastro.

Passion is principal
Almost as well known for his passion for music, the Catalonian chef is often described as a bold, trend-setting avant-garde culinary rebel. Chef Manuel Olveira Seller, first-mate of what is clearly run as a very tight ship, shares, “Having worked with Chef Arola in Spain, I know exactly what he wants — the flavour, the look, the concept, even the plates — but still, even when he’s not in town, we must touch base every week. Chef Arola has to be updated about every detail right from the selection of music and guest feedback to issues like service and what dish was most favoured, and so on.”

Mini desserts. File pic

The chefs also routinely discuss recipe-variations and the limitations of working in Mumbai or as Chef Seller puts it, “what we cannot do here.” And, the creation of a menu that’s predominantly vegetarian for a cuisine that’s principally non-vegetarian must have had its shares of roadblocks. Sometimes things work in reverse though and Guss shares, “Chef Sergi even has a Tandoori oven is in his kitchen because he loves the aroma and flavour it lends to the food, but unfortunately we cannot have tandoori ovens in Spain or anywhere in Europe as it’s forbidden by the law.”

The Michelin man
André Michelin first tasted the limelight at the age of 38 when, along with his brother Édouard, he designed and patented the first-of-its-kind removable and easily repairable pneumatic bicycle tyre. André was not optimistic about the future of the tyre industry and that’s when the idea of a Michelin Guide was born. It started as a motorists’ guide, a free blue pamphlet intended for those travelling across France, which carried ads for the tyre company alongside information about petrol stations, lodgings, garages, restrooms and diners on different routes.

Bibendum, the tyre company’s stack-of-tyres-man, a symbol pencilled by André Michelin himself back in 1898, was imprinted on these pamphlets and today, this is one of the oldest corporate symbols still in use. But in the years that followed, André noticed that the dining section of these booklets received special attention and, in response, set up a team to conduct anonymous inspections of restaurants — a practise that Michelin still adheres to — and had them follow a very specific rating system. In 1931, the blue cover was replaced by a red one and the free pamphlet that listed restaurants that provided consistently high-quality food across budgets, cuisines and styles, now came to command a price. This is why, even today, the stars are linked to travel: 1 star — A very good restaurant in its category, 2 stars — Excellent cooking, worth a detour, 3 stars — Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.

Did you know?
For eight years now, 47-year-old Skye Gyngell has served as the head chef at Petersham Nurseries Café in Richmond, London, a modest restaurant (whose guestlist has included Mick Jagger and Stella McCartney). The restaurant was awarded one Michelin star last year. Earlier this year, she was so frustrated by the unrealistic expectations that came with the star-rating that she handed in her papers, publicly stated that the honour had become a curse, and boldly announced that she hopes she’s never awarded another star.

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