Filipino chef Augusto Cabrera talks about Sushi, Vegan food for Mumbaikars

Updated: Mar 25, 2019, 12:22 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

As Delhi's top sushi chef Augusto Cabrera enters a largely vegetarian (and now vegan) market, he discusses what Mumbaikars can expect from him

Yellowtail jalapeno in wasabi soy
Yellowtail jalapeno in wasabi soy

It's a warm afternoon and we are sitting at the bar of Town Hall, the upscale Mumbai outpost of the New Delhi establishment which launched last week at Lower Parel. It's hard to look away from the ascending rows stacked with the world's finest blends with its rich hues awakening our senses. But, if the colour-coded alcohol makes us trippy, there's more sorcery awaiting in the quiet corner next to the bar.

Inside the open kitchen, Filipino chef Augusto Cabrera is slicing salmon with surgical precision. A mound of rice and veggies sit next to it. The zen-like concentration and composure makes you believe that Cabrera takes his sushi as seriously as the Japanese.

The kokona
The kokona

And it's true, given the fact that Cabrera's reputation precedes him. The 38-year-old gained a sizeable fan following amongst Delhi's swish set when he was the chef at Oberoi New Delhi a decade ago. In 2013, when restaurateurs Randeep Bajaj and Navneet Randhawa launched Town Hall in the heart of Khan Market, Cabrera joined them as the executive chef and managing partner, bringing with him a wealth of experience and understanding of the Delhi palate. Within a year's time, he was able to convert a butter chicken-loving population into raw fish fanatics by introducing the culture of sushi rolls. "I would personally watch tables and request guests to try them.

The 38-year-old joined restaurateurs Randeep Bajaj and Navneet Randhawa when they launched Town Hall in the heart of Khan Market in 2013. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
The 38-year-old joined restaurateurs Randeep Bajaj and Navneet Randhawa when they launched Town Hall in the heart of Khan Market in 2013. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

Then, I'd stand and watch their reaction," he recalls. There were times when he had to tutor them on how to eat it. "I got complaints that the sushi is too salty or spicy, so I asked the guest if I could watch them eat." He noticed that they would dunk the sushi in the vinegar for too long, and instead of a dash of wasabi, it was a chunk. But once they figured it, another plate would be called for.

It's easy to understand why when we sample the kokana - Japanese for 'heart and greens' - one of chef Augusto's signature rolls. A combination of otoro, the most desired part of the tuna belly, chutoro or medium fat tuna, salmon belly, kampachi or yellowtail, sturgeon caviar, flying fish roe, salmon roe with silver and gold leaf, it's firm in texture and exquisite in flavour.

Back in Delhi, the success of the space led to the second opening at the glitzy Horizon Plaza in Gurgaon. His Instagram account is testament to his fame. Flooded with pictures of celebrities - from Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula 1 world champion and skipper Virat Kohli to actor Sushmita Sen - who have dined at his restaurant.

Now that he's finally in Mumbai, one is bound to think that the chef has little to prove. "That's far from true. I've been researching the Mumbai market for over a year," says Cabrera, self-effacingly. A boxer by passion - his athletic build is telling - Cabrera admits he has been unable to devote much time to the sport due to the constant shuttle between Delhi and Mumbai in the last one year. "I would dine at Asian restaurants in Mumbai because I wanted to get a sense of what a Mumbaikar wants, which is a tad different from a Delhiite." His own research revealed it. If the non-vegetarian to vegetarian ratio is 70:30 in Delhi, it's 50:50 in Mumbai. He got a sense of it on day one of the launch, when a diner requested for vegan sushi. "I was prepared for it," he laughs. An array of suitable replacements like vegetable tempura; ceviche of quinoa, watermelon, corn, edmame and sambuca; salted or spicy edamame; grilled asparagus with tahini have already been added to the sushi
menu for the herbivores. Most ingredients are imported. While the salmon comes in from Scotland, the yakinori (roasted seaweeds) is flown in from Japan.

Having said that, there's no denying that the vegetarian conundrum has always been his biggest challenge. "So, there's a difference between global sushi and the way it's consumed in Japan. In case of the latter, it's more bland because fresh fish is the norm, which is why it doesn't make sense to the mask the original flavours with sauces and condiments," he explains. Born in Philippines, Cabrera's first trip to Japan was when he was a student at a local culinary college. He would eventually make several more trips to the country to learn their food secrets. In Japan, he noticed that the recipe was simple - a circle of short grain rice encompassing a raw fish and wrapped with nori. But that would hardly appeal to Indians with a penchant for spice, for which he crafted his signature vinegar and wasabi sauce that could elevate the taste.

While it may appear to be a simple affair when Cabrera works deftly to mix the delicately formed nigiri (rice balls) with a slice of sashimi, it's hardly so. "There's a reason they call it the art of sushi, because it takes years to perfect it. Just learning to cut a fillet and boil rice to the optimal level takes two years," he says. It took Cabrera five years to be able to gain confidence.

For him, it was not just about making sushi, but constantly improvising it. "If there's one thing I've learnt here, it's that Indians want innovation. Guests always ask me, 'What's new, chef'?"

While he has retained many of his signature dishes, there are a lot more Filipino dishes on offer. When asked about competition, he sounds unnerved. "I believe in my creations. I hope people like it."

Especially for Mumbai
Kokana - Japanese for 'heart and greens' - is one Augusto's signature rolls, which will be introduced in Mumbai for the first time. A combination of otoro, the most desired part of the tuna belly, chutoro or medium fat tuna, salmon belly, kampachi, sturgeon caviar, flying fish roe, salmon roe with silver and gold leaf, it's firm in texture and rich in flavour

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