Kitchen Shuffle

Apr 10, 2016, 09:27 IST | Anjana

What happens when a new chef takes over a trailblazer restaurant? Do loyalists miss the menu and man behind it?
A Sunday afternoon at Colaba's Ellipsis holds the answer

The ellipsis is a linguistic tool used to omit words in a quotation without changing the essence of the original phrase. But, can a restaurant — even one that has adopted the grammatical character as its name — replace its executive chef as simply?

Chlorophyll, house yogurt and market berries

One imagines a shuffle in the kitchen would, at the very least, translate into disgruntled regulars complaining about a changed menu. But if Ellipsis’ Chinese-Canadian chef Kelvin Cheung is missed, it’s not evident in the vibe at the Rohan Talwar-owned Colaba restaurant he once helmed.

On the Sunday afternoon of our visit, most of the guests at this modern-American dining concept have cleared out after a lazy brunch. A few linger on, lounging on sofas in one corner, legs stretched out over a plush feathery rug. Stewards shuffle about, clearing tables and attending to the group. It’s been a busy day and the rush hour activity — the brunch menu boasts almost as many dishes as the dinner menu, though only two old favourites, viz., the mushroom gnocchi (Rs 1,200) and nachos (Rs 700) appear on both — has left tell-tale trails of sweat on Chef Phuong Tran’s forehead.

Chef Phuong Tran, who runs Croft Alley in trendy Melrose Place, Los Angeles and arrived here in February, neatly places microgreens as garnish on a dish with single-minded focus. Pics/Shadab Khan
Chef Phuong Tran, who runs Croft Alley in trendy Melrose Place, Los Angeles and arrived here in February, neatly places microgreens as garnish on a dish with single-minded focus. pics/shadab khan

Tran, who runs Croft Alley in Melrose Place, Los Angeles, arrived here in February to take over from Cheung, whose culinary prowess (and Instagram readiness) had quickly turned him into the culinary scene’s star attraction. Alia Bhatt, who had celebrated her 22nd birthday at the eatery, saw him prepare six cakes spanning different flavours, at the end of which she Instagramed a picture of the two with the little mounds, and a caption that read, Thank you @chefkelvincheung I am officially a fan.

Tran briefs a member of his team
Tran briefs a member of his team

Big shoes to fill, but Tran must be getting used to it, or at least he’ll have to if what we’ve heard is anything to go by. Friends who dined there on Saturday night say the place was filled to capacity and while the food was outstanding, the highlight of the evening was the bill — there’s a half-off promotion on food and drinks till the end of the month. “It’s the quickest way to get the word out,” says Tran, who has come around. At first, he admits, he wasn’t thrilled about introducing Mumbai to his talent at a discounted rate.

Four years ago, Cheung caught the city’s attention with a different gimmick: a new menu every day. Not each dish was completely different, some were just tweaked versions of recipes, but the idea was that even if you dined here every single day, you wouldn’t get bored. Chef Tran, on the other hand, wants to see how each dish he introduces is received and then adjust the menu, making additions and subtractions over time, he tells us, drawing our attention to the swirls of chlorophyll in a delicately-sweetened yoghurt-and-berries intermezzo preparation (R650), a hit at his Melrose Place restaurant. “My approach is very Californian,” he says, “The emphasis is on sourcing the freshest produce, whether Indian or brought in from overseas.”

He leads us into the kitchen where we watch him prepare his favourite dim sum — rice crepes doused in a tangy, vinegar-coconut water sauce and generously sprinkled with chilli flakes and scallions. Standing across from him, a kitchen hand plates a portion of Eggs Benedict (R850 with spinach; R950 with prawn). He spoons creamy hollandaise sauce over an arrangement, then brings it over to a station near Tran so the chef can arrange the garnish.

“Microgreens,” the man in the striped apron calls out, and someone brings the herbs over so Tran can lean over the dish, then that, plucking and sprinkling. The synchronisation is so impressive, with a little music, it could pass for a ballet. The team works as efficiently in the dim sum area upstairs, a glass cabin where Cheung would host his chef’s table, but which was later converted to this extension to the kitchen. One can’t help but wonder if this is the erstwhile chef’s team.
A stickler for discipline, Cheung had, after all, earned a reputation for being a perfectionist.

“Some of the staff is new, some were there when I got in,” Tran tells us. “I spent about a month training them.” It took him a week to get culturally attuned too. “One of the issues was temperature. Indian families, typically, eat a meal cooked in one pot — it’s served piping hot. Not all my recipes are meant to be enjoyed that way. For instance, this dim sum is served cold,” he says as we sample the deliciously light crepes, wondering whether stewards inform vegetarians that the dish contains fish sauce (it isn’t mentioned on the menu).

Cultural attuning, like the job of getting a service team to adapt to the modus operandi of a new chef, takes time.
So far, though, on most counts, Tran seems to be on top of his game and the proof, as the idiom goes, is in the pudding. It’s just a little sad that no one ever thought to include a line about the hands that prepare it.

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