Remember British author Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’? Of course you do. And surely the most memorable character, Willy Wonka; the innovative chocolate visionary and his scrumdiddlyumptious creations come to mind. For a moment, would you now imagine what Willy Wonka would whip up in an Indian rasoi? Welcome to the kitchen of Chef Vineet Bhatia.
- Blueberry and black cardamom kulfi
- Blue cheese naan
- Cumin-infused chocolate
- Goat’s cheese and coriander khichdi
These curious compositions of ingredients with volatile textures and consistencies are distinctive of Vineet’s kitchen (and these recipes are included in his book ‘Rasoi: New Indian Kitchen’ for you to try at home). Earlier this year, during a short trip to Mumbai, I had visited Ziya at The Oberoi (food sketch below) where even the walls taste of pecan nuts and chocolate. Just kidding. Actually, it was almonds.
Bursts of color pop on brilliant white plates and after a while, your brain tells you to stop trying to guess flavors. Yes, you will be wrong most of the time. How am I to identify a pecan nut kheer, a black sesame panna cotta or even a coconut-caramel drizzle on top? Take a look at Chef Bhatia’s Instagram page to really appreciate the originality of his creations- turmeric caviar, khandvi with a twist (literally) and mini explosions of color and texture on plates!
Here’s a book excerpt from ‘Rasoi: New Indian Kitchen’ where you learn of Vineet Bhatia’s journey from a little boy who wanted to be a pilot to the young man who revolutionized Indian cuisine:
I did not set out to be a chef. My first love was planes, and as a child I wanted to be a pilot and fly high above the clouds. My alarm clock was the sound of the Gulf Air DC10 flying over our flat in Bombay at 6 o’ clock every morning. My brother and I would cycle through the Juhu Aerodrome on our way to school and I would look with awe at the Cessnas and Bell helicopters stationed in their hangars, so close to me yet so distant. How I longed to fly in one of them! On the journey home from school, the guards would allow us inside to get some ice-cold water from the drinking fountains. I would stand in those huge hangars as a little boy of eight, dreaming of flying. When I was 17, however, my application to join the Indian Air Force was rejected. Now I advise British Airways on their menus and fly almost every month, and moreover was fortunate enough to marry a pilot’s daughter, so fate has its funny little ways.
After the air force turned me down, I was so disillusioned and frustrated that I had no idea what to do next. I was sure of one thing, though- much to the dismay of my lawyer mother and accountant father, I wasn’t cut out to follow in their footsteps. After I had eliminated all the’respectable’ career choices, the only avenue left to me was catering and hospitality. For the first time since I failed to enroll as a pilot, I found myself intrigued. It fascinated me that something like eating out, which we take almost entirely for granted, had so much thought and labour behind it. Eventually I was accepted at an undistinguished catering college in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The last to join the course, I was the shortest and smallest, but I had what most of them didn’t: ambition and a determination to prove myself. When my father dropped me off at the hostel, he told me, ‘You go through this rough patch and you will shine.’ I promised him I would, and after doing well in my exams I was transferred to the prestigious catering college in Dadar, Bombay. This is where my career really began, and after two years’ hard work I was selected for the prestigious Oberoi School, where trainees were expected to learn both French and Indian cuisine.
It was like living a dream. At the end of each grueling day’s training, I would spend hours in the Indian kitchen watching the khan sahibs, or master chefs, preparing delicacies. Occasionally I was allowed to help, chopping vegetables here and there, handing out utensils or spices. Gradually, as I gained their trust, I was even allowed to prepare these dishes myself. I had finally found my calling. The cream of the class was usually absorbed into the French kitchen but, much to the horror of my teachers, I elected to stay in the Indian one.
In 1990 I was appointed to the Indian kitchen at the Oberoi Mumbai. I learned a huge amount there but, while my French counterparts were being applauded for developing an innovative and exciting cuisine, there was no opportunity in the traditionally rigid Indian kitchen for me to do the same. Frustrated, I realised it was time to move on. Faced with a choice of Dubai, Bangkok, Tokyo and London, I opted for the latter, assuming that with all its connections with the Raj, a good standard of Indian food would be guaranteed. How wrong I was!
My first job was as head chef at the Star of India on the Old Brompton Road. To my horror, I quickly discovered that Indian food in the UK was aggressively macho, illogically hot and spicy, and usually washed down with a pint. Fortunately, the restaurant’s owners were supportive of my desire to offer authentic Indian cuisine. When some members of staff rebelled and a fair few of the regulars took their custom elsewhere, however, I was forced to question whether I was doing the right thing. My answer came from Fay Maschler, who reviewed the restaurant in 1993, writing, ‘Bhatia has lifted the cooking into a new league, providing convincing proof that Indian food is capable of evolving.’ It was exactly what I needed to hear, and over the next five years the Star of India won a clutch of awards.
In 1999, I opened my own restaurant, ‘Vineet Bhatia’, in Hammersmith, in partnership with a traditional curry house owner. Money was tight, so my wife, Rashima, a trained pharmacist with no experience of catering, pitched in to help me. We painted the restaurant ourselves, turning up at 7 o’ clock every morning with our baby son, Varaul, and after a very quiet opening were desperately concerned for our survival. Salvation came once again in the form of a positive review from Fay Maschler, followed by one from AA Gill, who wrote, ‘It is shaming to point out, but if Bhatia cooked in the French or Italian vernacular, or came from New York, he would be hailed as a superchef.’ This statement affected me immensely. It felt like a powerful vindication of my decision to focus on refining Indian cuisine. The impact of these reviews on the restaurant was instantaneous. The phone started to ring constantly, and there was now a waiting list for tables.
Despite the restaurant’s success, we never found the financial stability we hoped for. I quickly formed another business partnership and opened a new restaurant, Zaika, in April 1999. My goal was simple: to cook to the very best of my ability and to settle my family (our second son, Ronit, was on the way). It was good to get behind the stove and not worry about anything except creating dishes that exceeded expectations. It was here that I devised the ‘Indian gourmand experience’, an entirely new approach to Indian cooking that offered five courses spanning the length and breadth of the subcontinent. In January 2001 I was awarded a Michelin star, the first Indian chef-patron to receive this honour in the Guide’s hundred-year history. Obviously we were thrilled. We had neither planned for nor expected a star, but it could not have been more welcome. At the same time, it is almost frightening how powerful the Guide is. All of a sudden the spotlight is switched on and directed at you. The pressure is intense. Journalists suddenly became interested in us, and there was a proliferation of articles about the restaurant.
Almost five years after we opened, Zaika was forced to relocate to larger premises on Kensington High Street, which meant we had to start all over again in terms of Michelin stars- the star is awarded to a restaurant at a particular site and does not move to other premises even if the restaurant does. Moreover, I was not receiving the money I was due from the partnership, despite all my commitment and hard work. Rashima and I decided that the only solution was to do it alone. In 2004 we took out a large bank loan with our house as collateral and opened our most cherished jewel, Rasoi.
It was the culmination of an immense amount of hard work. Rasoi is set in a small Chelsea townhouse, with just 13 tables in the two reception rooms on the ground floor, two private rooms upstairs and a small kitchen to match. Rashima did the whole place up herself, and we hoped to create a feeling of coming to dine at our home. Guests have to ring a doorbell to get in, which serves to heighten that impression.
We had a lot at stake, with many people confident that we would soon be back on the job market. Housed in a residential street with no passing trade, a closed-door policy, a no-smoking rule (in the days before the outright ban on smoking) and no music for ambience, the restaurant appeared to check all the boxes for downright failure. While setting up, we experienced every emotion from elation to satisfaction, despair, anger and also quiet anticipation. We knew we were doing the right things and we had to make a success of it.
We have cherished every moment at Rasoi and feel very fortunate that we are able to live our dream, with the support of the most amazing people working for us. While I run the kitchen, Rashima runs the service- something I can never do and will never understand! The food I cook here is straight from my heart. The purists might not always approve but at least we are comfortable in our surroundings, following our instincts and generally being driven by our passion.
Rasoi received much critical acclaim and in January 2006 it was awarded its own Michelin star. How could we forget that day? We had finally arrived!
I think it is appropriate for me to end this narrative by saying that a genuine compliment from a satisfied guest is more than enough to make one forget all the difficulties involved in running a restaurant. Such compliments warm our hearts, giving both Rashima and myself renewed energy to pursue our passion. There are evenings when the restaurant is full of friends, loyal guests and happy diners, and on those nights there is a buzz, an excitement, that no other experience can match. It is visible amongst diners and staff alike, and it makes me a very, very happy man.
London, August 2009
Rasoi: New Indian Kitchen is available in stores and is a 272 page treasure of unique recipes (and a lot of very useful information too) divided in ten categories (spices, invisible work, chutneys, dips, relishes and raitas, pre-starters, soups and salads, starters, main courses, accompaniments, pre-desserts, desserts and petits fours). The recipes are written with much clarity and are easy-to-follow. Definitely get your hands on this one!