When Chef Vineet Bhatia received his first Michelin star in 2001 for his restaurant Zaika in London, the title of being the first Indian chef to receive the coveted Michelin star was not just a personal feat for him; instead it made him the proud medium who put Indian cuisine on the world map. Subsequently, in 2009 he got another Michelin star for his restaurant in Geneva and joined the exclusive league of very few chefs to hold Michelin stars in more than one country. Here are some excerpts from our quick tête–à–tête with the chef who is often hailed as the father of the evolving modern Indian cuisine.
What does a Michelin star mean to you?
As a chef, I don’t cook for stars and awards, but for the mere satisfaction of my guests. But the Michelin star is very important, not because I was awarded one as chef-proprietor but because it brought recognition for the rich Indian culinary culture and heritage. In 2001, receiving the star for an Indian restaurant was like breaking the glass ceiling because at that time it was awarded predominantly to French and other European restaurants; now of course various world cuisines feature in the Guide. It was an honour for me to present Indian cuisine at par with the finest in the world. Even now being part of the Michelin Guide is very important since it continues to enhance awareness of the cuisine that we serve.
What is the cornerstone of modern Indian cuisine?
I firmly believe that one first eats with their eyes. I serve Indian food but my dishes don’t look like typical Indian fare. Yet, when you close your eyes, you can taste India on your palate because it is important for me to uphold the respect for regional Indian cuisines. I believe in offering clarity of flavours, and thus I avoid dousing my dishes with too many spices and masalas and always use top quality ingredients.
You run many restaurants across the world. How do you vary the menus at, say, Rasoi in London and Ziya at The Oberoi, Mumbai?
Rasoi, which was rechristened Vineet Bhatia London a few weeks ago, now features only a tasting menu comprising 15 small dishes. Ziya offers different dishes in both, a la carte or the set seven-course Gourmand menu, available in vegetarian and non-vegetarian options.
Across my restaurants in London, India, Geneva, and Mauritius, I present tailor-made dishes that respect the local culture. With all the religious sentiments in India even those who partake of non-vegetarian fare may observe fasts or abstain from eating meats on certain days of the week. In keeping with that you will find many vegetarian options at Ziya. Whereas in Geneva there are fewer vegetarian choices, but more meats including duck, pigeon, venison, foie gras, and so on.
What is the quirkiest thing you’ve ever eaten? Would you put it on the menu at Ziya at The Oberoi, Mumbai?
You really want to know [laughs]? The quirkiest thing I’ve ever eaten is a bull’s penis in Venezuela! It is the worst thing I have ever eaten; extremely chewy, almost like chewing gum. The people who served it to me didn’t tell me what it was, and called it the ‘one-eyed monster’. Not only Ziya, I will never serve it at any of my restaurants.
Have the pressures of social media impacted the way you present your dishes?
Not at all! As I said earlier, you first eat with your eyes so our dishes have always been presented aesthetically. Plus, we have been doing TV shows since 2010-11 when social media was not as active as it is today. Hence, the plating of our dishes has always been important to us. Having said that, flavours always take priority over presentation. At times, just to make a dish look attractive some chefs compromise on the taste. When people do dramatic plating just for the camera, it may not always translate to proper food.
You have a very appealing style of presenting your dishes. What is your mantra for plating? How much time would you spend on the plating of an exotic dish?
Plating has to be kept simple, with three or maximum four hand movements done in under one minute. If one spends more time on plating, the food can get cold and Indian food simply does not taste good when it gets cold. We like to keep our plates clean, but to present them beautifully three or four chefs work simultaneously to plate one dish. There is a certain method to the madness. For instance, to plate lamb chops with cous cous one chef will serve the cous cous, another will place the lamb chop on it, then the jus is poured by a third chef and finally the dish is garnished by the fourth chef.
Will we see a restaurant with your name in Delhi anytime soon?
In 2001, I had a restaurant in Delhi at The Manor New Delhi (which now houses the award-winning Indian Accent). Now plans are in the pipeline to have a restaurant in Delhi but nothing has been signed yet. I studied in Delhi (at the Oberoi School of Hotel Management) and have a lot of family in the city and would certainly love to have a restaurant in the capital.
Ziya, The Oberoi, Mumbai, Nariman Point, Mumbai-400021
Lunch Timings: 12:30 pm to 2:15 pm
Dinner Timings: 7:00 pm to 11:30 pm
—By Shibani Bawa