Meet the most influential Indian chefs on the global food scene

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Feb 28, 2016 01:10 IST

These days, the world’s great chefs are as pampered, felicitated and written about as movie stars. It isn’t just the great French chefs (Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, etc) but it is also the TV chefs (Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Bobby Flay, etc) and the ones who have broken with tradition (Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, René Redzepi and others).

Because we have no Michelin guide in India to award stars to our chefs, it is hard for us to decide which of our guys deserve to be in the first division. And judging chefs, anyway, is a highly subjective business. But here, for what it’s worth, are some of the people who would be on my list.

I won’t spend so much time on Indian chefs who work abroad because not all of them seem as wonderful to Indians as they do to Western critics. But some names are obvious choices. Last year, Gaggan Anand’s eponymous Bangkok Indian restaurant was rated as the best restaurant in Asia in the influential, if somewhat ludicrous, San Pellegrino list of Asia’s Top 50 restaurants. I have no idea whether he will repeat that feat this year (they like to shake things up to keep media interest alive) but Gaggan will certainly be somewhere near the top of the list. I don’t need to say much about him; most of you know who he is. And there is no doubt that he belongs near the top of any list of the great Indian chefs.

(From left to right) Ritu Dalmia, Gaggan Anand, Gresham Fernandes.

But the highest-rated Indian chef in the world, at least by Michelin, is a guy you have probably never heard of: Srijith Gopinath (or Sri, as he is generally known). Sri is the only Indian chef in the world to have ever won two Michelin stars, an accolade he currently holds.

I’ve not eaten his food recently. But some years ago, before he won his first star, I went to his San Francisco restaurant and came back swearing that he was a genius. Sri has grown up in the Taj. He currently works at Campton Place, the Taj’s San Francisco hotel, and has had successful stints at other Taj properties including the Exotica in the Maldives.

But, for reasons I’ve never fully grasped, he remains the Taj’s great secret. The chain never does any publicity for him (when he won his second star, I was the guy who tweeted about it; the Taj PR machine hardly stirred) and they seem reluctant to bring him back to India even for a pop-up or a festival. Luckily for the Taj, Sri is a modest, humble guy and a great company loyalist and has stayed with the group despite the absence of much recognition. But then, I guess when you have two Michelin stars, you don’t really care whether you get an e-mail from corporate headquarters.

The other Indian chefs cooking abroad that I would really rate also tend to have Taj backgrounds. Sriram in London will be, apart from Srijith, the best chef in the Taj group when Ananda Solomon and ‘Nat’ Natarajan retire this year. (Sriram has a Michelin star.) Cyrus Todiwala (ex-Taj) is now a pillar of the British establishment but he is one of the most influential Indian chefs on the global food scene. Floyd Cardoz now has a massively successful operation in India (the terrific Bombay Canteen) but I still think of him as the guy who showed New York how amazing Indian food can be. He is a true master (and ex-Taj).

I also rate Vineet Bhatia highly, though, unlike the others, he is an Oberoi chef. But Vineet has helped change the image of Indian food around the world.

Among the chefs cooking in India, these are the masters:

Ananda Solomon is the most versatile chef cooking in any hotel kitchen in India. His Thai food (at Bombay’s Thai Pavilion) is brilliant but his south Indian food (at The Konkan Café) is even better. And there is ‘Nat’ Natarajan another of the Taj’s secret chefs, who I have watched since he was a young chef in the kitchen of The Rendezvous at the Bombay Taj. I don’t think the Taj ever appreciated him fully. But I respect his talent and his skills enormously.

Any list of north Indian chefs would have to begin with Imtiaz Qureshi (who won a Padma Shri this year), mentor to so many of ITC’s great chefs. Imtiaz is always admired for his faithful recreations of the great classics of Avadhi cuisine. But I admire him more for the dishes he has created. The much-imitated Dum Pukht biryani is not a traditional Avadhi dish but Imtiaz’s own creation. He took the basic Lucknow pulao, tweaked the spicing (adding some Hyderabadi touches) and began serving it ,not from a large handi as they do in Lucknow, but in individual containers, each sealed with a flour purdah that would be ceremonially smacked open at the table.

Many many Indian restaurants serve the same biryani now but few chefs realise that this is not a classic dish but one that Imtiaz perfected in the 1980s and 1990s. It is rare for a chef to see one of his creations become the standard recipe for a classic dish during his lifetime. But Imtiaz has managed it.

Sticking with ITC, I think Manjit Gill would find a place on any list of the world’s greatest Indian chefs. He has researched our culinary and gastronomic traditions so thoroughly that I always call him my guru when it comes to Indian food.

Staying with the hotel sector, I think chef Purushotham of the Leela group (he is currently at the Bangalore Leela) is one of the great under-recognised masters of south Indian cuisine. He is from Andhra and obviously his Andhra food is good. But it is his Malayali food, often cooked to recipes he learned from Mrs Leela Nair, that is truly outstanding.

(From left to right) Manu Chandra, Srijith Gopinath, Floyd Cardoz

Of the non-hotel, non-restaurant chefs, the one I would really rate is Sanjeev Kapoor. It is tempting to see him as a mere populariser because of his TV success but if you do get to eat his food, you will be astonished to discover what a terrific chef he is. Sadly, Sanjeev doesn’t cook for customers very much these days. (I last ate his food at the Singapore Gourmet Summit some years ago). But if you get a chance, don’t pass it up. He is much more than a TV chef.

When it comes to modern Indian food, I don’t think there is any contest. Every single chef and foodie I know is unequivocal: Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent is the greatest modern Indian chef we have. What’s more, his rise has been remarkable. When he won Foodistan, the TV competition, five years ago, hardly anyone had heard of him. Now he is a household name.

Manish is currently in New York opening an Indian Accent there. No doubt he will wow the Big Apple too.

Of the younger chefs, it is obvious who the big name is. Manu Chandra is an accomplished master of modern European/American cooking techniques with a style of his own who would have easily won a Michelin star if he had not returned to India. But though I suspect that Western food remains his true passion, he is now a successful restaurateur with such brands as Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao in his group.

There are other young chefs we don’t see enough of. Gresham Fernandes is corporate chef for Riyaaz Amlani’s group (Smokehouse Grill, Social, etc) so he rarely gets to express his style. But last year I was invited to a dinner thrown by a friend where Gresham cooked (with his own hands) a European meal of several courses. I was blown away by his creativity, his pairing of flavours and the sheer technical brilliance of his cooking. It was easily the best Western food in Bombay. But sadly, he doesn’t cook this kind of meal too often.

Among the other young chefs to watch are Vikramjit Roy of Tian at Delhi’s Maurya, who effortlessly fuses a mastery of modern cooking techniques with a deep understanding of East-Asian flavours. I believe that Saurabh Udinia of Zorawar Kalra’s group (Masala Library, Farzi Café, etc) is the best young cook whose food I’ve eaten recently. With each passing month, he becomes more and more of a chef, finding his own voice and style. He will be the Manish Mehrotra of his generation.

(From left to right) Vikramjit Roy, Imtiaz Qureshi, Manish Mehrotra.

And then there are the greats like Ritu Dalmia, who usually gets left off these lists because she does not do Indian food. But when Ritu cooks Italian food, there is magic in the kitchen. And there’s the legendary Urbano Rego, the world’s greatest Goan chef, who also gets left off lists because he cooks only Goan food and is hard to slot.

These are just names off the top of my head. I am sure you can think of others. Tweet them to me and I’ll do a second list of great Indian chefs!

From HT Brunch, February 28, 2016

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