Now that Foodistan is finally over, I can talk about the show. During its 26-week run, I did my best to avoid saying anything about it even though it was the one thing that most foodies asked me about, both in person and on my website.
One of my problems was that though we finished shooting the show last year (in one exhausting fortnight’s break from my punishing Achievers’ Club schedule), they didn’t begin the telecast till months later. This meant that by the time the first episode was on the air, we had already shot the finale and all of the show’s participants knew exactly who had won and who had lost.
We knew all the little dramas (such as the time a Pakistan chef walked out and took a plane back to his own country), the kitchen tensions and behind-the-scenes squabbles but we were not allowed to talk about it. In a sense I guess it helped that there was such a long gap between the shoots and the telecast because I forgot a lot of what had gone on. When I did catch an episode of Foodistan on TV (and I saw about half of the episodes), I discovered that I had usually forgotten who had won or lost that particular round.
I did know who the finalists were, though. I remembered that Poppy Agha had emerged at the top of the Pakistan contingent (to the anger of one or two of the Pakistanis who resented her because she was what they called a “celebrity chef” and inevitably, because she was a woman who had beaten all the men).
And of course, I remembered that Manish Mehrotra had won. Keeping that quiet was the most difficult part of living with the secrets of Foodistan. Anybody who watched the show knew that Manish was trouncing all his rivals and winning every single round he took part in. But when people asked me whether he maintained his unbeaten record till the end I had to maintain a stony silence. And to the credit of the other chefs who took part in Foodistan, news of Manish’s victory did not leak till the very last episode was telecast. All of us kept the secret.
Speaking for myself, I was not surprised that Manish won. There were many good and versatile Indian chefs in the competition (at one stage, I thought Girish Krishnan would end up being Manish’s challenger) but Manish was easily the biggest name on the show. He was my Chef of the Year at the HT Crystals two years ago and his restaurant Indian Accent has won nearly every award there is to win. In foodie circles, the big questions were “Why is Manish doing this? Why is he risking defeat? He is such a big name, he doesn’t need to compete with the other chefs.”
And, early in the competition, I asked Manish if he wasn’t scared of losing to a chef nobody had heard of before. But Manish was unfazed. “It’s just a game,” he said. “I don’t mind if somebody beats me.” Plus, there was another factor. I think he wanted to prove that despite his awesome reputation as an executive chef he was still a guy who could cook with his own hands under the glare of the TV lights.
Most good Indian chefs fall into two categories: those who can innovate and create and those who can actually cook. I suspect Manish was keen to prove that he could do both.
I’ve watched Manish’s rise with fascination for over a decade now. He grew up in Patna though his family is from UP. (He is not a Punjabi though I fear I may have described him as one on the show). His father owned a petrol pump and the world of haute cuisine seemed very far away.
But he was interested in food, got into a hotel school and then ended up with the Taj Group. His first job was at the President where he trained in the kitchens of the Thai Pavilion, working under Ananda Solomon. He says he admired Ananda’s passion for cooking with his own hands and his attention to detail and authenticity even though he spent most of his time working with the great man’s protégés (chefs Easso Johnson and Sheroy Kermani) rather than with Ananda himself. It was this stint at the Thai Pavilion that filled him with a passion for the flavours of Thailand and South East Asia.
But he longed to come to Delhi and the Taj had nothing for him in the capital. So he applied to ITC which was opening Pan Asian at the Marriott (now the Sheraton New Delhi) and said that he had experience of the Thai Pavilion. In the finest traditions of ITC, the chain turned him down. (They rejected Vikas Khanna as well!)
Manish then approached Rohit Khattar who had just opened Oriental Octopus at Delhi’s Habitat Centre. The Thai chef had left and the restaurant was struggling. Rohit took a chance on Manish and put him in charge.
It was a shrewd move. Manish turned Oriental Octopus around. Sales soared and it quickly became the best pan-Asian restaurant in Delhi. Encouraged by its success, Rohit took another chance with Manish. He sent him to London to open Tamarai, a pan-Asian restaurant on the edge of Covent Garden.
Manish says that the London experience transformed his life. There was a certain amount of derision at first. The fancy PR company that had been hired to promote Tamarai was openly scornful of Manish’s abilities. Many London critics refused to take Tamarai seriously because they regarded pan-Asian restaurants as no more than glorified food courts. And because he was an Indian chef who was not cooking Indian food, Manish never received the attention that many other Indian chefs in London were given.
But he says that the scorn and derision did not bother him. As far as he was concerned, London gave him an opportunity to play with ingredients he had little familiarity with: foie gras, caviar, truffles, good quality pork, Wagyu beef, etc. Rohit paid for him to eat at the best restaurants in England and Manish learnt from every meal he ate. (His favourite British chef, curiously enough, is Rick Stein “for the simplicity he brings to his dishes”.)
By the time Rohit was ready to take over the Manor Hotel in Delhi’s Friends Colony, Manish was also ready to come back to India. But Rohit who also runs the highly-rated Chor Bizarre in London wanted to open an Indian restaurant at the Manor. And as far as he was concerned, Manish was a South East Asian chef. But Manish believed he could take on the responsibility and auditioned for the job, creating sample menus at Tamarai till Rohit was persuaded that he could do Indian food.
Once again, Rohit made the right decision. Indian Accent has been a success from the day it opened. Much of its success is due to Manish’s background. He has seen European food in London up close but his basic grounding is in Oriental cuisine. Plus, he is conscious of the food he ate while growing up. So the food at Indian Accent combines French, Thai, Malaysian and Japanese influences with Manish’s own memories of Indian food. So there will be nostalgic touches like a sweet Phantom cigarette or Old Monk rum in his desserts combined with truffle flavours in his mushroom dishes.
The result is a cuisine that is vast ranging in its influences and ambitious in its scope. Normally when we talk of modern food, we talk of some London-based chef trying to Frenchify Indian food. But Manish’s cuisine yields to no such easy categorisation. It has an identity all of its own and I certainly have never eaten anything like it anywhere in the world.
It helps also that Manish is one of the nicest, most humble chefs I know. I have never heard him utter a bad word about a rival and he cheerfully concedes that many of his dishes are influenced by other chefs. (The truffle oil on his naan is an effect popularised by Vineet Bhatia and Manish is the first to admit it.)
There are many outstanding chefs cooking Indian food all over the world. In London alone, both Vineet and Sriram Aylur have well-deserved Michelin stars and in Bangkok Gagan Anand is doing interesting things with molecular gastronomy and Indian food. In New York, Vikas Khanna and Floyd Cardoz have introduced quality Indian cuisine to new audiences.
So I mean no disrespect to all these masters when I say that in my opinion Manish Mehrotra is the most exciting modern Indian chef in the world today. He cooks for the toughest audiences of all – Indians who understand Indian food – and he never fails to wow us, time after time, meal after meal.
He really is the Emperor of Foodistan.
From HT Brunch, April 1
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