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Will the Taj Group’s Michelin chefs be back?

Instead of doing pop-ups and promotions with outsiders, the Taj Group should recognise the talent it has within its own ranks

brunch Updated: May 18, 2017 18:40 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Michelin stars

The Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, is famous for the 101 Dining Table which, by some accounts, is the largest dining table in the world

Ever since the Michelin Guide spread out of France, Indians chefs have been looking to get in. The problem is that a Michelin star is not an honour given in isolation. There is no single roll of honour; no big list of Michelin-starred chefs announced each year.

The way it works is this: Michelin goes to a city and produces a guide to hotels and restaurants. Some of these restaurants will get stars. One star means the food is great. Two stars suggest an exceptional meal. And three stars mean that this is among the best restaurants in the world.

Gaggan Anand’s restaurant has no stars because there is no Bangkok Michelin Guide

So, to get a Michelin star, a restaurant has to be located in a city where there is a Michelin Guide. For instance, Michelin just launched a guide to Singapore and gave one star to the Indian restaurant, Song of India. But there is no Michelin Guide to Bangkok yet. So, even though Gaggan Anand’s eponymous restaurant is regularly rated as one of the world’s best establishments, Gaggan has no stars simply because there is no Bangkok Michelin Guide.

Indian restaurants in India have no Michelin stars, because there is no Michelin Guide to the country even though many of our restaurants – judging by standards applied to other countries – would easily get two or three stars.

So who gets the star: the chef or the restaurant? Michelin is categorical. It rates restaurants, not chefs. The trouble is you can’t always distinguish between the two. Many of the great French restaurants are chef-driven. If Paul Bocuse in Lyon gets three stars then yes, the stars are given to the restaurant, but because it is owned by Bocuse and named after himself, he will say that the stars are for him.

So, in France at least, a convention has developed where the chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant is treated as though the stars are given to him.

But this does cause complications. Does a chef take the stars with him when he goes away? Michelin says no. If you leave a restaurant, then you have to earn new ones at your next place. Can you add up your stars and say you are a three Michelin-starred chef because you own three restaurants with one star each? No. You can’t. The stars cannot be added up to inflate your CV. Can you claim to have two Michelin stars because your current restaurant has one and a restaurant you used to work at also has a star? No. Of course, not. That is just fraud.

Since Paul Bocuse restaurant in Lyon is owned by Bocuse himself, he will say that the Michelin stars are for him (Getty Images)

The general view among Indians is that Michelin is not a great judge of our cuisine. It still has French reference points and chefs who Frenchify their presentation tend to win the approval of the Michelin inspectors.

 But this may now be changing. When Sriram Aylur went from Bangalore’s Karavali to London to open Quilon, I thought his food deserved a star from day one. But Michelin had no understanding of South Indian food, so all the chicken tikka-wallahs got there first and Quilon got its star much later than it should have.

To Sriram’s credit, he changed the paradigm for Indian food in the UK. South Indian food now gets the respect it deserves and I doubt if such newer successes as Hoppers in London would be possible without the pioneering work done by Sriram in introducing Brits to the complexities of South Indian spicing.

In San Francisco, where there is no real Indian food tradition, chef Srijith Gopinathan at the Taj’s Campton Place hotel had his work cut out for him. Srijith had cooked European food at the Taj in the Maldives, so he arrived in San Francisco with no preconceptions about the kind of Indian food he wanted to serve.

It took him a year or so to settle down, but once he had understood California’s wonderful ingredients, he began devising a new cuisine of his own, using Indian flavours to enhance the tastes of California.

The food was so groundbreaking that Michelin gave him one star and then, a couple of years ago, a second one. This makes him the only Indian chef in the world with two Michelin stars (if you discount the jokers who add up stars at all the old restaurants they ever worked at!).

Chefs Srijith Gopinathan and Sriram Aylur cooked up a feast at the pop-up at Delhi’s Varq restaurant

I wrote about Srijith last year and mentioned that he was due to cook at an event in Hyderabad this March. The Taj then had the bright idea of inviting Sriram down too and getting its two Michelin-starred chefs to do pop-ups in Delhi and Mumbai.

I was intrigued by the idea. Like most of the great Taj chefs, Srijith and Sriram are South Indians (they are both Malayalis), but their styles are very different. Sriram is a master of spicing. He will create flavours that seem familiar and unusual at the same time. Srijith is an ingredient-based chef. He will look at say, a lamb loin, a scallop or a spoonful of  caviar and try and invent dishes that bring out the essential flavours of those ingredients in an Indian-influenced way.

Then, there were the practical problems. Sriram is an old pro. He has run large hotel kitchens in India before, has overseen huge banquets in Bengaluru and knows how to produce high quality food for large numbers. Srijith is not a banquet chef. His kitchen rarely worries about serving more than 10 people at a time (because they stagger the orders). So how would he manage to serve large numbers of people while operating in unfamiliar kitchens, with cooks who do not understand his food and without his signature ingredients?

I missed the pop-up that the two chefs did in Mumbai, but the food got mixed reviews and the wines were roundly abused. 

My first experience of the travelling Srijith was at a dinner he cooked at the Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad. I’ve been to Falaknuma before (we even shot an episode of Custom Made there some years ago), but I keep forgetting that it is one of India’s most spectacularly beautiful hotels. 

The Falaknuma is famous for the 101 Dining Table which, by some accounts, is the largest dining table in the world. Mohan Chandran, who runs the Taj’s Hyderabad operations, had planned a wine dinner around that huge table with two excellent wines and many unknown ones.

But the wines did not matter. Against the odds, working out of a tiny kitchen, Srijith pulled off a spectacular meal for over 70 guests. He cooked his signature dish, the Spice Pot, and many other dishes that had an immense depth of flavours.

Slow cooked quail with black pepper crust, California morels and pea tendril served at the pop-up at Delhi’s Varq restaurant

Given the world-class service, the overwhelming majesty of the hall and the quality of the food, it was one of the most memorable dinners I have ever been to.

At the Delhi pop-up at Varq, I finally got to eat the food of both chefs. Srijith and Sriram claimed that they had collaborated jointly on the food, but I thought it was pretty easy to guess which of the chefs had done what. Srijith’s food had an ingredient-focus while Sriram, with his finger on the pulse of Indian diners, knew which kind of spicing would go down well.

From all accounts, the food was better than Mumbai and the dinner was so much fun that many guests stayed till midnight, long after the food service was over just because nobody wanted the evening to end.

The Taj’s hospitality was in top form. This was a charity dinner (we paid Rs 10,000 per head) with proceeds going to armed forces charities (the Chief of the Air Staff attended) and Chinmai Sharma, the Taj Group’s chief revenue officer, played the perfect host while the hotel’s general manager, Satyajeet Krishnan, demonstrated once again why he is India’s most sophisticated and cerebral general manager.

Will the Taj Group’s Michelin chefs be back? I hope they will. The success of this culinary adventure should remind the Taj Group of how much talent it has within its own ranks. It shouldn’t waste money doing pop-ups and promotions with outsiders. In the long run, these only help the visiting chefs and do the Taj no good.

It should pull out its own stars and let them shine. Their luminescence will surprise us all.

From HT Brunch, April 9, 2017

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