Each time chef Vineet Bhatia visits Mumbai, his Instagram timeline is filled with throwback pictures (of the places he would hang out at as a trainee at The Oberoi) and that recurring image of the sunset over the Arabian Sea. On his recent visit to his restaurant, Ziya, Bhatia gave his followers a peek into some of his stellar creations such as the Alphonso, rasmalai, rose caviar, and mustard chicken tikka with cashew panniyaram (a perfect blend of north Indian and south Indian flavours). With such innovative creations, Bhatia put India on the world culinary map, way back in the ’90s. He pioneered the modern Indian food movement, a trend that every chef in the country aspires to replicate. Bhatia talks about walking the thin line between tradition and modernity.
You started experimenting with modern Indian cuisine early. How did you learn to create a balance between traditional flavours and contemporary presentation without taking away the essence of the dish?
Flavour is the core of Indian cuisine. When people try to cook Indian food in a modern manner, they tend to forget the true roots of the dish. You ought to have a strong understanding of the culture, of how the dish was developed, and where it was developed. While our eating habits have changed, we still crave familiar tastes. For instance, if you are deconstructing a vada pav, you need to keep its core flavours such as potato, gram flour and the garlic chutney intact. When I make the vada pav, I serve it in an aate ki tokri (basket made of dough), which represents the bun part of the dish, with various chutneys served with it. The dish may not even look like its original form, but when you eat it with your eyes closed, it should taste like the original.
When you moved to London in 1993, the idea of Indian food in the UK was different; it was all about curries and kebabs. How difficult was it for the audience to accept a gourmet version of Indian food?
It was a nightmare. Initially, I had customers walking out of my restaurant. In India, we have a custom of offering something sweet to our guests. So I made gajar ka halwa. Being a Punjabi and born and brought up in Mumbai, I think I make a good gajar ka halwa. I served it warm, topped with dry fruits and a little chandi ka virk (edible silver leaf) on it. And a guest promptly sent it back saying, “Your chef doesn’t even know how to make gajar ka halwa.” I was pretty shocked and I went up to see the guest. I still remember his words, “Young man, I am sorry but you don’t know how to cook. I don’t think you’ll last long. First, gajar ka halwa is never served warm, it is served ice cold. Second, it is served in the form of a cube, in a bowl.” And I asked myself, who the hell serves it that way? Then I realised that Indian restaurateurs usually bought it from the market, where it was kept in freezers, and served it as is. But this was two decades ago, and a lot has changed since then. In bigger cities like London and Manchester, Indian gourmet food is now accepted and recognised. We charge the same prices as any of the top restaurant around Europe. People come expecting quality cuisine. They don’t come expecting curry and beer.
You earned your first Michelin star for Rasoi in 2001. How much of a difference did that make?
Personally, to me? None. It made no difference. However, from the restaurant’s point of view, it made a lot of difference in terms of exposure. Also, any form of validation that asserts the fact that you are on the right path makes you believe in your work.
No chef cooks to please the guides. We work hard for our guests. There’s no point to a restaurant if there are accolades on the wall but the chairs are empty. An award is good, but it’s just a piece of paper. It doesn’t feed our families. A good restaurant needs to make money.
You wanted to be a pilot. Where did your fascination with aircrafts begin?
I used to live in Juhu, and my school was in Vile Parle. In those days, I used to cycle from home, and often passed through the aerodrome. There was no security, so you could walk in, or cycle in, and no one stopped you. On some days, we would stop by the hangar to gawk at the choppers and the planes. And every morning, I used to wake up to the sound of a 6.30am Gulf Air flight that would fly over our house. So, at 17, I gave the exam in the hope of joining the Air Force, but I failed the physical part of the test. And since I could not become a pilot, I did the next best thing. I married a pilot’s daughter.
So, how did culinary school happen?
I was never interested in food. Growing up, food was just a source of energy to help play and run around. When I failed to apply for the Air Force, I went to Sasmira in Worli to learn textile design but that was not my cup of Darjeeling at all. Then, the hotel school happened, I applied and got through. After finishing school, I applied to be a bartender at The Oberoi Towers, which is now the Trident. They called me for an interview and told me that I was too short to stand behind the bar counter and sent me to the kitchen instead. That’s where I fell in love with food. I wanted to learn to cook; I was greedy and hungry for knowledge. I used to do double shifts almost every day. I hardly took days off and would be in the kitchen even on weekends. I didn’t have a social life. I stayed away from all the vices in life to learn cooking.
After opening successful restaurants like Rasoi and Indego in London and Dubai, you returned to The Oberoi, Mumbai, which was still reeling from the effects of a terror attack. How difficult was it to set up Ziya in such circumstances?
When I returned, a major restructuring at the hotel was underway. Before the attacks, Kandahar (The Oberoi) was an iconic property. However, because of the unfortunate memories, it would have been difficult to launch it with the same name. There were challenges. We lost a lot of our regulars. Many of them came back only after they realised that a lot has changed. We decided to bring back our last hostess of the property, Dinaz Sharma. Though she is retired now, she was with us for two years. She was shot in her arm while saving a few diners. When we opened Ziya, we knew we wanted her, as it would give people a sense of home.
What are your upcoming projects?
I have a second book coming out called My Sweet Kitchen. It’s a book on desserts. Rasoi is going to shut down next month, and we will launch it again as a brand new restaurant, with a new identity and a new menu. Eventually, I want to set up an academy in India, where we train people in hospitality. About 30 per cent people who enrol will be from underprivileged backgrounds. We will train them and place them in the industry. God has given me a lot, it’s time to give back.