Any recognition is always encouraging, says Kashmiri chef Prateek Sadhu as he debuts at a new columnist in HT Brunch
The award-winning young chef hopes his Q&A column, which debuts tomorrow, will get people more excited about cooking!Updated: Sep 12, 2020 18:34 IST
Award-winning chef Prateek Sadhu, 33, is perhaps one the most low-key Indian celebrity chefs today. Why? Because the man behind Masque would rather be seen in the kitchen than on the camera, and this was highly evident when he had to be literally pulled out of his restaurant kitchen for mandatory celebratory shots, when being honoured with the One to Watch award by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2020, in Mumbai early this year.
This weekend too, when I chase him for a chat, he is toiling for the launch of a delivery-only menu for his restaurant Masque, which turns four this month.
Having worked at top-notch restaurants like Noma, Bourbon Steak and Le Bernardi, the Jammu-born chef developed his food philosophy that places ingredients at the core.
Not only is Masque favoured by bigwigs like Ranbir Kapoor but with Prateek’s efforts it made it to the top 10 on Food Tank’s 2016 list of restaurant innovators in the world. Then the same year, the Western Culinary Association of India awarded Prateek the most innovative chef of the year, and the following year.
Here’s unmasquing the man behind Masque:
Your restaurant, Masque just completed four years, how has the journey been?
It’s been an exciting few years. We were the first to commit to a tasting menu, and shift away from a la carte menu altogether. Only four years ago, the very concept of Masque seemed so far-fetched to Indian diners. The flavours were familiar but how we arrived at them wasn’t. Our ingredient-driven menus — with no dish titles or names — raised questions. The tasting menus, which changed with the seasons, often unexpectedly, asked diners to put their complete faith in our chefs. We’re incredibly grateful that they did, and let us live every chef’s dream. After all that, to be recognised as Miele One to Watch at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2020 was a huge high. We are still learning, listening and moving forward in the new normal as it were.
Masque ranked among the top 10 on Food Tank’s 2016 list of restaurant innovators in the world during the first year of it’s launch and that same year, you were awarded “Most Innovative Chef of the Year” by the Western Culinary Association of India. Was this overwhelming for you and did you feel pressured in any way?
Any recognition is always encouraging. That’s how you know you’re doing something right. It brings a razor focus on things that matter. For us, that meant breaking the barriers of a traditional restaurant. Bring the diners into the kitchen, familiarise them with who we are and what we do, show them where our ingredients come from, show them our process, and put a face to the team that’s plating up all these exciting dishes for them.
It’s encouraged us to think harder about sustainability and our impact on society. Through our recently launched Masque Lab we doubled down on that commitment, and looked for ways to tease maximum flavour from underused parts of vegetables and discards.
What was it like to be the first Indian restaurant to win the prestigious honour of One to Watch at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants?
In March, Aditi Dugar and I were scheduled to travel to Saga, Japan, for the Asia’s 50 Best ceremony to pick up the Miele One To Watch Award 2020. It was a proud moment for us, and a huge milestone in just three years of opening doors. We’re glad to be making India proud on this prestigious platform. As fate would have it, owing to the pandemic, the 50 Best team joined us here in Mumbai to celebrate with our team and guests, instead of Saga. In the end, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
“To us, modern Indian cooking isn’t about returning to regional recipes and simply plating them with new tweaks. It demands revisiting ingredients, in altogether new ways”
How was your experience of graduating from The Culinary Institute of America?
CIA was actually my first time outside the country. It was a huge shift from the familiar in terms of adapting to the culture, but I was driven to make the most of that time. My father had taken a loan against our house to make sure I got the best education, so I wanted to prove something to myself. Make sure I’m worthy of this. I held two jobs within the CIA, even as I continued to participate in culinary competitions. I had a list of restaurants I wanted to work at in one way or another, including Per Se and Le Bernardin, in New York, and Alinea in Chicago, and somehow it came together! There was — and there remains — so much to learn from your peers, not just about the art of cooking but also creating a strong work culture.
What is your food philosophy and what/who has shaped it?
When we opened Masque I had a small dream, to make a kitchen not just worthy of curious diners, but also of incredible chefs. Aditi Dugar, our co-founder, and I put our heads down and did just that. I live for flavours. Especially ones which surprise! Since inception, Masque has been an ingredient-driven restaurant. To us, modern Indian cooking isn’t about returning to regional recipes and simply plating them with new tweaks. It demands revisiting ingredients, in altogether new ways. Ways that can build cross-cultural bridges. Sometimes this means combining the essence of two dishes. Other times this involves borrowing the central idea of a dish but making it with entirely local ingredients. Every chef will tell you that their personal journey plays a huge part in them finding their voice. Your knowledge of multiple cultures can only enrich your menu. Which is why I’m so grateful for all the experiences I’ve had along the way.
Tell us about two of your signature dishes and what makes them special?
Our tasting menus are constantly evolving with the seasons, so it’s hard to pinpoint a single dish. But we had a smoked mackerel and buckwheat toast on our menu, which encapsulated our approach perfectly. It was inspired by ‘fherigaad’ (smoked fish), which is a winter delicacy in Kashmir. Traditionally, the fish is laid out to dry for a day. It’s then spread over dry grass, which is torched to smoke the fish evenly. It’s one of the oldest methods of preservation, used long before refrigerators could help! The crispy, charred skin is scraped off before it’s cooked with vegetables. The other element our dish plays up is buckwheat. ‘Gyas’ as it’s locally known, plays an important part in Balti cuisine. Buckwheat is one of the main crops grown in Ladakh, and so this course tied back to my trips to the region.
Your restaurant, Masque, has also jumped on to the home delivery bandwagon. What’s the single most challenging aspect of this new normal? And, name one dish that’s most in demand yet toughest to package in delivery.
People still write in to tell us how they miss celebrating with us or the experience of our tasting menus. The challenge has been to figure how to deliver this experience home. How do we pack four to five courses that taste just as good after they’ve travelled many miles? Finding the answer to that was key. Secondly, it’s tough not being able to see your entire team. On a day to day level, sourcing the right ingredients was posing a problem sometimes, because a lot of the usual channels are disrupted.
Lastly, what kind of questions would you like our readers to share with you through this column?
Happy to field all kinds of questions! Anything to help you get back in the kitchen and make you excited about cooking.
Prateek Sadhu’s new bi-weekly column in HT Brunch, where he will answer all your dilemmas, debuts on September 13. Reach out to HT social media handles to get in touch.
From HT Brunch, September 13, 2020
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