Global Indians: cooking up a storm
It's important to be proud of where you come from, but it's also important to know where you're headed. Two desis, Gagan Anand and Rajat Parr, show what it takes to carve your own identity in the F&B world while retaining your inherent Indian-ness.Updated: Jan 27, 2014 13:53 IST
You've heard of India shining on the global arena. Locally born immigrants, NRIs and persons of Indian origin have held top jobs in business, medicine, science, technology, writing, even politics. They've all made the headlines. And deservedly so.
This story is not about them.
It's about India's other tales of success abroad. Of those who've followed their heart to avenues less explored by the desi diaspora. Of those who've met with parental disapproval despite wider opportunities available to them. Of those who didn't let their roots, their modest upbringing or their skin colour stop them from thinking they're just as good as anyone else. Of those who stuck it out and struck it big.
Some of our global Indians speak no Hindi; others are die-hard Bollywood fans. Some have no fixed address; others visit India at every opportunity. Most of them have little in common with the other; a few of them even believe their success transcends their ancestry. But all of them have, in the words of jazz musician Rudresh Mahanthappa, "blazed some trails and made it easier for those coming behind us".
Gagan Anand, 35
When San Pellegrino debuted its list of Asia's Top 50 restaurants last year, one Indian place was in the top 10. No, it wasn't any venerable five-star institution with authentic masalas and royal recipes. The restaurant didn't serve any traditional cuisine - it wasn't even in India. But Kolkata-raised chef Gagan Anand's Bangkok restaurant, Gaggan, made the cut because it does to Indian food what no one in the world does. It uses molecular gastronomy ideas to create spherified raita, dhokla snow, chutney foam and other dishes that will make you question form and tradition even as you rediscover taste.
"Ten years ago, no one wanted to hire me," says Anand. "Hotels just didn't want anything different." Today diners fly in from around the world. They pay top dollar and compliments too.
What made you set up such a radical restaurant?
I've always been someone who liked doing things differently. Even in Kolkata, where I'd make 5,000 meals a day, I'd try to experiment. But no one wanted it, so for personal and professional reasons I moved. I was 32, following food movements internationally, and knew that what Ferran Adria was doing at elBulli in Spain would work with Indian cuisine. Indians been doing it in many ways [distilling flavours, dehydrating food etc] but it was not standardised or scientific. So I left my job, my comfort zone and went to Spain to train. It was the best decision of my life; I call it my nirvana in cooking. I never thought I'd get famous doing it. I just wanted, for once, to do something that made me happy.
It must be tricky though - not just with recipes, but with diners as well…
We are not just doing non-Thai food, but non-traditional Indian food in Thailand. We're taking more risks now than when we began, but Indian diners, I am proud to say, have responded well. I actually wish I was in India. A Thai person eating dhokla snow will smile -and Thais smile a lot! But it's not the same as an Indian, with all his experiences and associations, tasting it for the first time.
Do you think a person needs to leave India to do well?
If you're a leader, if you're original, you'll shine anywhere. There are world-class restaurants in Sweden that take three hours to drive to. The taxi fare to elBulli is more than the cost of the meal. And yet people go there. Location is irrelevant. Only quality matters.
- Rachel Lopez
Rajat Parr, 40
Rajat Parr grew up in Kolkata, spending more time playing cricket, football and squash than studying. But it was his time spent hanging around his cousins' Delhi restaurants (the Moets chain) that kindled his love for cooking. He trained as a chef and all was going well until, at 20, he tasted wine for the first time at an uncle's house.
A whole new world opened up, and Parr jumped right in. He took wine classes, moved to San Francisco, working his way up from busboy to assistant sommelier at the Rubicon and taking over as sommelier at Fifth Floor. He's been wine director for celebrated restaurants, published award-winning books on wine, and has taken his interest a step further by turning winemaker in Santa Barbara.
What's the one thing every wine should have?
Balance. All aspects of the wine (acid, fruit, tannins and alcohol) must be in harmony. This balance comes from the vineyard, so it's
important to pay attention to the vine itself.
In your book Secrets of the Sommeliers, you encourage readers to "taste what's in the glass, not what's in your mind". How so?
It's important to taste the wine and not have a preconceived notion on what's on the label or what the critics have said about it. Every person has a different sense of smell and taste. We must all try to keep an open mind and taste what's in the glass. The best way to do this is by trying different wines.
How connected are you to India? Do you visit often?
I visit my parents once a year. My family is the only thing that connects me to India.
The best thing about being brown...
Most people keep guessing where I'm from. Some say Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern etc. But I am proud to be from India.
- Veenu Singh
From HT Brunch, January 26
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First Published: Jan 25, 2014 18:03 IST