HT Brunch Cover Story: Meet Hrishikesh Desai, the Michelin star chef from India everyone in Britain is raving about!
How a Pune boy, who grew up eating simple vegetarian fare, became one of the most formidable names in fine dining
“These macarons are two days old,” says chef Hrishikesh Desai, sniffing the colourful sweet treats from a flimsy box bought from a local patisserie in Mumbai for our shoot. I secretly panic, wondering if the Pune-born chef who helms the kitchen at The Gilpin Hotel and Lake House in Windermere, UK, will scrutinise my questions just as minutely. Photographer Subi Samuel, on the other hand, is elated that his subject this morning is not the quintessential ‘celebrity’ whose ‘mood’ will determine the success of the shoot.
Considering that at 32, Desai had already bagged a Michelin star and that he appeared on the Great British Menu series on the BBC last year to be judged by the hard-to-please Michelin-starred expert chef Tom Aikens, perhaps Subi will not get the laidback shoot he anticipates, I think.
But the chef poses a hundred times for him and lets me into a little secret when we sit down to chat over coffee. His favourite brew, he says, is one of the perks enjoyed by all Michelin chefs: limited editions of Nespresso.
It’s hard to imagine this desi chef whipping up and plating Michelin-level meals, considering that until he left India, he had never eaten non vegetarian food. “Food at home was Maharashtrian vegetarian. Anything fancy was eaten only on outings, but this was also Indian food − a nice paratha, butter naan or dal makhani. For me, eating out was more about tasting the food, not just enjoying what came on the plate. I didn’t know then that I’d use that knowledge now,” says Desai.
Indian food tends not to have a presentation aspect. Desai, however, was so keen on original presentations that at his hospitality and catering school in Pune, he was often in his teachers’ bad books for tampering with traditional presentations of continental and classic French dishes.
“Every chef would do a bed of rice topped with chicken and the sauce and veggies on the side. I would, say, present the rice in a line, slice the chicken and present it as a pyramid, and spread the mashed potatoes on the plate. For me, the plate was a canvas. I wanted to make maximum use of it rather than put everything in the centre,” he explains. This inclination towards presentation stems from his love for drawing and colours.
Desai says: “Before I start thinking about the plate, I think about colour combinations, so when it comes to plating, there’s a place for every ingredient. I’ve learnt from books, good chefs and eating at different restaurants.”
But he wouldn’t like to even try fancy presentation tricks with Indian food, because that’s not how we eat at all. “If we try to present Indian food in the continental or Michelin way, we will take the sense of Indian cuisine away from it. Indian food is incredible and there is refinement in rusticity. It’s not sloppy,” he believes.
Desai’s father supports his son’s career, but Desai credits his mother for her foresight in encouraging him to learn French, knowing that most gastronomical terms are based on French cuisine. So he enrolled himself in French classes at an institute of foreign languages in Pune. Later, when he did his diploma in hotel management and catering technology from Bharati Vidyapeeth, he continued his lessons in the language there. That helped him win a scholarship to the Institut Paul Bocuse in Ecully, France.
“This marked the biggest turning point in my career. It was there that I saw crème brûlée being caramelised with a blowtorch and I changed my mind from working to become a general manager to working to be a chef so I could use these gadgets,” Desai laughs.
Desai visits Pune every year. This time he cooked for a Relais & Châteaux charity dinner where he paired food with jewellery and helped raise about ₹54 lakh to support the education of the girl child in India.
His own education as an Indian at a French culinary institute was quite a challenge. “Once, 10 of us were asked to make salads. Everyone else did thousand island dressings and the like, but all I knew was lemon juice, salt and lettuce. I got two only points out of 10 but that’s what made me want to know more,” shares Desai.
He still classifies his two years in France from 2000 to 2002 as the best time of his life. And it was there that he started eating meat! “When I first arrived in France and went to the school they said I had to stay for dinner. There was a leg of rabbit with mushroom sauce. I was very hungry, so I prayed to god and said, please don’t send me to hell, I need to eat this thing,” he laughs. From that day on he began to eat and enjoy different kinds of meat.
Is it tough for Indian chefs to make it in Western kitchens? “You need lots of patience and incredible amounts of tolerance,” says Desai. In France, I was, ‘Hey! Indian.’ You will also not get the best tutoring as a foreigner unless you fight for your legitimate place among the locals. Even at this stage of my life I get overlooked.”
Desai started to work at Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa in the southwest of the UK as a commis chef. He was there for almost 10 years. “My mentor and father figure chef Hywel Jones was very supportive of what I did and knew that should there be an opportunity to be on my own, I’d move on. Around that time there was a TV show on BBC called Alex Polizzi: Chefs on Trial. I went on the show in November 2014 and won the competition. In March 2015, I started working at The Gilpin,” says Desai.
Within a year he was awarded a Michelin star. “It still makes me shiver,” says Desai. “One day when I was clearing the dry storage, the director of the Michelin guide, Rebecca Burr, called and asked for me. One of the chefs told me, there’s someone called Rebecca on the phone. I told him to tell her I was very busy. He came back, saying she still wanted to speak to me. So I took the phone and when she introduced herself, I couldn’t move for five minutes. She said she wanted to invite me for the first ever revelation of the Michelin guide, 2016. I wondered why I should be invited. So I went to my office, locked the door and asked Rebecca if she was the Rebecca and she laughed,” shares Desai.
On the day of the launch of the Michelin guide, Desai told the restaurant owners that they were simply there to fill the seats. “But when my name was announced, it was an incredible feeling,” he says. “So many Michelin-star chefs came and congratulated me. It was very humbling, overwhelming and I was part of that club all of a sudden. But there’s a curse attached to the Michelin: when you don’t have it, you want it, when you have it, you want more, and when you want to keep it, there comes the stress.”
Food and philosophy
Though Desai trained at a French school, there are clear Thai and Chinese influences on his food. He describes his food as modern British cuisine with a twist of Asia. So, while his braised shoulder of lamb in a Hyderabadi masala sauce became a hit two years ago, he is currently infusing his sweet and sour sauces with smoked oil and serving it with fried fish.
“Memory and great observation is very important in cooking,” says Desai. “Eighty per cent of the way I cook is based on childhood memories; the rest is based on awareness of what’s happening around me. Right now, supporting local businesses is very important to me.”
Along with his successes, Desai has made his mistakes. At a cookery school, he once measured the recipe for scones wrong and the mixture became a batter rather than a dough. “I couldn’t say I had made a mistake, so I said: this is a recipe for light scones. I piped the batter into paper cups and they came out very well. But in the end, I gladly said, guys, that’s not how it should be done,” he says.
Then there was the time he ran out of potato mash during dinner service. “Potatoes need to be baked for 30-35 minutes before they can be mashed. So I put them in the microwave even though that’s a gastronomic no-no, made the mash and got a pat on my back for one of the best mashes I’ve ever made!” he smiles.
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From HT Brunch, March 1, 2020
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