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When the world’s No. 1 chef visits the spice markets of Old Delhi...

Chef Daniel Humm confesses after his visit: “India has changed my cooking forever”

brunch Updated: May 19, 2018 21:12 IST
Rupali Dean
Rupali Dean
Hindustan Times
For Daniel Humm, the three-Michelin star Swiss chef, the spice is the star of the dish
For Daniel Humm, the three-Michelin star Swiss chef, the spice is the star of the dish(Raj K Raj)

Before he got here, Daniel Humm was sceptical of India’s much-vaunted charm. For the three-Michelin star Swiss chef whose New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park was ranked No. 1 on the 2017 The World’s 50 Best restaurants List by a UK-based restaurant magazine which organises the awards (William Reed Business Media House), India was just another job. He had been invited here to participate in two dinners for The World Series hosted by American Express.

But on his first day in the country, Humm found himself touched. “I went to a market where locals were drinking masala chai, and they were staring at me as though I had come from the Moon or Mars,” he says. “But then someone offered me chai, and I thought it was such a beautiful gesture. From then on, I knew this place was going to be good.”

Humm could be short for Humble as the chef smiled and interacted with everyone in crowded Old Delhi (Raj K Raj)

We are driving from his hotel, The Leela Palace New Delhi to Khari Baoli, the spice market. He has been in India for 16 days, travelling to Jaipur, Agra, Jodhpur, Chandigarh, Mumbai and Delhi. By now, he’s fairly familiar with the food. “The tandoor is an incredible way to cook: the fire in that oven and the diversity of what can be made in it,” he exclaims. “It’s definitely equipment I want in New York. I also love the breads, the fermented doughs; I love the way dosa is made. I love the interaction while serving pani puri: someone filling it, and putting the liquid, it’s so cool.”

“I love the interaction while serving pani puri: someone filling it, and then putting the liquid… it’s so cool!”

Overall though, Humm is most interested in the way spices are used, which is why he is keen on visiting Khari Baoli. “Spice has been the ingredient for me in India,” he declares. “The spice is the star of the dish and that’s been eye-opening for me.”

Tasting, testing

At Khari Baoli, Humm sneezes and smiles as we pass by pungent bags of red chillis. He tells me he’s put his India wanderings to good use, observing all he can about ingredients and techniques.

The chef seemed unperturbed by the aromas, and overwhelming crowds in Old Delhi (Raj K Raj)

“It’s my first time here and I was lucky to be able to travel around a bit,” he says. “What really inspires me is the diversity from region to region. I have been cooking for 25 years, and being here makes me feel like a kid who learns about cooking for the first time in a beautiful way. It’s all so new. I realised that my focus has been so kind of one-dimensional; I just made what I know, and there’s so much I don’t know. It’s inspiring.”

His affection for Indian food is real. “The breads in particular, interactive cooking, condiments, pickling… it is all really interesting,” he says. “For instance, acid is really important in any dish, and I always look for new ways to find it. I had an amazing acid in the chutney served with samosa, which I found out was green mango powder. That is definitely something I want to get my hands on.”

As an observant person, Humm has always been able to make connections between what he sees and what he knows. “The first time I went to Paris, I was nine. My parents took me to a museum called Orangerie,” he recalls. “As I walked into the two oval rooms of water lilies by Claude Monet, I realised for the first time that art exists, art is important, and art is powerful. It changed the way I saw the world.”

“I felt like an outsider, until someone handed me some masala chai,” chef Humm told us later (Raj K Raj)

The same spirit took Humm to France at the age of 16, when he was already cooking. “I had a meal at Michel Bras. He was cooking only vegetables in a way that was not really classic, and that really changed my mind,” he shares. “Then I took a trip to Japan eight years ago; it’s an amazing place. If you have seen the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), you will know what I mean. It is the lifetime pursuit of something with rice, vinegar and fish, just aiming to do that better every day. This trip to India is one of those trips that make me change the way I look at things.”

“The stuffiness of fine dining, which was so boring and expensive, is now replaced with low frills of delicious food”

Humm sees a samosa stall and wants one. Then it’s time for masala chai, and he gives it a thumbs up. The owner of the tea stall learns who he has just served, and he’s thrilled. He wants to pose for a picture with Humm, complete with all his friends in the area. Humm is delighted. He loves these experiences in India.

Of course, he hasn’t only tried the street food. He’s also tried restaurants like Bukhara and Indian Accent. And there was Karim’s too. “These three are so different from each other, yet each is impressive and inspiring in its own way,” he says.

Cooking up confidence

Food trends have changed since Humm started his career, and he’s glad to note that formality in restaurants has given way to a more relaxed ambience. He’s also happy to see how the world is rediscovering the pleasure of eating local.

“It just doesn’t make sense to fly in fish from Japan and so on,” he says. “And the stuffiness of fine dining 15 years ago, so boring and so expensive, is now replaced with low frills and delicious food. Today, my partner, Will Guidara, and I feel that the world is leaning towards restaurants with hospitality. I never want to go to a restaurant where maybe the food is great, but the hospitality isn’t.”

“India is so rich culturally. I want to come back for two weeks and do yoga every day”

Food for him is about what he calls ‘the four fundamentals’ (see box). “It’s a kind of recipe for recipes,” he says. “The four fundamentals have to be present in each of our dishes. Since we came up with these fundamentals two years ago, our cuisine has moved up in a big way. I’ve been a chef for 25 years, but for the first time I have really found myself.”

Like all creative people making a living from their craft, the great Daniel Humm is sometimes insecure. “Today Eleven Madison Park is a celebrated restaurant with a celebrated chef, but I remember 2008 and 2009, when there was a global financial crisis and we weren’t yet recognised as one of the greats, and there’d be nights when we had just five guests,” he says. “We were losing money. Then, a few weeks later, The New York Times gave us the highest rating, and we have been full every day since. But sometimes you are so close, and yet so far. The lesson is to just put everything you have out there and don’t give up on your idea.”

Chef Daniel Humm fried some samosas much to everyone’s delight (Raj K Raj)

Richer than butter cream

We’re in the car now, drinking chilled water and wiping off the perspiration of a Delhi summer. Relaxed again, Humm gives his best advice yet to budding chefs. “Don’t go to culinary school. If you have to pay for it, you end up with student loans worth $100,000 to pay back while you’re earning just $10 an hour. That very thing you thought would open all doors keeps you from going anywhere. And you take the wrong jobs to pay back the loans. It’s a problem I feel strongly about.”

A snapshot of the chef testing red chillis from the sacks they were stored in (Raj K Raj)

Young chefs also have a difficult time finding their feet, he adds. “On one side, there are restaurants, chefs, so much happening, all so inspiring, and on the other side, all that can be distracting,” he points out. “You need to really think about what kind of a chef you want to be; you need direction or you will get lost.”

The India souvenirs Humm will take home are not the usual arts and crafts. He’s taking back cooking techniques. “Being here, I feel I have been too conservative, too narrow-minded in terms of technique,” he says. “Now I want to incorporate techniques from other places. I see that as the next evolution of our food.”

He’ll be back in India at some point, he adds. “This country is so rich culturally,” Humm says. “I want to come back for two weeks and do yoga every day. I want to go to Varanasi, the mountain areas, Kashmir and Goa.”

From HT Brunch, May 20, 2018

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