Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Rajat is above Parr
He is one of the world’s greatest sommeliers and is proudly IndianUpdated: Dec 08, 2019 00:22 IST
These days, nearly everywhere you go, you find Indians at the top. There is one notable exception, though. The world of wine is largely Indian-free. There are few highly-rated growers and very few top sommeliers.
But for a decade now, there has been one glorious exception. Everyone in the wine business in America and France will tell you that the one Indian they have heard of is Rajat Parr. He has often been described as America’s best sommelier, and his palate is legendary: he is the sort of man who wins blind tastings with ease.
Such is his reputation that wine growers long for his approval and he is credited with giving many now famous French wines the success they had always been denied in America. In recent years, he has turned wine maker (in the US, mainly) and his wines regularly confound experts at blind tastings because they taste like fine Burgundy but turn out to have been made in California or Oregon.
I have been hearing about Parr for years but, like most Indians, knew very few details about his life. The last time he won an award, various wine-loving Bengalis tweeted triumphantly that his success was a triumph for Bengal. I tweeted back then that though he was sometimes described as Kolkata-born, I did not think he was actually a Bengali. (They were disappointed but disbelieving.)
Last month I spent three days talking wine with Parr in the very salubrious surroundings of Velaa Private Island, one of the top resorts in the Maldives while eating the cuisine of chef Gaushan De Silva, who is not only the world’s greatest Sri Lankan chef but is also so brilliant that if Michelin ever does a guide to the Maldives, he would get two stars for the quality of his food.
Rajat was what I had expected – and yet he wasn’t. He seems American (he is light-skinned enough to not look like an Indian from central casting) but he is also deeply Indian. He cooks Indian food, wants to do a cookbook of his mother’s recipes and even owns a small Indian restaurant in California. Shortly after we met, he flew off to Mumbai and Delhi for wine dinners and then to Kolkata to meet his family. He is proud of his roots and of his cousins in the restaurant trade in Delhi. (Moet’s in Defence Colony.)
Rajat, like many great sommeliers and wine-makers has a super-advanced sense of taste in his DNA. He tastes things that the rest of us do not.
But what was most revealing for me was that he exploded an excuse that all of us use. Indians don’t make great sommeliers, we say, because we never grew up with wine. French people drink wine right from the time they are young so they have an advantage over us. Most of us don’t drink wine till we are in our 20s, so how can we be expected to develop a palate?
Let’s take the case of Rajat Parr. He was born into a Punjabi family in Kolkata (sorry Bongs: both of Kolkata’s great food and wine exports are Punjabis – think of Gaggan Anand!) where food (mostly Indian) was an obsession. During his vacations he would come to Delhi and spend time with his cousins (the owners of Moet) and became fascinated by the restaurant business. He wanted to go abroad and join The Culinary Institute of America but his mother persuaded him to stay in India and attend the ITC-backed hotel school in Manipal in South India. The way he remembers it, not only did nobody in Manipal talk about wine, “no one was really into food” either.
In 1994, when he was 22, Rajat finally left for America and the Culinary Institute. He had very little money: “I didn’t drink alcohol for the first couple of years and ate mostly popcorn and ramen.” He was beginning to develop an interest in wine but he didn’t really get into it till he was 24 or so. He says that his epiphany came when he was working at a restaurant and got to try Chablis Les Clos (a Grand Cru) from a glass someone had left behind. From the first sip he knew that wine was going to be his passion.
Unlike most people who get into wine, Rajat is not a big drinker. But he had a gift. When he tasted a wine, his whole palate came alive and he tasted every last flavour in that wine. Even more important, the taste was imprinted in his memory, a skill that was to stand him in good stead in his future career as a sommelier.
I asked him how somebody who had grown up eating Punjabi food could develop such a refined palate so quickly. He had no clear answer but we agreed that, in fact, Indians have great palates because we taste so many spices in our food every day. We just don’t apply those skills to wine.
And though he was too modest to say this, I suspect that Rajat, like many great sommeliers and wine-makers has a super-advanced sense of taste in his DNA. He tastes things that the rest of us do not.
Once Rajat realised that wine was his passion, he worked hard at it, visiting vineyards, tasting wines, reading up and writing his own papers on such great wines as Lafite and Romanee Conti. He became a protégé of Larry Stone, one of America’s great sommeliers and rose through the profession soon becoming universally respected by his peers.
Was his Indian-ness an issue? Well, he shortened his name to Parr from the original Parashar (“nobody in America could pronounce it”, he laughs) but it does not seem to have hindered him in any way. He has been even more successful than he is in America, in the more provincial French wine-making region of Burgundy, which has thrown open its doors to him. Today, he is the one non-French sommelier who is widely admired in Burgundy.
Rajat doesn’t mention it but there has also been the odd dodgy remark directed at him. The once-influential wine writer and critic Robert Parker, who is famous for his preference for powerful, jammy, fruit bomb wines has described Rajat as a ‘jihadist’ presumably because of his aversion to the afore-mentioned fruit bombs and his advocacy of more refined Burgundy.
But that does not seem to have put Rajat off. Now that he is making his own wines, they tend to be more Burgundy-like in character and are rarely confused with the extremely extracted wines of America (California in particular). And they love them in France – unusual for American wines made by an Indian.
We drank Rajat’s wine in the Maldives but Ibrahim Waheed, the sommelier who is also Velaa’s Director of Food and Beverage kept Rajat on his toes by finding great and unusual wines including such small bottlings as the red and white wines of Dugat-Py.
All this was paired with Gaushan’s exquisite food. His Blue Fin tuna was served with an organic egg yolk and roasted garlic. He took premium Ohmi: A-5 (a sort of upmarket Wagyu), served with fresh chanterelles and paired it with two of Rajat’s California wines from Domaine de La Cote. It all went together perfectly, of course, but what struck me, as I drank the wine, was how unCalifornia-like it was. It had the finesse of fine Burgundy.
One evening, Gaushan decided to show us why all the clichés about Japanese Wagyu were overly simplistic. He took wagyu from the Saga region and served it as a nigiri sushi with oscietra. To show that non-Japanese wagyu also has flavour he mixed Scottish Highland wagyu with Sher’s Australian wagyu in a tartare. The Japanese Kagoshima wagyu (A5) went into a gyoza (a Japanese dumpling) with foie gras. A cheek of Ozaki wagyu was slowly braised.
This was a chef at the height of his powers, making serious food that more than matched up to some of the world’s most interesting wines. And when Gaushan was not cooking European-style, the food was as outstanding. He did a tasting menu of Maldivian flavours that revealed the depths of this often neglected cuisine. And his kitchen was staffed with brilliant chefs. Girish Sharma, his Asian chef, cooked an astonishing Asian meal and then surprised me by serving a room service breakfast of masala dosas!
It is hard to imagine a better combination than Gaushan’s food and Rajat’s wines. And while you’ll have to go to the Maldives for the food, Rajat’s wines should soon be on good Indian wine lists. His Domaine de La Cote Bloomsfield (2014) will be familiar to those who watched the streaming show Somm (Season 3). The world’s best sommeliers gathered to choose the top Pinot Noirs. Usually Burgundy is always the top but the Bloomsfield beat them.
Rajat’s own view, however, is that La Cote (from the same domaine) is his top wine. And I will go with his judgement.
You will soon be able to judge for yourself.
From HT Brunch, December 8, 2019
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