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The Michelin-winning Indian chef nobody is talking about

Mumbai-born chef Manjunath Mural won his second Michelin star last month, making him one of the shining stars of Indian cuisine abroad. Why, then, is nobody talking about him?

brunch Updated: Oct 07, 2017 23:27 IST
Anil Sadarangani
Anil Sadarangani
Hindustan Times
Chef Manjunath Mural,Michelin star,Singapore
Chef Manjunath Mural’s mother was the only one who supported his dream of becoming a chef and persuaded his father to give in(Bob Lee)

By now, India should have been going gaga over the fact that an unassuming, middle-class Indian boy from the boondocks of Mumbai’s burbs, Charkop, has attained a ‘Pass Go’ card to his holy grail, not once, but twice over two consecutive years. To be bestowed a Michelin star even once in a chef’s life span on this pale blue dot in the universe can very well prompt, say, the Prime Minister of a nation to hug him and effuse, “You have made me very proud.” Pass the Padma Award, please. Yet, no one in India is gushing about the 44-year-old chef Manjunath Mural.

Perhaps it is because he is not glamorous. Or maybe he is not what you would call conventionally good looking (disclaimer: beauty lies in the eye of the beholder). He does not have an aggressive publicity machinery (his gracious, ever-accommodating publicist Jenny Tan surely did not appreciate us forcing her to organise his photo shoot overnight, on a tight budget). He does not hobnob with the who’s who from “there” there. He has not yet been featured on the cover of any Indian magazine worth its weight in dust. And when we casually enquired with one of India’s most recognised food critics if his name rang even a tiny bell, the response was, “No clue.”

We wonder: Why cannot true grit alone, stripped of the razzle-dazzle fanfare, heady soirées and celebrity endorsement, be recognised and celebrated?

Every chef loves to tell the story behind his food. Consider then chef Manjunath’s story.

After completing his hotel management course in Bengaluru, Manjunath started as Trainee Commis 2 (second cook) at The Resort, Madh Island (Bob Lee)

‘Yeh bawarchi banega?’

With his father being an ayurvedic doctor, mother a homeopathy practitioner, brother a radiologist and sister an occupational therapist, it was expected, as it was in the India Manjunath grew up, that he would follow in their footsteps.

He wanted to become a chef.

“In those days, the chef profession was looked down upon. People said, ‘Yeh bawarchi banega?’ It was my mother who supported me unconditionally and persuaded my father to give in. She said, ‘Follow your dream,’” recalls chef Manjunath.

Then cancer claimed her. The untimely loss of his mother, the only person who believed in his dream, lit a spark in his spirit. He promised himself he would not stop until he did her proud.

Chef Manjunath Mural got his first big break as junior sous chef at Renaissance Powai (Nic Low)

The journey begins

After completing his hotel management course in Bengaluru, Manjunath found himself moving restlessly from job to job. “I was satisfied with my work and yet I was not happy. I wanted to do something more, something bigger,” he recalls.

“ [Before I went abroad] chatpata is the only way I knew Indian food… It took me several months to unlearn that”

He started as Trainee Commis 2 (second cook) at The Resort, Madh Island and quickly hopped over to the now-defunct five-star Juhu Centaur to train under then executive chef Sanjeev Kapoor. From there, he bounced to the Taj President to train under the famed chef Ananda Solomon, then moved to Amby Valley for a few months and finally returned to Madh – at The Retreat. He had come a full circle and with The Retreat barely 30 minutes from his Charkop home, he was back to square one.

“This made me more restless. Now I wanted to join an international chain of hotels. I tried to get a job at the Marriott but was rejected,” he says.

First big break

After facing many rejections at several places, he got the big break he was looking for – at the Renaissance Powai. “I was surprised that the head chef, a foreigner, selected me as junior sous chef. For me, that was a dream come true, to be working in a global hotel chain where I could learn so much more. It was here that I gained tremendous confidence. Soon, a new ambition started forming in my mind – to get a job abroad,” Manjunath recounts.

He applied to kitchens in London, the United States and Dubai. “But I was offered small positions and was not happy with any. This was when chef Milind Sovani offered me a job,” he says.

A new song and struggle

Manjunath had briefly worked under chef Milind during his time at the Juhu Centaur. In 2006, chef Milind founded the menu at the Song of India restaurant in Singapore and recruited chef Manjunath. He moved to the Garden City and achieved his new goal. Then, reality sank in. He knew nothing about the international palate.

“Spicy, chatpata – that was the only way I knew Indian food because in India, we love hot food. I struggled for many months to control my hand. There was even plenty of salt in my food. Chef Milind mentored me. It took me several months to unlearn what I had known about Indian food and understand the new vision,” says chef Manjunath candidly.

Two years later, chef Milind returned to India. By then, chef Manjunath had proved to be a worthy lieutenant. The restaurant’s management bumped him up to the commander’s post. He became the restaurant’s executive chef.

Chef Mural wants to explore cuisines from across India, as many east and west Indian dishes are still undiscovered (Bob Lee)

Victory!

Ten years after he first set foot abroad, after many a trial and error, with focus, perseverance, dedication and faith from his employers, Manjunath won the restaurant its first Michelin star, claimed to be the first for an Indian restaurant in SE Asia. A year later, the guide renewed the honour. “Finally, our team’s hard work paid off. As a Mumbaikar, I am very proud,” says chef Manjunath.

Chef Mural on his favourite things
  • Fondest Mumbai memory: Growing up helping my mother in the kitchen.
  • Personal comfort food: Chicken rice — Singapore food!
  • Drink of choice: Masala tea, or a cold beer with my culinary team after a hard day at work.
  • Favourite Singapore restaurant: Loy Kee Chicken Rice at Balestier.
  • Favourite Mumbai restaurant: Not restaurant, but Mumbai’s street food at places like Dadar Chowpatty!
  • What I miss most about Mumbai/ India: The food.
  • What I cook for my family... Whatever they ask for as they are all very special to me.
  • Favourite travel destination: I like travelling as it opens up your eyes and is a learning opportunity, and makes you a better, thinking chef. I was recently in Dubai again for the Italian Cuisine Summit, and was also at Ubud Food Festival.
  • Top three celebrities I want to cook for: For chef Sanjeev Kapoor, a mentor and strong supporter and someone I admire a lot, I would cook my laksa chicken kebab, which is cooked in the tandoor. I would have loved to cook for the late Lee Kuan Yew, who has done so much for Singapore. For his son, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, I’d make naan and the sambal barramundi tikka, also another dish I created for Deepavali. Of course, The Song of India’s degustation menu is a must.
  • What’s next?My personal goal is to share the rich heritage and diversity of Indian cuisine, and hopefully one day, people will regard it as highly as they do French cuisine.

How to succeed

“To stay focused on keeping the standard, quality and presentation of our food consistent is our goal. My team and I were looking forward to earn the Michelin star again this year after last year but we didn’t think too much about it,” Manjunath admits, adding, “The most important thing is to be good in your basics. It is only after years that people will know your creativity.”

“I want people to think of Indian food as highly as they regard French cuisine”

He now has a new mission. “I will be exploring more cuisines from across India, presented in our unique style. There are many east and west Indian dishes that are still undiscovered,” he points out.

Explaining what makes Indian cuisine Michelin-worthy, he says, “Having knowledge of traditional Indian cuisine and how it is prepared is important. After that, you can be as creative as you want. Your food must tell a story. Ingredients and consistency are only next to this. My principle is to enjoy my work and also let my team enjoy their work. I take responsibility for all guest complaints, but all the appreciation and praise belongs to my team.”

So the next time you find yourself in Singapore sinking your teeth into Alaskan tandoori crab, flambeed leg of lamb, sarson cod tikka, blue cheese naan and elaichi flavoured creme brûlée, ask to meet chef Manjunath, give him a hug and say, “You make me very proud.”

Or you can just go gaga over him. And it will not be because we told you so.

From HT Brunch, October 8, 2017

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First Published: Oct 07, 2017 21:54 IST