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The world’s most famous Indian chef you’ve never heard of

Srijith Gopinath has two Michelin stars for his San Francisco restaurant

brunch Updated: Dec 03, 2016 18:38 IST
srijith gopinath,san francisco,michelin stars
Srijith Gopinath has won two Michelin stars, a first for any Indian chef. (Susie Biehler Photography)

There are only a handful of Indians who have made much impact on the global food world. There’s Camellia Panjabi who, apart from writing one of the most successful Indian cookbooks of all time (50 Great Curries of India), also set up the Bombay Brasserie in London, overturning British preconceptions about Indian food. After she left the Taj, she joined up with her sister Namita and Namita’s husband, Ranjit Mathrani, to open a series of successful Indian restaurants, two of which have Michelin stars.

Also in London, there’s Vineet Bhatia, the pioneer of the new style of upmarket food in the UK, first at Zaika, then at his own Rasoi and eventually at a variety of restaurants around the world. It was Vineet who first put truffle oil on a naan, chocolate inside a samosa, turned butter chicken gravy into an ice-cream and gave the khichdi pride of place.

In America, there’s Floyd Cardoz who opened the excellent Tabla and introduced savvy New Yorkers to the delights of Indian spicing. Tabla was about two decades ahead of its time and when the lease ran out, Floyd went to do a number of other things, including cook at the North End Grill and win Top Chef Masters. Now he has suddenly had a resurgence in public attention with two successes in two continents. Paowalla is getting raves in New York and The Bombay Canteen took only a few months to become one of the city’s most loved institutions.

That leaves Gaggan Anand who changed all the rules when he introduced molecular techniques to Indian cuisine at his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok. Gaggan has been rated as Asia’s best restaurant two years in a row.

The Taj Campton Place restaurant in San Francisco

Almost every time you go to a restaurant in India and find a dish that has molecular elements, you are eating food that has been influenced by Gaggan. The funny thing is that Gaggan himself is moving away from molecular gastronomy. His food, these days, is even more brilliant for its starkness and simplicity, influenced perhaps by the growing influence that Japan has on his cooking.

All of these men and women are legends. The debt that we owe them for their role in taking Indian food to the world is incalculable. But there is something that none of them has ever managed.

For many chefs, the acme of recognition is a Michelin star. There are problems with Michelin. Critics say that while it is an authority on French food, it can’t tell the difference between good Indian and mediocre restaurant fare.

And yet, all chefs aspire to get Michelin stars. Within the chef community, there is no greater accolade and the desire to win a star keeps top chefs motivated while the loss of a star can lead to suicidal depression.

So far, Michelin has been willing to hand out a single star to Indian restaurants in Hong Kong, New York, Geneva, London and more recently, Singapore. But no Indian restaurant has ever won more than a single star while Japanese and Chinese places have often got three – the top rating – stars. I have wondered why this should be so. Could it be that Michelin does not regard Indian food as worthy of more than one star?

Then, last year, Michelin awarded two stars to Campton Place, a restaurant at the Taj-owned hotel of the same name in San Francisco. I was thrilled because I have always regarded the chef Srijith Gopinath as one of the great Indian culinary stars.

For reasons I have never understood, the Taj has treated Srijith as a secret chef, never to be talked about

Still, I thought to myself, this could be a fluke. Let’s see if Srijith can pull this off a second time? When he did – this year’s stars were announced a few weeks ago – I recognised this for what it was: a historic achievement. No Indian chef has ever got this far.

At this stage, I see you pause and ask, “Srijith Who?”

Good point. For reasons I have never understood, the Taj has treated Srijith as a secret chef, never to be talked about. When he won his first star, many years ago, I expected fireworks.

Nothing. The Taj said virtually nothing.

When he got two stars, I had to tweet about it to draw attention to this unique achievement because the Taj publicity machine refused to give him his due. I resolved then that I would fly to San Francisco and write about him. By the time I finally planned my trip, he had won two stars for a second year running.

Those of you with very long memories may remember that I wrote about Srijith eight years ago in Rude Food. In those days, he was cooking largely Western food, and though I ate at many of the top SF restaurants, I wrote that Srijith’s was “easily the best meal I had in San Francisco” and “the best Western meal I’ve ever had at a Taj hotel”.

At that stage, Srijith was expected to come home at the end of his posting and so I wrote “when Srijith does return to India – assuming no American hotel steals him – the Taj will have a major star”.

Maine Lobster with Madras potatoes, Savoy cabbage and coastal curry sauce (Susie Biehler Photography)

I was right about him being a major star. But wrong about him returning to India. The Taj has left Campton Place on its own and Srijith has flourished, far from the mediocrity of the Taj’s Indian food. But even I, who rated him so highly, never dreamt that he would be the first Indian chef to win two Michelin stars.

What makes his success so extraordinary is that he has had no advantages. He was hired for the Taj Exotica in the Maldives and impressed Vikramaditya Singh, the general manager. When Vikramaditya moved to Campton Place, he took Srijith with him.

At that stage, the Taj had wanted to outsource the restaurant but because no big-time American chef would take it, they stuck with the low-cost option of a chef pulled from the ranks of the Taj group. Srijith’s expertise was in Western food and he quickly adapted his style to suit California’s fabulous produce. That was when I first tried his food.

Later, he decided to go Indian but because he was so far from both India and Europe, there were no role models for him to follow. So his food owes nothing to Vineet, Gaggan, Manish Mehrotra or any of the other big stars of Indian cuisine. Instead, he created his own distinctive style.

Like everyone else in California, Srijith focuses on the flavours of the ingredients. But he manages to give Indian spices equal importance. So his food is an unusual blend of first rate ingredients, enhanced (but not smothered) with spices. The Maine Lobster on his menu is perfectly poached in a mixture of oil and butter but it comes with an authentic Malabar curry. The Cornish hen at his restaurant is treated with a respect no Indian chef gives poultry, roasted whole and shown to guests at the table before being carved and served with a buttery tomato gravy and a chestnut khichdi.

Luxury ingredients are given a respectful but witty treatment. Golden oscietra caviar comes on a tiny appam, the foie gras is spiced and put on a sheermal, and naan dough is adopted to make a bun which is topped with Alba truffles. A square of black cod gets a cocoa-masala coat and shrikhand comes in a little tartlet.

It is hard to characterise his food. Perhaps the best way to describe it is by understanding its origins. A Malayali chef, who is adept at Western techniques, comes to California, is bowled over by the produce and reaches into his spice memory to create a new kind of Indian food.

You may hear a little more about Srijith now. He has done a guest spot on Masterchef India and there is a dinner planned in Hyderabad next year. I’m hoping that the Taj wakes up and does pop-ups in India so we can all try his food without having to come to San Francisco.

But the truth is that Srijith doesn’t need any of us. As the most acclaimed Indian chef in the world, he can write his own ticket. He has stuck with an Indian company so far. But he must know that if he is to get that third Michelin Star, he needs a fancier room than the Campton Place restaurant which is cosy but hardly grand.

No matter how things pan out, there is much for us to celebrate. There finally is a Michelin two-star restaurant that serves Indian food; so that jinx has been broken.

And the chef who has won those stars has done it without the benefit of a vast publicity machine or any hype. He has got there because of the most Indian of all virtues: an ability to think outside the box and to rise to the top in a foreign land only because of hard work and sheer talent.

From HT Brunch, December 4, 2016

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First Published: Dec 03, 2016 18:38 IST