Hindustan Times Leadership Summit 2022: Home away from home – Giving local taste a global accent
Hindustan Times Leadership Summit 2022: Looking back at Indian Accent and what has led to its continuing success and relevance, Manish Mehrotra says it is their constant innovation and changing menus.
Indian food needed reinvention in a way that would help reconnect it with young Indians and push regional cuisine to the forefront, chef Manish Mehrotra concluded when he returned from London in the 2000s to find few people heading to Indian restaurants.
Speaking on the second day of the 20th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, the culinary director of Indian Accent restaurants detailed his take on Indian cuisine and how he used the basic concept of traditional Indian meals and rebuilt them to fit what we call creative molecular gastronomy.
“The first plated food India saw was a thali, or a Sadya meal. Every dish on that banana leaf has its defined position. People have been doing this for centuries, but somehow, we got lost somewhere,” said Mehrotra, in a conversation with HT Brunch’s editor Jamal Shaikh. “I was always inspired by this, by the different textures, the flavours, the colours all prominent on a platter – this is essentially what I do.”
Mehrotra then remembered his mentor Ananda Solomon, and what he learned from Solomon – that the only critic a chef must take seriously are the diners who eat the food they make. “Ananda Solomon is one of the finest chefs I’ve ever seen. He knows about food, and he understands a guest’s psyche,” said Mehrotra. “That’s what I learned from him. And one golden rule – the plate that goes into the restaurant is very important, but the plate that comes back from the restaurant is even more important.” Chef Mehrotra said he takes the feedback “very seriously”, and added: “But the final call is always mine.”
Looking back at Indian Accent and what has led to its continuing success and relevance, Mehrotra says it is their constant innovation and changing menus. It took time for Indians to understand how he was reinventing Indian food and what he was trying to do, he said, often leading to empty tables and people leaving after they saw the menu in the early days.
“I would say we survived because we constantly innovate. Whenever I plan a new tasting menu, I think I’m done – but new experiences and travel inspires me and in two months, I come up with a new menu,” he said.
“I’ve seen empty restaurants, people used to come and after reading the menu, would sometimes walk out, saying, ‘oh, you don’t have regular Indian khaana.’ What we did at Indian Accent was to make sure that the key word for every plate we served was ‘tasty khaana,’ and that, people understood. Slowly, people started coming back,” he said.
Mehrotra began the session by cooking two completely different but now signature Indian Accent dishes – Dal Moradabadi, the dish everyone told him would never work because no one would pay to eat moong dal at a fine dining restaurant; and a beetroot and goat cheese salad inspired by Kolkata’s iconic but humble beetroot chops, seen at every street corner snack kiosk. So it’s not difficult to see what Mehrotra means when he says guests wanted “regular Indian khaana” at his restaurant, as he remembers the dishes that have now become synonymous with the Indian Accent menu – the Blue Cheese Naan, Daulat Ki Chaat, and the pomegranate churan sorbet.
“When I first tasted Blue Cheese, I wondered how someone could eat it. Now, bread and Blue Cheese is a classic combination, but Blue Cheese and naan is a unique combination that needed work to suit the Indian palate. For our pomegranate churan sorbet, we still get the churan from Calcutta, and we do that particularly for nostalgia. And Michelin restaurants have only now started talking about foam and air in food, but in India, we’ve been doing it in Daulat Ki Chaat for 150 years!” he said.
On the future of Indian food, he spoke of three young Indian chefs he believes are putting Indian food on the map. He named Himanshu Saini from Trèsind Studio, Prateek Sadhu, formerly with Masque, and Hussain Shahzad of The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro. “Mark my words, these three young Indian chefs are going to be the most well-known chefs in India tomorrow,” he added. Mehrotra wrapped up the session by talking about what multiple Indian chefs, him included, are aiming for – to take Indian food global. “Our ultimate goal is to take real Indian food to the world and tell the world that every different part of India has its own unique cuisine to offer. And things are changing. I feel very happy that, with me, cuisine has moved forward,” he said.