Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: One to watch

Himanshu Saini will definitely be the Next Big Thing to keep an eye out for among globally-renowned Indian chefs
Himanshu Saini has become a regular on the global chefs circuit, cooking at four-hand collaborations with the likes of Riccardo Camanini
Himanshu Saini has become a regular on the global chefs circuit, cooking at four-hand collaborations with the likes of Riccardo Camanini
Updated on Nov 28, 2021 09:51 PM IST
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A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Sri Lankan chef, Gaushan De Silva, as part of my quest to find the next generation of South Asian chefs who will take over eventually from this generation’s masters, men like Gaggan Anand and Manish Mehrotra.

I have already profiled some of the chefs on my list for a culinary First XI. I have written about Saurabh Udinia, now wowing them at Revolver in Singapore; about Prateek Sadhu who has finally found his culinary groove in Mumbai, and am looking for others.

When I started making the list in my head, the first name I thought of was Himanshu Saini. I have written about Himanshu before. He was Manish Mehrotra’s favourite young chef at Indian Accent (though, of course, Manish says he has no favourites, all his chefs are equal etc.) and then found fame at Zorawar Kalra’s Masala Library in Mumbai. Along with Saurabh Udinia, (another Indian Accent alum) Himanshu created a bold and adventurous modern Indian menu.

Not everything worked and some of it was ripped off from Manish and Gaggan (including a crude version of Gaggan’s famous Yogurt Explosion) but there was enough there to indicate that Himanshu was a talent to watch.

Himanshu Saini was Manish Mehrotra’s (above) favourite young chef at Indian Accent (though, of course, Manish says he has no favourites)
Himanshu Saini was Manish Mehrotra’s (above) favourite young chef at Indian Accent (though, of course, Manish says he has no favourites)

Himanshu was then instrumental in the creation of the Farzi Café menu (some of those dishes became legends: Posh Maggi, Parle G Cheesecake, etc.) but he upped and left for a job in New York. When that didn’t work out, he turned up in Dubai where Bhupender Nath, a wealthy entrepreneur, had just fallen out with the Masala Library group, scrapping plans to open a Dubai outpost. Though Nath tried to fill the void with the very gifted and experienced Sujan Sarkar, it was Himanshu he eventually turned to, and the restaurant, now called Trèsind, was opened successfully.

I went there shortly after it was launched and was impressed by Himanshu, though at that stage I thought he was still very much within the Indian Accent frame of references. (He hero-worships Manish, so that made some sense.) There were flashes of Gaggan’s influence (Himanshu is completely in awe of Gaggan) and I thought that once he had absorbed the influences of those great chefs and found his voice, he had the potential to turn into a significant chef in his own right.

In 2019, I returned to Dubai to find that the Trèsind empire had grown. There was now a second brand called Carnival, and Himanshu had opened a third restaurant called Trèsind Studio, where he served a tasting menu of dishes he was working on to about 20 guests.

All of Himanshu’s dishes take inspiration from regional cuisines from all over India
All of Himanshu’s dishes take inspiration from regional cuisines from all over India

I loved it, praised his signature khichdi, raved on these pages about his pav bhaji dumpling and a new dish which was a slice of Wagyu, served with six different gravies from all over India, to demonstrate the range of Indian flavours.

I was impressed enough to be reckless in my prediction. “I took a bet on Himanshu in 2015,“ I wrote. “And I’ll stick my neck out again. Himanshu is the true heir to Manish Mehrotra. You will be hearing a lot more about him”.

I was wrong. And I was right.

I was right in the sense that we have heard a lot more about Himanshu. He has opened a successful Trèsind in Mumbai. And he has become a regular on the global chefs circuit, cooking at four-hand collaborations with the likes of Riccardo Camanini from Italy’s much-lauded Lido84. The Trèsind Studio has hosted Michelin three-star chefs like Andreas Caminada from Switzerland, and Italy’s Massimo Bottura. In chef circles, Himanshu is now one of the better-known Indian chefs, globally.

So I was right about Himanshu becoming famous and successful.

When Massimo Bottura (right) was served a dessert with sweetish rasam, he asked Himanshu to make a normal rasam and serve it as a course in the middle
When Massimo Bottura (right) was served a dessert with sweetish rasam, he asked Himanshu to make a normal rasam and serve it as a course in the middle

Where I was wrong was in predicting that he would be the heir to Manish Mehtrora. The Trèsind menu still has a version of Daulat Ki Chaat as a homage to Manish, but Himanshu has finally risen above his background and found his voice. He is now his own man and his food is distinctively Himanshu Saini. It will take a few years, but other chefs will start copying his dishes and displaying signs of his influence.

Some of this, I suspect, comes from Himanshu’s travels and his collaborations with the world’s best chefs. For instance, the Wagyu dish I so liked in 2019 has vanished from the Trèsind Studio menu. When Andreas Caminada came to eat at his restaurant, he told Himanshu that he liked the food, but that he was doing himself no favours by featuring imported luxury ingredients.

So Himanshu’s food at the Studio now has no Wagyu, no foie gras, no caviar, no truffles and no fancy ingredients from far away. He tries to restrict himself to local ingredients (a novelty in Dubai where nothing is local, not even the people). So you get small, flavourful prawns from the Dubai waters, local mutton and lots of vegetables.

The Trèsind menu still has a version of Daulat Ki Chaat as homage to Manish, but Himanshu has finally found his own voice
The Trèsind menu still has a version of Daulat Ki Chaat as homage to Manish, but Himanshu has finally found his own voice

It should make a difference, and indeed it does. The food is more inventive now than it has ever been. One of the standout dishes on the new menu is a deconstructed chicken tikka masala (my description; not his) with a fresh tomato broth and a fat little chicken dumpling. Himanshu’s love for achaari flavours now gets full play in a pickled chilli with a buttermilk curry ice-cream. The single best dish, and one destined to become a classic, is a gravy made from the pan juices of galouti kabab, which you scoop up with a sourdough bun. (For some reason, he calls it a Kabab Scarpetta, using an Italian culinary term that no Indian will understand; too much hanging around with Massimo Bottura, I guess).

The Trèsind Studio menu is new but the old favourites (the khichdi, the chaat trolley etc.) are still on the menu at the original Trèsind. At Carnival (which was jam-packed the night I went,) the food is, oddly enough, fancier, with truffles etc.

Much of what Himanshu does at the Studio is experimental and open to further sophistication. For instance, his first dessert is a pineapple payasam served with mango pickle and papad and a sweetish rasam. His reasoning is that, in parts of South India, they are still finishing their papadum when dessert is served.

Bhupender Nath, a wealthy entrepreneur, took a chance on Himanshu and has been incredibly supportive, giving the chef the freedom to emerge as a global star
Bhupender Nath, a wealthy entrepreneur, took a chance on Himanshu and has been incredibly supportive, giving the chef the freedom to emerge as a global star

When he served it to Massimo Bottura, he received one interesting suggestion: why didn’t he make a normal (not sweetish) rasam and serve the dish as a course in the middle of the menu because it wasn’t really a dessert?

Bottura was right of course, and I shall watch the evolution of the dish over the next few months with interest. But to play in that league, to get feedback from such great chefs is quite something. It’s one reason why Himanshu’s style has evolved so much and his food has got better.

For all that, he remains the same old Himanshu: modest, sensitive, emotional and always ready to learn. And I will repeat what I said in 2019. We are going to hear a lot about him in the years to follow.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, November 28, 2021

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