To all the chefs I’ve known and loved: Maska Maarke with Kunal Vijayakar

I love watching these mavericks in white cloaks create their magic over a sea of flames. Here’s a look at some of my favourite chefs.

mumbai Updated: Sep 07, 2018 22:17 IST
Kunal Vijayakar
Kunal Vijayakar
Hindustan Times
Chefs,Food,Kunal Vijayakar
Vikramjit Roy of POH (Progressive Oriental House) has created a cuisine that is truly imaginative, literally turning Asian food into an art form. Look at this Nuts & Bolts Coffee Ice-Cream with Guava Reduction.

It’s what I do. I seek out restaurants to eat in, and stalk, shadow and gawk at chefs doing their thing. That may sound overly simplified, but I mean what I say. When I travel to any new place in the country or the world, seeing the sights is never as important as the food. It may be the cheapest street side meal, like a big bowl of Mexilhões à Bulhão Pato (Portuguese-style mussels) being tossed in a pan by an old ‘avo’ on the narrow, café-filled street of Rua dos Correeiros in Lisbon. Or the view from my table at the small Michelin Guide bistro Allard by Alain Ducasse in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris. A small peek into the kitchen as young chefs whip up age-old French dishes like garlicky frogs’ legs and buttery sole Meunière.

A boiling pot of Bak Kut Teh, a soup of meaty pork ribs, herbs and whole spices kept simmering for hours in front of a sweaty and fat Malaysian in Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Alor food market. Or a slow-cooked egg with black truffle slice, Royal Beluski caviar, pancake crisp, soy, coriander cress and ginger at Kai Mayfair in London.

I just love watching those mavericks in white cloaks create their magic over a sea of flames. I’d always thought I’d be a chef. I even wanted to join catering college, but my marks were just not up to scratch. So while I enrolled in art school, I took vicarious pleasure in watching my cousin Rahul cook and enjoy his way through his hotel management course.

He was the first chef I knew, but there to be many, many more. Men and women in crisp white coats, their little pockets holding, among other things, paring knives and meat thermometers. Tall toque blanches on their heads, strutting around steamy hot kitchens brandishing words like julienne, mise en place, a la minute and KOT (kitchen order ticket).

Prateek Sadhu of Masque has turned foraging into an art form. Here, he breaks loose with a dessert of pickled plum and black pepper.

In a chef’s kitchen, it’s literarily baptism by fire. Tales of torture, trembling and tremor emerge from the swing doors to what are often called Mausoleums of Misery. Whether these tales are true or not, I’ve been privileged, because in later years I found myself venturing into the kitchens and meeting some of our country’s and indeed the world’s most influential chefs. I was spared the torment and terror, and greeted only by their kindness and creativity as I was led into their innermost sanctums.

Like Hemant Oberoi, then the grand executive chef at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, who treated me to one of the last degustation menus at Zodiac Grill. Chef Urbano Rego, of the Taj, Goa, who refused to allow me to eat at local joints in Calangute and Candolim, insisting that his wife’s prawn curry at their home in Divar was the best in the state. And it was.

Chef Imtiaz Qureishi, whose mehmaan nawazi was as tender as the Kalian he so lovingly fed me. Chefs Joy Bhattacharya and Manjit Gill, veterans of the Oberoi and ITC and my culinary cicerones and travelling companions, as we tasted and judged food all over.

Overseas, chef Sriram Aylur at Quilon in London, in my opinion the finest Indian restaurant in the UK. No one makes Crab Cakes (claw meat with curry leaves, ginger and green chilli, cooked on a skillet) and Venison Chilli Fry (strips of the meat tossed with onion, chilli and curry leaves) the way Sriram can. Gaggan Anand, whose Emoji Menu refuses to get off the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Chefs Mark Best, Neil Perry and Matt Moran, all unquestionable symbols of New Australian Cuisine. And from the kitchens of Hélène Darroze, Gordon Ramsay, Joël Robuchon, and Dinner By Heston Blumenthal to the cheerful and youthful Michelin-starred chef José Avillez, so excited about the Oxtail (with chickpea, foie gras, onion cream and Serra cheese) and the beautifully complex Grilled Giant Red Shrimp with Rosemary Ash at his brilliant restaurant Belcanto, in Lisbon, Portugal.

Overseas favourites include Gaggan Anand, with his emoji menu and crazy creativity. Like this dish of candied mushroom log, edible soil, green chili and microgreens. (eatatgaggan.com)

Two younger chefs here in Mumbai have knocked my pots off the stove — Vikramjit Roy of POH (Progressive Oriental House) and Prateek Sadhu of Masque.

The first things you notice about Vikramjit are his buoyant energy, his engagement with his creations, and the depth of knowledge about his cuisine. Vikramjit has created a cuisine that is, for want of a better term, purely imaginative. He’s literally taken Asian food and turned it into an art form. Using techniques like dehydration, cryogenation and lyophilisation, he creates bold combinations like oyster with duck liver and caramelised onions; almond prawns with fermented mango and aerated pumpkin, herbs and clove-scented cauliflower. Lovely salmon with sushi rice and a crust of polenta and pistachio. And a dessert of coriander, 70% chocolate and candied nuts.

As path-breaking, but in a completely different way, Prateek of Masque has turned foraging into an art form. He’s a chef who goes looking for his own food, travels the country exploring local fruits, nuts, spices, herbs and habits. He brings his treasures back to his kitchen, the quietest one I’ve ever been in, and in the most solemn and gentle fashion, summons up tastes and flavours. Tastes that are rare but oh so familiar.

His hometown of Kashmir is his muse and you see a dedication to his land resonate in a lot of his food. Like his Soft Shell Crab in Traditional Kashmiri Veri Masala, his nouvelle take on the traditional Lamb Yakhni; or his Kashmiri Katlam Bread with Chilli Pickled Butter. And then he breaks loose with Pickled Oysters with Mango Tartare, flavoured with mustard and fennel and sesame oil. Ladakhi Apricot with Yak Cheese and Honey; Pork with Naga Chilli — all flavours from his Marco Polo-like adventures.

These two chefs, walking in the flaming footsteps of the likes of Vineet Bhatia and Manish Mehrotra, have created the beginnings of an art movement with food. As with every art movement, there will be the patrons and the critics. But the artists persevere. Go on, give them a lickin’.

First Published: Sep 07, 2018 22:17 IST