LONDON (Reuters) - The cuisine of Vineet Bhatia can't be found in any late-night curry stand on the streets of London. The Michelin starred chef is known around the world for updating traditional Indian food while maintaining its flavors.
Although Bhatia started his culinary career with Oberoi Hotel group in India, he left for London in the early 1990s in search of a place where he could develop his own ideas.
Bhatia has since become renowned, especially in Britain, for revolutionizing south Asian fare. With a focus on simple ingredients artfully presented, Bhatia's name is attached to 12 restaurants around the world in luxury hotspots such as Mauritius and Dubai.
Most recently, Bhatia is working to expand his restaurant brand, "Rasoi," which means "kitchen" in Hindi. His work with Rasoi in London and Geneva has earned Bhatia two Michelin stars.
Reuters caught up with the UK-based chef in between trips to his hometown of Mumbai to talk about some misconceptions about Indian food.
Q: What was your favorite dish growing up?
A: "I always had good food at home. There wasn't a dish I liked more than any other because they were all cooked with a lot of love and care. It was quite simple food - nothing extravagant - but it was cooked passionately. That's true of Indian culture in general."
Q: Why did you come to London?
A: "I wasn't growing as a chef in India. I wasn't allowed to be creative and it became very frustrating as a chef because I wasn't allowed to experiment. I had to cook the same food every day and I couldn't handle it anymore."
Q: Indian food in the UK is usually greasy and really hot. How did you cultivate the more modern type of cooking that you've become known for in London?
A: "When I first came to London in ‘93, it was a tough market and the mindset was very different. People were used to having so-called ‘curry' after a few beers at the pub. When I first started cooking in the UK, many people said that my food wasn't really Indian, that it needed tons of oil. That's not true because it's not the way you eat back in India.
If you go to India and ask for a curry, you'd get laughed at. They'd ask you, ‘What kind of curry do you want?' because there are so many different types of curry. Luckily, when we opened our first restaurant in the UK, we received a lot of good press, showcasing what we were doing in the right manner. It was our goal to make things better that's what we've done."
Q: Some chefs have rules that they stick to in the kitchen; some don't use more than five ingredients in a dish, for example. Do you have any guidelines that you abide by?
A: "I don't have any specific rules, but I don't like when things get too complicated. When you buy a high quality product, as we do, you don't have to do much to it. It's better to give it a light seasoning and let it speak for itself.
If I have, for example, a piece of lamb chop, I don't need to douse it in 20 different masalas because the flavor of the lamb is so good on its own. I try to add spices to announce the flavor instead of camouflage it.
In the kitchen, we try to cut it down to maybe three or four spices in a given recipe and minimize the amount of components when plating the dish. We have a creative presentation, but we try not to do things over-the-top."
Q: Because you have so many outlets around the world, how do you alter the menu depending on the location?
A: "We always look at the local products first. Obviously, there are certain things we import to get the best combinations. For example, at Rasoi in Chelsea (London), we feature a tandoori Scottish salmon because if I used a local fish in India, it wouldn't match the same flavor. So, yes there are certain things we import, but it's only about 10 percent. The rest is produced locally."
Buying locally helps our menu to be more seasonal, as well…We cater to our guests and keep as fresh as possible."
Q: How have people responded to the idea that wines can be paired with Indian cuisine?
A: "Our food is subtle. It's not in your face, so it goes perfectly with wine. The ideal combination is one of my dishes paired with champagne because it's got a light fizz and works well with the flavors that we offer.
Beer is gassy and heavy; it fills you up and makes you feel bloated after the meal, whereas a wine or champagne is much more elegant and refined. We sell a lot of wine in our restaurants. In fact, we don't even list beer on the menu, though we have it in stock if someone asks for it, but we don't actively promote it."
Q: Your book "Rasoi: New Indian Kitchen" allows people to recreate some of your signature dishes in their own homes. Which is your favorite recipe from the book?
A: "They're all good. It's difficult to choose because the recipes were all built up over a number of years, but I am very passionate about fish and shellfish, so anything featuring lobster is probably high on my list."
(Yields three servings)
500 mL boiled white rice 2 cooked chicken breasts (chopped into bite-size pieces) 1 fresh tomato (chopped) 100 mL chopped onion 50 mL Green chili Cumin seeds Chopped garlic Coriander Mint Ginger Salt
Put a dash of oil in a pan, add chopped onions, green chili, cumin seeds, chopped garlic, ginger and salt to taste. Add cooked chicken to rice. Throw in the fresh tomato, coriander and mint to taste. Lightly toss it together to make a fragrant and flurry stir-fried rice dinner.
Editing by Paul Casciato