He’s single-handedly reinvented the PR of Indian cuisine across the world. He’s hailed as the numero uno chef in India, and in esteemed company of top chefs around the globe. From S. Pellegrino World’s 100 Best Restaurants to Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, his mantle boasts of more awards than the spices in your granny’s pantry. Yet, behind all the accolades is an unpretentious man whose raison d’être is to narrate the story of Indian cuisine to one and all – which he takes forward masterfully with his restaurant Indian Accent. Tracing the tracks of his journey from the by-lanes of Bihar to the broadway of the culinary world, #DSSCSecretConversations decodes the ever-humble, the ever-affable, Chef Manish Mehrotra.
Born into a business family in Patna, Chef Mehrotra wasn’t enthralled with the idea of taking over their petrol pump business, “Hotel Management was purely a career decision, there was none of the ‘I was inspired by my grandmother or mother’!” he says, as surgical precision cuts through his words. It was while pursuing graduation at Institute of Hospitality Management (Mumbai) when Chef Manish realised that the kitchen is where his heart lay, as it is the “most creative part” of the F&B canvas. Armed with a degree in Hospitality Management, the chef, who is famed for his modern Indian cuisine, intriguingly kickstarted his career with Thai cuisine. “Post your graduation, you usually join the establishment you’re placed at, and that’s how I started at Thai Pavilion (Taj President, Mumbai),” he says. From grasping the ropes of running a kitchen & interacting with guests at Thai Pavilion, to enchanting Delhi with his prowess at Oriental Octopus (India Habitat Centre), Chef Manish built a name for himself acing the Pan-Asian cuisine. So at what point did the shift to innovative Indian fare come about? “I got the opportunity to realise my vision for Indian food while I was working for Old World Hospitality (Oriental Octopus). They were planning a new restaurant and I spoke with my boss about it, who encouraged me to take the trials for it. So I gave the trials, got selected, and well, here we are!”
Here we are, indeed. From New Delhi to New York, and soon London, Indian Accent stands unrivalled in turning around the perception of our indigenous cuisines and taking it to the far corners of the world. Speaking of his exemplary skill set which spearheaded this feat, we ask what inspires his kitchen exploits, “Being brought up in a pure vegetarian household was very helpful; it made me see that contrary to popular opinion, even simple, vegetarian food can be tasty.” Individual ingredients and “forgotten dishes” continue to stir him and his take on Indian cuisine was in response to his observations during travel escapades, “Indian food isn’t seen in a good light abroad, it doesn’t have the same respect as other international cuisines. I wanted to change that and bring Indian food the respect that it deserves.” There’s no denying that Chef Mehrotra has revamped the takeout Indian curry into a fine supper & tipples affair with flair, on what went behind channeling this change he says, “We wanted to make people aware that Indian food is not limited to Chicken Tikka Masala and Naan, and provide patrons with an experience that urges them to speak about it with others. We have so many unexplored Indian cuisines and dishes, and that’s what we’re trying to bring to the world audience.” While he is pleased that several new establishments are taking this cause forward, the chef endorses maintaining a distance from forced culinary fusion, “The key is for your dish to have a story. There has to be a reason behind why you’re mixing two cuisines, the dish should make sense and not be a vague fusion,” quips the maestro.
It’s not just our western counterparts to whom Chef Manish introduced a new avatar of Indian dining; even back home in the tony lanes of New Friends Colony, he’s successfully made wine a staple on the supper table. We delve into what made him take the atypical path of pairing the nectar of the gods with Indian fare, “Usually Indian food isn’t paired with wine because it’s overtly spicy and oily. At Indian Accent, we cook the way people do at their homes. We use ghee, butter, and spices, but in a way that enhances the flavour of the dish rather than overpowering it – and that’s why our food is easy to pair with wine.” Laurels aside, Chef Manish is known for catapulting the revolution of inculcating everyday ingredients into fine dining, “I do it in an interesting and unique way, it’s about making it appealing to the customer. For example, everyone told me no will eat karela, but I paired it with prawns and gradually it became one of the most loved dishes on the menu. Just like the khichdi and Dal Moradabadi.” When few years back no one had dreamt of serving such everyday dishes at a fine-dine restaurant, these humble ingredients now find a place on many a menus across the country: Q.E.D. the chef’s claim.
Given his extensive experience in the Indian and international F&B milieu, coupled with him being a forbearer of change in the business, we speak of the elements of the international industry that should be incorporated into our own, “More professionalism. Be it the chefs, the staff, or the owners – everybody doing the job they’re supposed to do, that’s it.” We follow that up with the one element of Indian hospitality that can add to the international dining landscape according to him, “A more personalised touch. More khatirdaari,” Chef Manish shares.
As the growing culinary globalisation seeks to make this exchange of values a reality, Chef Mehrotra readies his chef’s whites to pitch his next flag in the culinary metropolis – London. As the chef preps to set shop on Albemarle Street, Mayfair, we dish out the signature DSSC Rapid Fire.
Last day on earth – what dish will you eat?
Khichdi or Maggi.
One up & coming chef we should take note of?
One culinary trend you wish would end ASAP?
The next F&B trend that’s going to take the world by the storm?
Back to basics – simple and uncomplicated dishes done to perfection.
One cookbook every chef should have on their kitchen counter?
The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit.
One pro-tip for budding chefs?
For the first five years, forget everything in life. No girlfriend, no boyfriend, no festivals, no mom, no dad!
Your favourite perk of the job?
I get to meet amazing people, travel the world, and of course, great food.
And the worst pitfall?
No family life.
One chef whose craft never ceases to inspire you?
Chef Rick Stein.
This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace industry disruptors who map its course one masterstroke at a time.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of DSSC & its affiliates.
Image Courtesy: indianaccent.com