Chef Priyam Chatterjee: Of Apron, Drums, And A Poetic Imagination at Qla

The rockstar-haired gent from West Bengal, who resembles The Weeknd, can often be seen playing drums in Qla’s courtyard. While enjoying a jazz concert in the capital, you’re very likely to find this music aficionado sitting next to you and grooving to the tunes. Though music is his passion, the true calling of the Chef-Patron and Restaurant Director at Qla, the fine dining restaurant that serves European, Italian, and Spanish cuisine, lies in studying the art and science of food. Say namas-slay to Priyam Chatterjee who represented India as the semi-finalist of S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 in Singapore. Born in Kolkata, the chef who represents his roots with pride grew up enjoying Ghoti and Bangal food (from two social subgroups in West Bengal) at his home. “My earliest memory of cooking is the baked hilsa I learnt from Ma (mother),” recollects Priyam, who prepared for a career in the Army. Cooking was not on the cards. However, a personal setback left him with two options,“to take to drugs or to put all my emotions on the plate.” No prizes for guessing the path he chose, save for the food you taste upon your next reservation.

Donning the apron may not have been his first preference, but his tryst with food began early. Chef Priyam often reminisces about jaunts to the bazaar with his Baba (father) to carry home the catch of the day along with fresh seasonal produce. “I spent a good part of my childhood at Dr. Graham’s Homes, a boarding school in Kalimpong, where we were exposed to the many ways of life. The food we ate was sprinkled with Western influences – quiches using free range chickens, stews for weekend lunches! Our school had a greenhouse where we were taught gardening to understand the farm-to-fork process,” shares the chef. Thankful to everyone who crossed his path at various phases of his journey – from the mentors who coached him to develop a strong skill set to the artists who kindle his creativity – everyone finds a note of gratitude on his Instagram feed.

The dynamite chef who equates an excruciating 20-hour session in the kitchen to paradise, has been on an incessant rollercoaster ride since his culinary school days. He met his mentor Chef Jean Claude Fugier at Park Hyatt Hotel, where he kick-started his career. “Chef Jean Fugier is my godfather; he held my hand and taught me how to cook. He also introduced me to the basics of French cuisine. I was like a sponge absorbing everything that came my way, from focussing on produce to honing my technique. It (the training) shaped who I am today,” shares Chatterjee.

Having shared the kitchen shelf with French Chef Ernest Darren Alford, Spanish Chef Royo Matteo Grandi, and Italian maestro Gualtiero Marchesi, Chef Priyam summarizes the experiences as follows, “Each chef brings a unique outlook to the table. It is an honour to have worked closely with them and see how they treat the produce. Seeing the kitchen from their perspective widens that of the person training under them, but after a point you do have to cultivate your own style.”

He’s had the privilege of working at the Oman outpost of the legendary Fauchon Paris, reviewed by Gault Millau, closely watched by Michelin-starred chefs; a sum collation of experiences that he takes as cue to work even harder. “Pride is destructive,” he quips. His camaraderie with legendary chefs and peers is apparent as he is often seen hopping over next door to Lavaash by Saby’s kitchen headed by friend Megha Kohli; discussing drum kits with Chef Gaggan Anand; or chugging a few beers and forging friendships with colleagues from S.Pellegrino.

Like many artists, the cat-loving chef takes influence from the world around him. While his dishes will astound you with their masterful plating, what makes them really stand apart is the strong narrative behind their conception. Whether it is the clouds floating outside an aircraft window or the artists and the artwork he admires, his imagination has no bounds. An avid follower of art, he often acknowledges the influences of Jackson Pollock, Maqbool Fida Hussain, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Van Gogh by naming the dishes, whose plating is inspired by their works, in their honour. He strokes his Dali-esque moustache as he tells us about his creation Following a Bird that is based on Ezio Bosso’s namesake song. The contents of the plate, a sous vide baby duck breast in truffles, a sauce of rosemary and raspberry, and dehydrated leek ash, are laid out in the shape of a bird. Priyam, who describes his cooking style as rooted yet eclectic, says, “Cooking is an art. It cannot be defined by a sauce or a soufflé or a pie. A dish one makes should appeal to the palate, look tantalizing, and pump the brain.”

When you’re cooking and plating food, it brings along feedback and reviews. In an era in which social media accommodates all reviews and reviewers and in which everybody is a critic, the inked chef shares, “I acknowledge reviews with patience and an open mind, keeping the good and leaving the bad. What I like to cook is not what you may like to eat. So I’d love to cook what you’d like to eat as that is the only way both ends can come together harmoniously.”

Priyam, who posts pictures of his dishes and daily moves on Instagram feels, “Food shouldn’t be made for Instagram. It is a platform where you share your daily activities. During this process, if you like what is on your plate, you take a picture, and share it.”

Even as he completes an invigorating journey spanning one year and eight months at Qla, the chef keeps his plans for his entrepreneurial sojourn a tightly guarded secret. He lets us in, instead, on the exciting times ahead. “We have five months of back to back collaborations coming up. The first one took place in January when Chef Jake Kellie from Burnt Ends, the Australian BBQ grill restaurant in Singapore showcased some signature dishes from the restaurant along with native dishes, and we at Qla did what we do,” he shares.

While the kitchen preps for another day, Chatterjee unwinds after long hours by listening to jazz and hitting the gym. That he may be struck by another remarkable idea in the gym is a possibility we are not ruling out yet. The few hours that he spends outside the kitchen are used in penning a compilation of eight years of his life as a chef. Priyam has titled this part memoir and part recipe book One Cook One Book.

“Like theatre, everything in the restaurant business has to culminate into a performance on the table,” he signs off, as we fire our signature rapid fire shots at him:

 

Which vegetable do you feel is most dynamic?

Leeks. They’re like an open canvas, so nice and umami.

Three Indian dishes you feel are worthy of all the glory in the world?

Aloo Posto & Dal Bhaat; Kosha Mangsho with Luchi; Rogan Josh.

Which chefs inspire you?​

Massimo Bottura, Alexandre Couillon, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Alain Passard, Esben Hombre Bong, Dominique Crenn, Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar, and Jean Claude Fugier.

A favourite food book?

Torn between Cooking Ingredients by Christine Ingram and White Heat by Marco Pierre White.

Your go-to comfort food?

Mutton Rezala at Lavaash by Saby and all the dishes at Cafe Lota.

A culinary trend on the rise currently?

Pretence.