Where does India stand when it comes to experimenting with food?
Paul Kinny: With the evolution of television and thanks to people like Shailendra, the chef’s profession is little respectable today. Everyone has become a masterchef. There is a thin line between fusion and confusion, and you need to tread carefully. Chefs create these weird combinations, which goes on to become a trend. But the question is, ‘Is it here to stay?’ If you’re able to develop a line of cuisine which interests chefs and consumers alike, then the battle is won. The most important thing in fusion cuisine is to have in-depth knowledge of both the cuisines.
Amninder Sandhu: I think there’s a lot of experimentation happening with Indian food right now. It’s a good time for us because the whole world is warming up to our food and trying our regional cuisines. Indian food is represented a lot better than it used to be five years ago. Back then, only North Indian food was considered Indian food. At me restaurant Arth, I use I use ingredients like Moringa leaves from Nagaland, and leaves of the schezwan peppercorn, which you don’t generally recognise as an Indian ingredients. You’d associate schezwan peppercorn with South East Asian food, but it’s Indian, People are trying to add that cool quotient to it, to make it more fun it because they want to attract youngsters who don’t want to eat Indian food.
Shailendra Kekade: I think it’s a great that a lot of ingredients from across the country are coming into play in menus with something as simple as moringa or methi leaves. We’ve been so busy to ape the West that we’ve lost everything we had as heritage in terms of cuisine. Every 100 km you travel in India, you’ll find a different flavour, there’s so much to cook within India itself. We just need be careful about how we marry one ingredient with another, or play with another kind of food to bring in the perfect balance of taste and flavour. Paul mentioned about ‘confusion and fusion’, but many times when we’ve ended up with something really bizarre and it has worked, so you can’t set a rule. Everything boils down to knowing your ingredients and techniques well.
Due to social media there is more focus on how the plate looks rather than how the food tastes. How much does the visual element influence you?
Shailendra: It’s happening because we’ve reached that point where we want to wear Prada instead of a regular brand. Likewise in food, we’ve reached the space where we want to have good looking stuff. It’s vanity.
Paul: When I started my career 25 years back, asparagus and babycorn were the only exotic ingredients we used in Zodiac Grill at The Taj Mumbai. For me, food has to be tasty. You can do anything with the micro greens, edible flowers and all that, but if it doesn’t taste good, it’s a lost battle. Having said that, looks are very important because you first eat with your eyes. Look at the options available for serving food today— stone, marble, wood, glass or anything you want. Also, in the age of social media, a million people look at the same dish at the same time. But it’s double the disappointment if a good looking dish doesn’t taste good.
Amninder: I think MasterChef Australia has a big role to play in why people want to see good plates. And Instagram ofcourse. If I start charging people at my restaurants for the number of selfies they click, I will make more money. Now people have discerning tastebuds, they are well travelled, they know what food in the rest of the world looks like so they expect that back home. But finally it all comes down to the taste and if a restaurant gives you tasty food which also look good, then it’s a good combination.
We have breakfast for dinner, dinner for lunch— just salads and soups as meals. Is this healthy?
Paul: India stands second when it comes to heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure and all kinds of lifestyle diseases. So, it’s high time people took care of their health. People associate healthy food with being non-tasty, which isn’t necessarily true. If you cook the right way, choose your ingredients correctly, use proper cooking methods, there’s nothing unhealthy about it. Don’t go with the fad of ‘organic’ because in India there’s no body which certifies if a particular ingredient is organic or not. Healthy eating is the next big thing. We will see lot of health cafes coming up.
Amninder: Healthy eating in India is all about Western food. People still don’t know that there are lot of healthy options in Indian cuisine, untill the West tells us. Like Turmeric Latte, which is basically haldi-doodh is a trend now. I look for ghee made from the milk of a grass-fed cow because someone told me it’s rich in Omega 3.
Shailendra: Ayurveda taught us to have our last meal before sunset because you’re supposed to get up at 4 am to do yoga and meditation. By 8 am, you should’ve already had your first meal, and then a minimalist second meal, post which a virtually non-existent third meal. But because of our lifestyle, experts are now addressing the fact that we need to have small meals every two hours. We need to eat according to what is seasonal and local. Coffee is not indigeneous, and it’s addictive, but today we think it’s cool to go to Starbucks and have a Rs 300 worth coffee, which might not be the right thing for you to consume. We are a tea drinking country and need to remain that, but drinking tea is uncool.
With more chefs using ingredients like tofu and quinoa, do you think we’re headed to be a plant-based protein food eating nation?
Shailendra: India has always been a vegetarian country and I don’t think our ancestors ever had a problem with having less protein. It’s just that right now we don’t know what vegetarian ingredients have how much protein content, so we came up with paneer! But panner has more of fat than protein. Nobody thinks of using pulses as a source of protein.
Arminder: Veganism is big in the West, since we always ape them, it’s going to be a big thing here too. I think veganism will be a big rage followed by a peak and then it will die off.
Paul: For people with lactose intolerance, problems with gluten, and certain diseases, veganism is the new way forward.
Is it a challenge to keep coming up with something new for patrons because a lot of people are repeat customers?
Amninder: It is very challenging. Sometimes as a chef I feel I am expected to be a machine that one will press a button and I will throw a new menu out which has all the dishes which you have never heard of. It is very demanding. And we also have to change the menu a lot more frequently than what we did earlier. Now every three months, we do a Saturday brunch, Sunday brunch. If this is the season, this is the ingredient, put this on the menu. I have realised that I am making menus all the time. Then you travel to get your inspiration as that helps you create something new and add that novelty factor to your menu.
Shailendra: It is actually a fun space to be in to do all this jazz. Not that it is not taxing, it does take a lot of energy. The best things we have done were for ourselves. But then if someone says, ‘Give me something new now’,we are lost.
In terms of recipes, do chefs copy each other?
Shailendra: It does not happen in a good way. It is weird. I had chef friend who came in and told me the things he was going to copy which is okay because I knew he was just going to take inspiration and not copy. But there are people who simply copy dishes.
Paul: Imitation is the best form of flattery. That keeps you thinking more, keeps you on your toes. You keep thinking if someone has to copy my dish, how will I own the dish by making it differently. You have to think two steps ahead. As long as you are able to add your touch to it you are going to make it differently. Also creativity cannot be forced but it needs to make a business sense.
How do you find inspiration to innovate?
Shailendra: I travel at least six times in a year to weird places and come back with some idea in my head. We don’t have the time to watch TV and there are no great cookery books nowadays too.
Paul: The first cookery book I bought was The Prashad. It cost me Rs 500 when I was earning around Rs 1600-1800. I haven’t seen a good cook book in a long time. It’s important for us to travel and experience the food around. Today the business of F&B is not just about good food or good ambiance. It’s about creating an experience for people to go back with memories. Everything right from the time they enter your restaurant to their exit, has to have made good memories for them to come back again. Good food is available even on the streets. So why will someone come to your restaurant? Because they want to go back with memories. And that’s something you can’t figure out watching videos on YouTube. Also, while you can see how a dish is being made on the internet or TV, you don’t know how it actually tastes.
How much does a person’s mood affect what they’re cooking?
Shailendra: A person’s mood affects their cooking a hundred per cent! We’re actually thinking of making meditation a norm for the kitchen staff because it’s become a very high-pressure job. If you go back to Ayurveda, you’ll know that back then people used to chant mantras when they were cooking. Even now there are certain brands of ghee and chavanprash which are made while somebody is singing certain mantras. Back in the day, people used to consume everything with a little prayer because water has memory, food being cooked has memory.
Amninder: That’s why the langar food at gurudwaras tastes so different. You cannot replicate that taste at home. But unfortunately, there is no thought given to the mental wellbeing of professionals in this industry. We are just expected to be machines. You could be having the worst day of your life and you’re still expected to be smiling.
What do you think of the future of the food industry in India?
Shailendra: This industry is dying, or reaching a very weird space because people don’t want to work here anymore. Many people are doing hotel management, but after their course, they don’t stick to the job. We are going to reach a point where we won’t have people, so we’ll have to rely on packets of tomato paste instead of freshly chopped tomatoes. I met a guy 15 years ago who was trying to sell me packets of premixes, and I literally shooed him away saying that we make fresh food. Now, I’m desperately searching for his number. Indian society has never considered dignity of labour. People have always looked down upon servers, cleaners, cooks. They think that anyone who is a steward or a cook is there because he couldn’t become a doctor or an engineer.
Amninder: There’s a study that says a server’s job is a lot more stressful than a neurosurgeon’s because they’re dealing with idiosyncrasies of prejudiced people on a daily basis.
Paul: People come with a pre-conceived notions that this industry is glamourous and then get disillusioned.
Shailendra: You really have to chop onions here, onions don’t chop themselves (laughs).
Amninder: Since the whole scene is evolving with people expecting tasty food that is also pretty-looking, they should also be sensitised to people who are working in this industry. In India we are not accustomed to do a summer job, kids don’t lift a finger at home, so they become adults who feel that a chef at a restaurant is equivalent to the bawarchi they have at home.
Paul: Have you ever wondered why so much of the staff is North Eastern in this industry? Because locals will not work in a restaurant. It’s supposed to be below their dignity.
Amninder: I had a friend who owned tea states in Assam but because he didn’t want to stay there since it’s not developed, there are no malls or nightclubs, he worked at a call centre in Mumbai.
What is the one meal you’d like to come home to?
Shailendra: Bhakri and Matkichi Usal
Amninder: Mutton curry and rice.
Paul: Fish curry and bhakri, or simple dal, chawal, achar, papad. It’s not like we’re eating caviar everyday.