I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost
Whatever might have been Frost's state of mind when he penned down the above lines, the verse aptly describes the culinary journey of Chef Manish Mehrotra. The struggle, the apprehension dogging his footsteps on the chosen road, the voice in his head urging him to retrace the path he had decided to walk down and his final emergence as a successful culinary giant of the famed line of Indian Accent restaurants, Manish has seen all. Declared as the 'most exciting modern Indian chef in the world today', besides being honoured with a score of awards for his culinary expertise and skill, Manish has literally recharacterized the destiny of traditional Indian cuisine by incorporating global techniques and influences in his creations.
In an exclusive interview with Ekta Bhargava, Publisher – Better Kitchen Chef Manish Mehrotra traces his journey right from the sprouting of his career to his penchant of lending global attributes to Indian cuisine and finally to the laying of the foundation stone of his signature Indian Accent restaurants far and wide.
How did you start your hotel journey?
Allow me to start with a few words on my background. It may help you and others to understand the entire curve from its point of initiation to where I stand at present. I essentially hail from Patna, Bihar and belong to a vegetarian household. As for any inspiration from my family propelling me towards food industry, I can think of none since except a few cousins who owned a few sweet shops, there wasn't anyone whom I could look upon for stimulus. Even on the family front, we weren't used to of the concept of venturing out too often as traditionally all the delectable were prepared at home. Hence, there wasn't any special call to pull me out of my happy cocoon and push me towards the greener pastures.
The change set in when a cousin or two got into the hotel industry that lured me to join the newly sprouted career in 1993. Another driving force was my lack of interest in academics and a distaste to work at my father's petrol pump. That's how I ended up joining the culinary industry.
Talking of the initial period of my chosen field, I have no qualms in admitting that I thought I had committed a blunder opting for kitchen as a specialization. Anyhow, it is not unusual for anything new or unattempt to appear difficult in the beginning but the same task goes on to become easier as we grow in experience. So was it in my case. Eventually I fell in love with my specialization!
I may add that while I was struggling to find my feet in the new domain, I met with loads of negativity with people advising me to go back to my lucrative family business but I refused to shirk away from my chosen path. Now, when I think back, I am glad that I found the requisite strength to resist the brigade of antagonism or I wouldn't be where I am today.
Where have you done your training from?
I have done my training from IHM, Mumbai. It is also known as Dadar Catering College.
Coming to the kitchen side of the hotel industry, how did you plan and visualize it?
Before joining the hotel industry, I was under the illusion that the hospitality industry was steeped in glamour. After becoming a part of the industry, I realized that the reality was far different. For the diners, dining in a 5-star hotel is an exclusive experience or say an episode that leaves a pleasant hangover for days to come.
In contrast, a busy day in the same hotel means endless effort and work for the kitchen staff entrusted with the job of catering to the continual culinary demands to perfection. In other words, more fun and celebration in the restaurant means a super busy day in the kitchen. Here the responsibility of the chef grows manifold as it falls on him to fathom the culinary psyche of the customer and satiate the taste buds of the concerned.
How do you rate the taste of food which is going to be cooked in the kitchen and served at the table? How much weightage do you give to both cooking and serving?
There is no way that we can afford to serve at the table what we haven't tasted ourselves. The philosophy operating here is that as a cuisinier, how can I expect my guests to approve of what I have rustled up if I don't approve of the same myself? Infect, this is a very important aspect of our trade and I make it a point to drill the gravity of the same in my chefs as well. 'You should be able to enjoy eating what you have cooked”.
Another crucial aspect is that the quality of the food must match the money shelled out to enjoy the grub. As a chef, I must question myself if the food served in my outlet leaves a lingering flavor in the mind of the customer strong enough to pull him back where he doesn't mind paying that much money? In the end, the chef must be satisfied and comfortable with what he is doing and enjoy tasting his own food.
As for serving, 'I give more importance to serving than cooking many a times.' As a culinary artist, I firmly believe that an ideal chef must know how to taste, cook and finally and most importantly serve with respect and warmth. You may be the best chef in the world, capable of knocking up the best dishes in the world; however, if you lack the knack of serving, you are gone for a toss. The servers must be trained to turn each guest experience into “ideal guest experience.”
“Customers crave recognition and acknowledgment.” - Danny Meyer
How did the idea of Indian Accent generate and how you did you manage to implement it as a successful restaurant?
The idea of Indian Accent developed while I was working with the same company in London where I observed particularly in New York and London how international cuisines were so well represented. The next thing I knew was that I wanted to locate Indian cuisine on their culinary map and at par with other cuisines. This included the proper representation of Indian regional food that the new enlightened customer with evolved taste buds and preferences could relate to. For instance, years back, eating raw fish would have raised eyebrows but today Sushi is one of the most sought after dish in Japanese cuisine. So by the same standards, I felt that the entire spectrum of regional Indian food needed to be represented in a way that people all over the world were able to relate to it globally as Indian global food. This is how The Indian Accent originated.
Brief us on modern Indian food?
Honestly speaking, there is no expression like Modern Indian food. When we use the term 'Modern', the expression implies redefining traditional Indian preparations without losing their authenticity. For example, people no longer want to opt for a dish whose authentic taste is camouflaged by the use of superfluous spices and oil. Hence modern food typifies the process of reviving and rediscovering traditional Indian dishes in a manner where each ingredient gets a chance to be exhibited individually in a much refined manner. It also implies retaining the original texture and color combination of the food so as not to lose its flavor and authenticity.
Other than that, no two Indian cuisines are to be used together. The combination has to be sensible and acceptable.
What is the role of presentation in the current scenario? Can you please brief us on the latest trend and how are the chefs working on this?
The role of presentation in any given cuisine is unparalleled. You know what they say, “Before the food touches your tongue, you've already tasted it.” This is to say that your customer visually tastes your food long before tasting in his mouth. Having said that, flavor is more important. You just can't compromise with the flavor. I try to ingrain the same in the minds of my chefs who have a penchant for presentation and thus tend to prioritize presentation over flavor.
Flavor is created by a balanced combination of food, cooking techniques along with seasonings and perceived through the collective experience of our senses when we eat, but particularly through aroma, taste and food textures. Hence, developing flavor must be mastered in order to produce great tasting cuisine.
Whereas trends are concerned, because of the lockdown there is an increased focus on gourmet delivery food which comes with the challenge of retaining the aroma, texture and the taste of the dish for a longer period. So, gourmet delivery food is the flavor at the moment.
What is the philosophy of eating healthy staying healthy?
For me, a healthy body is not a product of your eating habits but of lifestyle change. That is to say that you can eat everything that has been created by the universe from the perspective of maintaining a healthy body but in moderation and at the correct time.
Another pivotal point is that food isn't going to help you to gain or shed weight. You have to incorporate some type of exercise regimen in your lifestyle. Hence, my definition of staying healthy includes eating at the right time within limits and exercising regularly to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
How do you implement the same in your restaurants?
To be honest, ours is an indulgence restaurant. By way of explanation, people come to us to celebrate. Consequently we are expected to come up with nice palatable indulgent dishes. However, despite using rich cooking mediums like ghee, butter, we never go overboard. Every ingredient is used in moderation. In addition, we make it a point to use perfectly sourced ingredients and fresh seasonal ingredients in our recipes to retain maximum nutritional benefits. Good quality produce is the topmost priority at our restaurant kitchen. Processed food has no place in our spectrum of recipes. Thereupon, this is precisely how we take care of the health quotient in our restaurant.
Some ingredients are only taste enhancers and not good for health. What are the steps that may be taken to avoid using them in recipes in restaurants where guests are going for the taste exclusively?
It may interest you to know that there are thousands of natural ingredients that take care of your health and are excellent flavor enhancers in the same go. Take for example ingredients like garlic, parmesan cheese and mushroom. These are a few amongst the huge plethora of ingredients that can be effectually incorporated in a particular dish. They add to the nutritional value of the food while enhancing the flavor and are a great choice for every chef's kitchen.
What is the scope and trends for frozen foods in future?
Frozen food is a great asset in prevailing times when people are stuck indoors. Besides, it is far better than harmful processed food. I am of the opinion that if it has been done in a clean hygienic environment with a reputed brand, there should be no qualms about consuming frozen food. Case in point is Sushi which is a good quality fish from Japan available in frozen form. It follows that frozen food that adheres to the desired quality guidelines is safe to consume and is here to stay.
What are your suggestions to create uniqueness in your menu?
The most essential aspect when one is looking to create something unique is to abstain from copying. Taking inspiration from different places and people is completely acceptable but in the end, the final product should be a reflection of your individual touch. On the other hand, blindly copying others will eventually result in losing your creativity. My suggestion is that one should endeavor to make new things, seasonal things, something that people haven't seen or tasted before. Your menu should be an index of your distinctive creativity.
Tell us about the Green Practices which must be followed in every commercial kitchen.
First and foremost, all kitchen and personal hygiene norms must be followed to the letter. In restaurants, proper segregation of garbage is indispensable. Other than that, maximum prevention of wastage with uttermost utilization of ingredients is paramount. Apart from this, proper disposal of waste in an environment friendly way plus the use of local ingredients to reduce carbon footprint are some of the vital green practices which must be followed in every commercial kitchen.
With more and more technologies coming up, do you think cooking is going to be more advanced in the coming time?
The advent of new gadgets and technologies is bound to bring a parallel revolution in cooking techniques. As an illustration, we used sil batta for grinding spices in the remote past which is unthinkable now considering the huge increase in the work load and scarcity of time. Hence, mixers and grinders originated reducing the burden and precious time. Another example is the bhatti ovens used way back but gradually replaced by combi ovens. Also take the instance of pressure cooker. Can you envisage an Indian kitchen sans a pressure cooker? Moreover, these gadgets, as mentioned before, save valuable time, energy and are hygienic as well. So, essentially there has been an evolution in the world of kitchen gadgets and technology and all for good.
What are your views on the newly emerged concept of cloud kitchens?
Yes, delivery kitchens are the hot new trend. Owing to the recent lockdown, people all over the world got the food delivered at their homes. Delivery kitchens are a big support at any given time but have their own challenges. Keeping intact the quality of the delivered food is the prime concern in this particular arrangement and as expected, the chefs are working on preserving the quality of the same since delivered food tends to lose its quality. If they manage to control the quality of the food, I would say that delivery kitchens have a great future.
As regard to the exclusive resources unavailable in these kitchens in terms of preservatives and sundry, as business will grow, the resources too shall grow.
It is widely believed that chefs don't disclose their recipes. However, with the new open kitchen concept, where all the mixing and garnishing is done in full view, how do you think the chefs can keep their recipes a secret?
As for me, I simply do not believe in the doctrine of keeping my recipes a secret. On the contrary, passing on the recipes ensures that your creations are not lost to time. Also, everyone is sufficiently enlightened today and have a good hand as well. Thus wise, I share whatever I learn with my chefs. Apart from that, I always advise my juniors to abstain from copying my recipes because my recipes are already out there in the market and hence are not their Individual mark of distinction. However when inspired by my methodology, they create something of their own instead of aping me blindly, that helps them to evolve more as chefs. The idea is not to cook but think like me which will give them the impetus to create more things.
Have you ever got any ideas or inspiration from your guests?
I have been inspired countless times. It has something got to do with the fact that every house in India has a secret recipe which is exclusive to that particular household. The word secret is the keyword here. Since Indian households were steeped neck deep in numberless beliefs that forbade people from entering the kitchen, unfortunately many good recipes died with the people who created them. Indian cuisine has always suffered despite being older than French cuisine because it wasn't documented properly and hence many good recipes did not see the light of the day. Therefore I always inspire my chefs to share their recipes on social media as much as possible so that their creations last eternally. That's why I am open to inspiration from any guest who cares to share their knowledge on a specific food item and try to incorporate the same in my preparation. It is always a new learning day for me.
Share your fun moments in the kitchen.
There are plenty of fun moments in the kitchen that crease us up. As an example, though we are professional chefs yet we burn things all the time. The best part is when the juniors make fun behind our backs and comment that even chefs burn their food which is hilarious. So there are all sorts of fun moments in the kitchen. At times you get a funny order that just doesn't exist in the menu which brings the house down in the kitchen. These moments are a big help as they give a respite from the endless stress and makes those working in the kitchen more comfortable and relaxed.
Do you help your better half when she is in kitchen?
My wife, when alive, was the master of the kitchen. I lost her to cancer last year. She was also a chef. As for me I don't ever cook at home. She was the one who used to take care of household things including the kitchen.
There has been a growing trend of home chefs entering the market with their home cooked menus. What are your views on the same and its future?
I am all for the concept of home chefs. At the same time, I ask my chefs to maintain the distinctive character of their creations. For instance, if one plan to sell chole bature, there must be some add on like salad, pickle, or maybe garnishing to characterize one's creation marking it different from others. Hence, when you include an ingredient that's unique to your household, your food ends up being unique.
How do you maintain a proper work life balance?
To be honest, it's tough to strike a proper work life balance in the hospitality industry. This is especially true as you start out in this trade but as you go higher and reach the top level positions, you can afford to relax with spare time at hand. Anyhow I have made certain changes in my lifestyle lately. For instance, I have started walking and have also rescheduled my eating timings on the recommendation of my doctor. As for the tips on managing the high stress level, I always tell the younger brigade that it is super important to retain their composure at work and make every effort to keep stress at bay since that could be ominous for their career.
Who is your current favorite chef and why?
I have favorites all over the world but am especially inspired by the new young chefs like Prateek from Mumbai, Himanshu Saini in Dubai, Chef Hussain in Mumbai canteen and Saransh Koyla whom I find very hard working. I am confident that these chefs and the likes are the future Indian food which is very good.
Do you eat out quite often? Which places do you prefer?
I eat out lots. However, I am more of a craving centric person. For example, one day I'll want to eat a specific dish and the next day, it'll be something else I'll be hankering after. Accordingly the outlets frequented keep changing with my preferences.
Do you want to give any message to our readers about the kitchen? How can they make their favorite kitchen?
I must profess that this question is very close to my heart. That's because one day, I also want to make my dream kitchen. However, my advice to those aspiring to make a good, working and a functional kitchen is to pre decide the place for each and every item and gadget that you plan to include in your kitchen. One of the ground rules irrespective of the kitchen size is that it should be uncluttered and conducive for work. “Everything in its own place” is the golden mantra here. Organized and uncluttered kitchen makes you want to spend time in kitchen instead of stressing you out.
Secondly and most importantly, every corner of the kitchen must be accessible to ease cleaning. Besides, your space must be well lit, not necessarily by sunlight, to enable you to see clearly what you are cooking and the ingredients you are using in your dish. The idea is that you should be able to see your creation. Proper visualization sets a mood and adds to the creative energy needed for any given culinary task.