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From the by-lanes of Bihar to the Broadway of the culinary world, Chef Manish Mehrotra is a name to be reckoned with – India’s beacon of hope bringing glory back to Indian food through fine-dine.
The man behind the only restaurant in India to be featured on S. Pellegrino World’s 100 Best Restaurants List and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017 really needs no introduction. Chef Manish Mehrotra and his flagship restaurant Indian Accent have triumphantly positioned India on the world food map, rekindling Indian flavours across global palates — one inventive Indian dish at a time.
While I remain sat at his landmark restaurant in the heart of New Delhi watching the camera lens zoom in on our visibly camera-shy star chef, to think of a young, vegetarian Manish Mehrotra secretly relishing boiled eggs on the terrace of his ‘strictly vegetarian’ family house in Patna, Bihar seems like a scene out of a movie. Undoubtedly, he has come a long way since. Mehrotra’s career spanning over two decades finds its humble beginnings back to his IHM Mumbai-days where he pursued a degree in Hotel Management but took extreme liking to all the action in the kitchen and food production. “Travelling is very important for a chef because travelling gives you first-hand experience of so many different foods and flavours. It brings you so many ideas,” he says, reminiscing his travels across Asia, a time when he simultaneously trained in Pan-Asian cuisine.
Indian Accent’s launch at The Manor, New Delhi, in 2009 was the result of this nine-year long culinary journey. Little did anyone realize at the time it would quietly, and rather unsuspectingly, usher a new era of Indian cuisine and Indian fine-dine. For a substantially long time now, Indian food has been looked at with serious judgement and uncertainty all around the world. This gross misinterpretation of an underexplored cuisine with world class potential trickles down to two basic reasons, says Mehrotra: “The first misconception is what Indians think about Indian food. The second is what non-Indians think about Indian food. Non-Indians think of Indian food as a cheap, greasy take-away which is spicy, oily, curry based food. This is not true. Indians on the other hand, harbour misconceptions about our own country. There are some mental blocks. They think South Indian only eat idly, dosa, sambar; Bengalis eat only fish, Gujaratis eat very sweet food; and that Biharis don’t get to eat anything! So there are a lot that has been misunderstood, and quite frankly not true. But this is changing … Indian Accent is trying to change that. We have so many dishes from all parts of India, whether it’s Bengal, Gujarat, South India, from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana. India is a big country and all these regional identities and flavours find a place in Indian Accent’s menus. In absolute terms, it’s a symphonic amalgamation of all Indian cuisines,” declares Mehrotra.
With Indian Accent consecutively featuring on the annual Restaurant Magazine’s World’s 50 Best and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Mehrotra’s rendition of a revolutionary contemporary Indian menu clearly hit the right notes amongst global diners and critics alike, and has paved the road to change that globally. “I received an email, which was followed by a call announcing the restaurant’s entry on the list. It felt great! Until that moment, I’d only heard of the various ranking tables and never thought I’d be on the list one day. I first shared the big news with my colleagues, my team, and my service people. They’re the ones who really work hard to get this,” shares Mehrotra.
“Globally, Indian food has not achieved the level of respect it deserves. That is my ultimate goal – to bring more respect to Indian food.”
Speaking of his most powerful influences, both personally and professionally, Mehrotra clears, “there isn’t just one particular individual” who defines his cooking. “There are however a few chefs I really look up to and am inspired by their work. Rick Stein of UK, Chef Ananda Solomon, are right up there. From among my contemporaries, there are too many. Gresham Fernandez is one of the most talented young chefs in India. There’s Gaggan (Anand) in Bangkok and also Chef Naren Thimmaiah of Karavalli, Bangalore, both doing something amazing in their own way.” Mehrotra’s style of cooking deeply mirrors him — humble, grounded, and most importantly, deeply connected to his roots. “I’m from Bihar, so naturally litti found its way on my menu. We’ve done sattu paratha stuffed with jalapeño, capers, and olives and served these at many outdoor events outside India,” adds Chef Manish.
It has been over a year since Indian Accent New York opened doors and to everyone’s delight, “Indian Accent New York is ranked no. #5 on Trip Advisor’s overall ranking for restaurants in New York. It is ranked the no. #1 Indian restaurant in New York and is also featured as the no. #1 Indian restaurant on various other established listings. However, being part of the ‘Top Five’ and being no. #5 in all of New York according to Trip Advisor is a very very big achievement,” shares an ever so modest Mehrotra albeit with a spark of excitement, enthusiasm, and pride that is not just hard to ignore but extremely contagious. A sense of pride and accomplishment momentarily fills the air and immediately makes me wonder if and when this hard earned recognition will finally capture the attention of the most definitive global hallmark of fine dining quality and restaurant, the ‘Michelin Guide’. “Definitely! Every chef wishes for that sort of recognition. So do I. But until it happens, every day, when guests come into my restaurant and feel happy about the entire experience, I am happy.” And I instantaneously realize that while Mehrotra is no different than any chef worth ‘his’ mettle, he is also a very content man for whom, perhaps, ‘AtithiDevoBhava’ or ‘Guest is God’ is quite fitting.
New York being the ultimate melting pot of cultures and experiences has influenced the master chef in ways more than words can capture. “Cooking is something that you can never learn all at once. It takes a lifetime. In New York I’ve learnt many things, seen so many new things, so many new ingredients, especially things like crabs, and live soft shell crabs, and similar produce.”
With New York’s success under his belt, Mehrotra is now gearing for the restaurant’s next global chapter — Indian Accent London. “London is a different kind of challenge. The London market is slightly more evolved in terms of Indian food than New York. Plus, London is home to some amazing chefs. So Indian Accent London is definitely a big challenge ahead of us and we’ll do our best,” he says.
“The new trend for me is‘going back to the basics’ — getting home dishes and changing it to a fine-dine dish.”
One brand, three continents, each at a different stage in its reception of modern ‘inventive Indian cuisine’ cannot exist without its fair share of challenges, especially in the cutthroat world stage of fine-dine culinary. “The most challenging thing is to maintain consistency. The goal is for every dish to taste exactly the same irrespective of its serving address. Maintaining consistency means having to train people properly and a lot of my time goes into training, checking, and rechecking what my team is doing.” And while “every plate served at Indian Accent is a delicate balance between the traditional and the modern,” innovation takes centerstage in this ever-evolving industry, remarks Mehrotra. “Keep doing your research. Keep your eyes and ears open and keep thinking about it. You get ideas and then you implement those ideas. I read a lot. I travel a lot. That helps. Every dish has an equal amount of work that goes behind it and every dish is a challenge. The focus lies not in the fusion but for it to work well with our guests. Achieving that successfully is the biggest challenge.”
Mehrotra is ‘the’ chef who’s got the world eating and appreciating Indian food, but surprisingly his
mantra is rather simple — that his food is not just for food connoisseurs but also for anyone reading this and also about his/her parents enjoying the same meal at Indian Accent. “I make sure my food is suited for every palate,” he says, with an air of nonchalance. As clichéd as it may sound, the Chef cites “love” as the most secret ingredient in all cooking. I shake my head half unsure, half expecting I misheard what I just heard. He exclaims again, only this time with even more conviction and vigour than before — “Love. That’s the most secret ingredient. You have to cook a dish the same way you’d make it for yourself — with love. That’s it! When you prepare something for yourself, you make it with love and care,” and that same philosophy has found its way into all his cooking. Speaking of ingredients,
Mehrotra remarks that “there is absolutely nothing that doesn’t work with Indian food — including Western ingredients. Be it foie-gras, or anything else, the only thing is how intelligently you use your ingredients. That is most important”. However, “coconut, chaat masala, garlic, oyster sauce, and cooked coriander” are some all-time favourites that find a permanent place in his inventory. ‘And a tough cookie to crumble?’ I ask — “Bone marrow. It’s quite challenging to work with,” says Chef.
As part of my research while preparing for this interview, I looked up (read: borderline stalked) the Chef’s Instagram page to discover some very exciting news — Chef Manish Mehrotra has been invited to be part of a one-of-a-kind 12 chef line-up to cook in collaboration with Chef Christopher Kostow of America. The charity event ‘Twelve Days of Christmas 2017’ is hosted by The Restaurant at Meadowood (TRAM), a 3* Michelin restaurant in Napa Valley, California and “every year the chef at TRAM invites 12 chefs from different parts of the world to cook their respective foods while utilizing the products and inspiration of the Napa Valley”. A chef a day for 12 days. “I am the only chef from India to ever have been invited for this event,” says Mehrotra with a hint of a smile and a rightfully-earned sense of pride. The moment does not last too long as he instantly begins to talk about a pop-up in Tel Aviv (Israel) in 2016, where, once again, he was the only chef from India. “In January 2018, I am going to be in North Court in London, where apart from Atul Kochar and Vineet Bhatia, who are Indian chefs based in London, I am the only chef from India ever invited.” I sigh in disappointment because unfortunately, in the Indian context, the trend for events of such scale is very nascent or nearly non-existent. “That’s actually quite sad. Such events aren’t happening in India” — Mehrotra exclaims in an almost mournful voice. “Slowly but surely hotels are doing pop-ups and inviting chefs, however there is not a single event where 7–8 masterchefs are invited and given a platform to cook in India. I hope it changes soon.”
Being a celebrity chef has its perks too. The Chef’s profession has quite literally taken him around the world, dining at the finest of fine-dine restaurants, travelling for tastings and inspiration … the list goes on. But it will come to you as a surprise that Mehrotra’s inspiration is not restricted to finer things in life, but is, in fact, ubiquitous. Chef Manish takes immense pleasure discovering local street food from roadside vendors, and any proof we need to validate this can be found all over his Instagram. “Street food has been extremely important and has had a big influence on my cuisine and style of cooking.”
“The new trend for me is ‘going back to the basics’ — getting home dishes and changing it to a fine-dine dish”. “Most recently,” he continues, “we were reinventing the classic bread roll. The simple Indian household snacking staple, which involves no more than a wet slice of bread stuffed with seasoned mashed potato that is deep-fried. This can be
metamorphosed into an exotic dish fit for a fine-dine restaurant. It’s just about understanding the ingredients that would work and pairing them the right way so they all become heroes”. “Heroes” — concludes Mehrotra, but my mind is already racing in a completely different direction. Mehrotra has had his fair share of meeting and dining with today’s who’s who (including the reigning Queen of England), but I’m now itching to find out if a celebrity chef has ever had the kind of effect Rahul Dravid had on me when I met him in the flesh — weak in the knees, shameless, and with no sense of self preservation. I hesitate for a second, but decide to take the plunge and ask him anyway.
“Every guest coming into my restaurant is a celebrity for me, but yes, I was really excited to meet Amitabh Bachchan. I’ve been a big fan since I was a kid and I met him at my restaurant in New Delhi. I’ve met so many noteworthy people in my career of over 20 years but I’ve never asked a celebrity or a guest for a photograph. Amitabh Bachchan is my exception. I feel shy and rather awkward to request anyone for a photograph but in Amitabh Bachchan’s case I was besharam and asked him ‘Can I have a photograph with you?’” he says, beaming with a wide smile. My over imaginative mind pictures a starstruck Manish Mehrotra and I feel a little better about my fangirl moment and quickly pull myself together to focus on the interview. I confess to Chef Manish “I don’t know how to cook. Well, not a lot. Just enough to subsist,” and that his “insights into understanding ingredients are quite enlightening”. Chef immediately jumps in to say, “everybody can make Maggi, at least. And that’s fine, I think”. Not all is lost, I tell myself. “And everybody has their own style of making Maggi,” says Mehrotra, and I couldn’t agree more. Chef manish continues, “I like to make my Maggi myself, bit soupy, with a splash of dark soy sauce or chilli sauce so it’s a little spicy, the usual Maggi masala, and no additional vegetables. I don’t like Maggi made by anyone else except my own.” Hear Hear!
“I’ve met so many noteworthy people in my career of over 20 years but I’ve never asked a celebrity or a guest for a photograph. Amitabh Bachchan is my exception.”
Moving from the basics to the next big thing in the hospitality industry, Mehrotra believes “Indian food will become more famous and get more respect. Globally, Indian food has not achieved the level of respect it deserves. That is my ultimate goal — to bring more respect to Indian food”. And while he takes one step closer to realising that goal, the next big move from the master chef come as Indian Accent New Delhi moving out of its 8-year-old address at The Manor to a new home at The Lodhi New Delhi. I ambitiously ask, “a brand new menu?” “No,” says Chef Manish Mehrotra, “but I can tell you there will be a menu with a lot of new dishes.
Indian Accent is not a new restaurant. It’s an 8-year -old restaurant in New Delhi that’s simply changing its address. Our signature dishes and the most popular dishes will certainly find a place,” he adds. We’ve tried to create as good an ambience as we’ve had here at The Manor. But, of course, it’ll be a new one. Let’s see!” concludes Chef Manish Mehrotra.
A QUICKIE with Chef Manish Mehrotra
- Breakfast, lunch or dinner? – Breakfast
- Go–to late night binge? – Bhelpuri and my Scotch / Single malt
- Whisky or wine? – Whiskey
- Buffet or a sit-down dinner? – Buffet. Sit-down’s in India are not that successful
- Edible gold or wearable gold? – Edible gold any day. I don’t wear any jewellery, not even my wedding ring
- Soup or salad? – Soup
- Worst food to eat? – Sweet breads
- Baked or fried? – Fried!!!
- Butter or Olive Oil? Butter, any time
- Favourite fruit? – Mango and Custard Apple
- Favourite dessert? – It’s a competition between hot gulaab jamun with vanilla ice cream and Jalebi with rabri
Q. Your five best restaurant experiences?
- Mathias Dahlgren, Stockholm, Sweden
- Per Se, New York City, New York
- Nobu, London
- Vue de Monde, Melbourne, Australia
- Iggy’s, Singapore
Q. Beside Indian, your favourite cuisine?
I’m not a cuisine favourite person. I’m a craving-centric chef. So I crave for things, not for a cuisine. So sometimes you want chaat, sometimes you want van waala noodles, sometimes you want chicken chilli and sometimes you crave for a nice mushroom risotto. Sometimes you crave for yellow dal and rice. I eat every cuisine but all the above are my favourites.
Q. And one cuisine you feel is overrated…?
I don’t believe any cuisine is overrated. Every cuisine in the world is unique and tasty if prepared the right way. There are trends and styles that are overrated and outdated — molecular gastronomy, for instance.
Q. A piece of advice for all home cooks out there?
Don’t use a recipe as a Bible. Do your innovation to it. Give your twist to it.
Q. If you weren’t a chef, you’d be …?
I’d be running my father’s petrol pump in Patna.
Q. When are you happiest at work?
When the restaurant is busy and there are no complaints. When the guests are leaving the restaurant happy.
Q. What’s the first thing you do when you enter your kitchen?
Indulge in some fun chit-chat with my staff just to pep them up for the day.
Q. Funniest kitchen incident?
Loose live crabs free crawling into the hotel lobby.
Q. Your team thinks you pet peeve is? But in reality, it is …?
Everything annoys me in my kitchen/restaurant. However, the most annoying thing is when someone makes a mistake with regard to something they already know. I wouldn’t tell my staff off if, for
instance, they add too much salt to something — it happens.
Q. One thing people don’t know about you, you wish they did?
I love watching dubbed South Indian movies.
Q. Your favourite wine?
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc.
Q. Who would play you in the film biopic of your life?
Young Amitabh Bachchan.
Q. What would you title your autobiography?
One Frustrated Indian Chef.
Q. Best cooking tip for a novice just getting into the business?
Make food that people enjoy not only what you want to eat.
Q. 3 things that you consider your strengths.
Hard work; Research; Thinking from the guest’s point of view.
Q. Both you and your wife are chefs. Does your daughter Adah want to follow in your footsteps?
Adah? No. She wants to be a food critic!! (smiles)
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