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For some a repertoire as impressive as his can sometimes take a lifetime in the making, but at 29, Chef Priyam Chatterjee, it appears, is only warming up.
Priyam Chatterjee’s passion for cooking began at an early age growing up in a family of exceptional traditional cooks in Calcutta. Right after graduating high school from a boarding school in Darjeeling, Chatterjee joined culinary school and spent his early days in Chennai as an on-job trainee chef. Fast forward six months to being part of the pre-opening of Park Hyatt Hyderabad; meeting and eventually working for his mentor and guru Jean Claude Fugier and also Italian master Chef Matteo Grandi; assisting two star Michelin Spanish Chef Koldo Royo; being part of the opening wing of Fauchon Paris in Oman as a Jr. Sous Chef; playing a vital role in opening six flame grilled concepts in the Emirates; and the most recent chapter — Head Chef and Director at Qla, New Delhi. FNL sits down to unravel Chef Priyam Chatterjee — the underdog in the culinary world hiding in plain sight.
1. When did you know you wanted to be a chef? What inspired this career?
I had no clue that I would even come close to cooking forget being or becoming a chef. I still am a cook first and then a chef. I guess I was destined to become an artist and fate chose the word ‘edible’ as a form of art for me. I was a commerce student but always inclined towards art. At that time I finished high school and had to make choices, I was preparing for the National Defense Academy. And when that didn’t happen, I decided to take on hotel management because I wanted to do something that had a more practical approach than books and more books.
2. What have been your major milestones and accomplishments, and how have they shaped and influenced your career today?
Milestones? Umm.. really? None, actually. I am still figuring my inner strengths and tunnels of creativity within me, which keeps me extremely inquisitive and happy all the time. So milestones are yet to come, I guess. Accomplishments are lessons that I have learnt in the last seven years of cooking — being demotivated, abused, mocked, and then taking all of that in and turning it into a good value system to run my future. I wish to thank all those who were instrumental in breaking me … you have actually been a part of ‘making me’.
3. You have worked with many greats in the culinary world — starting with Jean Claude Fugier from France, to Spanish chef Royo Matteo Grandi, chefs from Gueltero Marchesi, and also at the legendary French gourmet food and delicatessen company Fauchon in Paris. What are some of the most important lessons that you’ve learnt from them?
Chef Jean Claude has been very influential in my life, almost like a father figure in terms of my culinary universe, at least. He held my hand and taught me how to cook and also showed me France through his cooking and teaching. I learnt to be a better person from him, I learnt how to control everything or at least try to. I learnt to understand the importance of joke and seriousness. I learnt to keep my emotions aside at work. I learnt to value this life as a cook, and of course, I learnt good food. I also worked with Chef Ernest Darren Alford who is a storm when it comes to cooking. He is mind-blowingly talented and a great person. Fauchon taught me that it is the product and the product only that is solely important, the chef comes later.
4. What is Chef Priyam Chatterjee’s signature style in the kitchen? How do you best describe your cooking?
My signature style?? Umm.. long hair, music, bad ass boy of the trade! My cooking style on the other hand is eclectic. I am extremely driven by nature and the thought process around our lives, and events that are soul touching and sometimes provoking. I am demanding and I want things to be absolutely perfect, if at all we come close to what perfection is all about. One must always have a space open for creativity and a space to just space-out and think…and that’s what I do. And the rest, the plate speaks for itself.
5. How does it feel to be the ‘Times Night Life Chef of the Year 2017 (Delhi)’?
It feels like a blessing. A token of awareness that assures me to work harder.
6. Who is your greatest source of inspiration?
Mom, sister, dad’s death, tsunami, autumn leaves, winter, Aleppo, the sea, the stars, empty chairs, love, hate, sunshine, that sweater! My brain! Everything.
7. In your opinion, what are the most essential areas of improvement necessary in the Indian F&B and hospitality industry today?
The industry calls for the fair practice of encouragement, togetherness and teamwork, loyalty and openness, and better platforms for talents to showcase their work — understanding that times are changing and one would need
‘tomorrow’ as a vision. What needs to change is this madness of sucking up to every tantrum of the people we cater to. It has begun to feel more transactional, like some give-and-take in business, and that is not required. We definitely need a better body that determines the import of products and ingredients into the country, and also monitors consistency in foods produced locally.
8. What’s your approach to inventing a new recipe?
I don’t sleep. I cling on to a vision, a note, and then I gather all the scents in my head because true cooking is in the head and not just on your tongue. I create something that MUST have a story, that must talk to diners who are going to savour it. Next morning, chef coat on and it’s time to execute that vision.
9. How do you remain abreast with the ever-changing trends and developments in the business?
I take inspiration from the Nokia story… As simple as that. And like I mentioned
earlier, the maverick in me never allows me to do normal things. So I am always different. I work closely with my suppliers and farmers to push them to give me something different so in return I can do proper justice by cooking it differently.
10. If you could invite one person to dinner, living or dead, who would it be?
I would invite my father. It would be nice to see him again.
11. After a long day in the kitchen, the best way to unwind is…?
Red wine, blues or jazz music, the piano or drums, workout. Hopefully an open arm awaiting for me one day! That would be a nice feeling to come back to.
12. You play the drums. Are you self-taught or did you train?
I did train for a brief period, but most of it came from within.
13. How many tattoos do you have? Do we have a story behind them?
I have four super large tattoos. The first is a boombox on my stomach for all the rockstar days memories. The second one is on my entire left arm as a tribute to my life as a chef. The right arm is actually a combination of Buddha, Shiva and Ganesha (still to be completed) symbolising power, wealth, and peace.
14. A detail most of us would otherwise not know about you? A fetish, maybe?
Fetish? Ahannn! Hmm well…. I am an artist you see (wicked grins and smirks).
I am kind of an open book. One easily gets to know what I am all about. I love cats and dogs. I have a thing for women with a deep voice! Hahahaha!
15. Who are some of your favourite music artists?
Foo fighters, Nirvana, Switch Foot, Kings of Leon, Melody Gardot, Death Cab for Cutie, Arctic Monkeys, Oasis, Strokes, Ezio Bosso, The killers, Coke Studio Pakistan, Debjeet Ghosh.
16. The one discipline you value most in any chef…
Passion. Passion is a very serious discipline.
17. Every plate leaving your kitchen counter at Qla is nothing short of a work of art. Describe your muse…
I don’t really know how to describe it, guess the little maverick living inside me never likes anything that doesn’t entice me or triggers emotion or lingers around the taste buds and inside the diner’s head. I am an ardent follower of art, history, literature, and architecture, and I want all of that to come on to the plate.
18. In a 2016 interview you spoke about writing a book. Tell us more …
I am compiling my life as a cook with thirty dishes that are extremely ‘Priyam’ into a book. The book is part biography, part cookbook. Its exciting!! It’s going to be titled ‘ONE COOK. ONE BOOK’.
19. A chef you’d love to collaborate with?
A chef? Can I add a few? I would love to collaborate with Andoni Aduriz
(Mugaritz), Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana), Björn Frantzén, Marcus Jenrmark, and Akrame Benallal.
20. Have you ever experimented with Bengali flavours and your signature style of cooking? If yes, what was it like?
Yes, of course! They are my roots. But my understanding of flavours lies in teasing slowly (but surely) rather than slapping you right on your face. So it’s a lot subtle.
There’s going to be a pop-up on the whole post-modern take on traditional
Bengali dishes at Qla soon.
21. What has Qla been like for you so far?
Qla has been a beautiful institution. Qla is an extremely thriving and robust power plant that is building artists and thinkers. Qla is gorgeous, Qla is home.
22. If you were to open your own restaurant, what style of food would you pick and where in the world would it be?
If? ‘If’ is not the right word. The word is ‘When!’ When I do, I will open a restaurant that will speak emotions on the plate through art that is tasty. I’d also like my cooking to reflect my roots and traditions, but with a vision for tomorrow for the next generation to cling on to and for them to have a thought process.
It could be anywhere. I already have a name for it!
23. Contemporaries and seriously senior chefs who’s work you admire…
India’s — Sabyasachi Gorai, Sujan Sarkar, Atul Kochhar, and Rishim Sachdeva. Massimo Bottura, Andoni Aduriz, Dominique Crenn, Esben Holmboe Bong, Anne-Sophie Pic, Akrame Benallal, Atsushi Tanaka, Magnus Nilsson, and many more.
I guess I was destined to become an artist and fate chose word ‘edible’ as a form of art for me. Click To Tweet
24. You are happiest as a chef when…?
When I am creating and cooking while listening to opera. And when I am
playing pranks on my team.
25. First thing you do when you start your day at Qla?
Shake hands with my valet staff and then greet everyone with a hug.
26. Breakfast for dinner or dinner for breakfast?
Both. Depends on my hunger pangs.
27. Favourite quote/word/phrase that you use most in the kitchen?
F …… bwahahahahaahaha!!! Not really ! I always tell my boys two things — linger around the thought process, and second, if you really want to strive for perfection, watch your girlfriend or wife get ready for an occasion. You will know what perfection is all about!
28. What is the most essential item/ingredient in your kitchen?
29. What do you think is the most challenging ingredient to work with?
People. We are all ingredients built to create the final product, aren’t we?
30. Do you cook to live or live to cook?
I live to cook.
31. How does a day-off in the life of Chef Priyam Chatterjee look like?
A day-off is Netflix, junk food, sometimes shopping, sleeping (serious stuff)!
32. If you weren’t a chef, you would be…?
Army Officer. Don’t know really, I took it as it came.
33. Three best restaurants you’ve eaten at?
Mugaritz (Spain); Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire (Dubai); Qla (New Delhi)
34. What’s your favourite street food?
35. What your take on pineapple on pizza? Okay or not okay?
36. Your dream vacation spot?
I like Paris. I would love Sweden or Greece.
37. Name a celebrity you’d want to have a dinner date with.
Uma Thurman, Anne Hathaway
38. A piece of advice you’d give a young chef entering the industry in India?
Basics, basics, and basics first. Come with an open mind because your seniors have a lot of guiding and teaching to do. Sadly, a lot make you labourers from day one. That’s not teaching, that’s not cool.
39. What’s next for Chef Priyam Chatterjee?
Next would be bigger better nicer. I would be more hardworking, humble, grateful, wiser, and hotter I guess hahaha!!
40. Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten?
Five years? Ummm, one star Michelin Chef at least. If not a happy long haired bad ass boy of the trade as always! Much love.
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