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Envoys of Indian Cuisine

November 2005
Envoys of Indian Cuisine

Some of the well-known Indian chefs in the U.S. dish out their styles, philosophies and creations. The result is a mouthwatering feast of food talk that also suggests that this cuisine is undergoing a revolution?thanks to fusion, as well as the finesse of its trendy ambassadors.


"The Indian version of elevator music," is how a candid American friend described the slow, melancholy background music of sitar, which was more often than not the standard fare in most cozy Indian restaurants in the country during the �80s. And so, unimaginative operators and uninitiated Western ears reduced the revered sound of Indian classical music to trivial tedium. Unfortunately, it wasn't much different when it came to Indian cuisine. The delectable royal feast of Maharajas of yesteryears was often reduced to a yawn by the sheer triteness of charred naans, brightly colored tandoori chicken and stale pappadams.

Describing the state of Indian cuisine in the U.S. so bleakly may be considered a bit harsh by some; but the truth is not far removed. Short of the exciting and promising developments and chefs on the cutting edge that are portrayed here, Indian cuisine until recently had not come into its own. In the legions of ethnic food, Indian had found itself lagging behind the more widely favored Chinese, Thai, Sushi, and even Middle Eastern. Occasional blips that have blessed Indian cuisine were random nuggets such as President Bill Clinton being quite a fan.

Now, however, thanks to professional chefs who are graduates of culinary institutes and who have a track record of experience at fine international establishments, the world of Indian cuisine is transforming at lightening speeds. According to chef Vinod of Indique in Washington, D.C., the cuisine is fast moving beyond the "curry powder" myth. Vinod, who counts among his guests the likes of former First Lady Hillary Clinton and former President of India Mr. K. R. Narayanan, says, "With the opening of restaurants by more and more professionals, different flavors are being explored. Today, there is stronger focus on visual appeal, color palette, pizzazz in the presentation, and signature cocktails, comparable to any top class American establishment."

The professional background makes a noticeable difference even when the restaurant is decidedly opposite of trendy or cutting edge. Take the traditional Udipi style dosa place, for example. Madras Saravana Bhavan, a hugely successful Atlanta favorite, is owned by Narendra Patel, a graduate of Mumbai's Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology. Patel credits his formal background for the thought process and confidence that allows him to offer unique concoctions of dosas. His latest offering is a paalak-paneer dosa, which should be a no-brainer for someone thinking on the lines of fusion of North Indian and South Indian cuisines. Yet, operators who lack such a background, even when they have exceptional cooks, are often unable to tread the way of innovation; choosing instead to stick to the tried-and-true.

There are always exceptions to the rule. In Atlanta, such innovation is seen at restaurants such as Saffron and Bhojanic, neither of which claims a professional pedigree from an esteemed catering school. Saffron offers a multi-part, all-you-can-eat course for a fixed price, featuring unique specialties such as a lettuce-paneer wrap, along with classics such as sizzling kebabs straight from skewers to your plate. Bhojanic is the first Indian restaurant in Atlanta featuring fusion and Tapas, with novelties such as Roti Canai ? the traditional Malaysian flatbread, with an Indian twist in the form of a Chicken Tikka Masala stuffing (for vegetarians, there is Daal Canai).

Whether they belong to the desi diaspora or not, people who are familiar with and enjoy Indian cuisine in this country?ranging from cookbook authors and restaurant critics to foodies and homemakers?are bound to have a variety of views, often passionately held, on what it means to them. Intense discussions are held and arguments break out, perhaps ruining not a few dinner parties, on the authentic-versus-fusion debate, experimental cooking and other such matters. Then, of course, various experts and ordinary folks continue to expound on the emerging trends of this cuisine in the U.S. and elsewhere.

But what do the actual makers?chefs who are usually more intimately involved with this business than anybody else?make of Indian food these days? Deciding to take a fresh approach on this topic, Khabar presents interviews with well-known Indian chefs working on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. As culinary ambassadors of India, these leading practitioners of the art of cooking probably shape the way Indian cuisine is perceived. Having honed their skills over many years and in many places, they mine their rich collective experience to share valuable insights that will whet the appetites of both the gourmand and the casual diner.

Bon App�tit

IndeBleu's Executive Chef VIKRAM GARG offers innovative French cuisine accented with exotic Indian flavors

Executive Chef Vikram Garg introduced Washington, DC to an exciting and sophisticated contemporary French cuisine accented with the exotic flavors of India at IndeBleu. Garg is a graduate of the culinary arts program at New Delhi's Oberoi School of Hotel Management (the Cornell of hotel administration in India) and recipient of a post-graduate degree at the Oberoi Center for Learning and Development. Garg's resume includes Bay Island in Port Blair, the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai and New Delhi, the Metropolitan Palace Hotel in Dubai, Rosewood's Little Dixie Bay in the British Virgin Islands and the Leela Kempinski Palace in Bangalore.

What inspires you to cook fusion?

I followed my passion for food. I loved the nuances of the delicacies of French cooking and the bold flavors of Indian cuisine. In Franco-Indian cooking I found a wonderful blend that captures the five tastes?salt, sweet, sour, bitter and, what I call "sensation" (spice!). A few examples among the twenty selections offered at IndeBleu as first, second, or third courses include petite Provencal naan with sundried tomato chutney, wild mushroom dosa (crispy Indian cr�pe) with a blue cheese gratin and white truffle oil; scallops scented with cumin on a bed of braised chicory; and veal-stuffed gnocchi served with chanterelles and infused with a fenugreek-chardonnay sauce.

Has your background played a role?

Definitely. I'm no momma's boy; but I must admit it's my mother and her joy of cooking that played a part in my becoming a chef.

Do you ever want to return to basic Indian food?

My first culinary love was Indian cooking. I was brought up on the basics and still use much of them in my cooking today. At times, I feel I have never left the basics, just evolved a bit. I may use exotic Indian flavors, such as asafetida, fenugreek, cumin, turmeric, and such to enhance a dish. But, at its core, my love for Indian food and the desire to cook it, will always be present.

What makes you consistently re invent?

It's all about creation. I'm always learning and building new recipes, and working with new ingredients and ideas. As a younger chef, fear would sometimes creep in when I wanted to push culinary boundaries.���As I have grown older, I have learned to overcome any fear in the kitchen and ‘follow my gut' when designing a meal.

How do you feel about experimental food like el Bulli? Do you think it has a place in Indian food?

I am a big supporter of experimental foods when presented in the right place and to the right audience. The thing about experimental foods is that they require trust. The guest must trust that the Chef will bring something interesting and appetizing to them, and the Chef must trust that guest will be honest and open-minded. I may not personally gravitate toward the food chemistry and texture-play of el Bulli, but I do feel it has a place (although as a very minor character) in Indian food.

Who do you admire the most?

Mahatma Gandhi. He epitomizes the qualities of a leadership through example ? honesty, commitment, sacrifice, and desire.

Where do you see Indian food going?

As a newcomer to the United States (but having worked in the Caribbean, India, and Dubai) I have noticed that Indian food is becoming a world-wide mainstay in the culinary palette. I would challenge your readers during their next travels to find a local restaurant guide?they will be surprised to see the number of Indian restaurants available. And what does this mean in the future? I think Indian food will experience a new renaissance. At IndeBleu we have fused it with French styling, but this similar marriage would work with any cuisine. Much in the way Thai food seeped into the international palette a few years back. Look for Indian food to do much of the same in the future.

20 Years of Innovation

From Tamarind Margaritas to the use of white wine in Indian cuisine, Chef K. N. VINOD's is indeed a unique style.

Chef K. N. Vinod has been pleasing the palates of Washingtonians for over a decade with his two acclaimed Bombay Bistros and his latest restaurant Indique. A graduate of the Institute of Hotel Management in Madras, Vinod has undergone extensive chef training with the Ashok Group of Hotels in India and has also attended the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York. Vinod served as the first chef of Burgundy, an upscale fine dining restaurant featuring classical French cuisine at the Ashok Hotel, New Delhi.

How long have you been cooking in the U.S.?

I have been cooking, training, managing and running Indian restaurants in the U.S. for about twenty years. In fact, this year marks my 20th anniversary in the U.S.

What inspires you to cook traditional Indian food?

I am proud to be an Indian and proud of the multiple culinary traditions of India. I feel that it is my privilege and obligation to expose Americans to this rich culinary heritage. American culture is very dynamic and continually evolving with influence of the immigrant groups. I feel my role is to show off our rich cuisine. What inspires me further to cook traditional Indian food is the availability of wide variety of fresh produce, ingredients and spices here in the States?Indian spices used in different permutations and combinations, which bring out a variety of flavors.

Tell me a bit about how things have changed since you began your career in the U.S.?

When I first came to this country, I noticed that most Indian restaurant menus looked identical and could not really distinguish one restaurant from the other. One onion gravy used to be made in the kitchen and it would be used with all the dishes, chicken, lamb, and vegetables and hence all the dishes used to look the same, taste the same. There was a curry powder myth and every dish had a curry powder in it. Now, with the opening of restaurant by more and more professionals, different flavors are being explored. Today in Indian restaurants in America, there is stronger focus on visual appeal, color palette on the plate, pizzazz in the presentation, signature cocktails?comparable to any top class American establishments. For example, here in Indique we offer Indian Tapas, small plates flowing from the Spanish trend; we offer signature cocktails like Tamarind Margarita, Kokum Martini, Mangotini, flamb�ed Gulab Jamuns and so on.

What is the biggest myth about Indian Food?

That everything is hot and spicy! I have been trying to educate the American public about the rich variety of flavors, spices, and herbs used in Indian cooking. Whether my platform is a small cooking demonstration or an address to the Washington high society at the Smithsonian Institution, my message remains the same: there is more to Indian food than chilies and curry powder.

What inspires you?

My mom's cooking, her eagerness to experiment, her playing around with spices, her innovativeness, her consistency in her products. And the challenge of creating new dishes through that inspiration.

Which way is Indian cuisine headed in the States?

I see that Indian food is going to be the trend in the next few years. There is already much more awareness today about it than the time when I came to this country. More and more regional dishes are going to be seen on the menus, whether it be appams and stews from Kerala, Chettinad dishes from Tamil Nadu, chaats and bhel from Delhi and Bombay, or Sarson ki Saag and Makki ki Roti from Punjab. In other words, you will see more than the standard fare. Indian Tapas or small plates are going to become very popular. I see Indian cuisine becoming as popular here as it is in England in the near future. The other trend is going to be fusion. For example we at the Indique restaurant have mussels on the menu cooked with white wine, garlic, tomatoes, curry leaves and coconut milk which is one of the most popular dishes on the menu. This kind of fusion finds recognition from gourmands and acceptance by the broader public. For example I created a dish called Orange Gelato whereby I served a traditional kulfi in an orange shell with a classical crepe suzette sauce and this dish was featured as the dish of the Millennium by the Washington Post. (December 9, 1999)

The Spice of Youth

Chef MANEET CHAUHAN is bringing back the spice in Indian cuisine, while taking it places?from Oprah magazine to the James Beard House.

"I have been cooking for as long as I remember," says Chef Maneet Chauhan, adding that her mom loved telling everyone that she was born with a ladle in her hand. Her formal culinary career, however, began after she graduated at the top of her class from the Welcome Group Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal, India. She then interned at some of the finest hotels there, including the Taj Group, Oberoi Hotels and Le Meridian. This 27-year-old chef came to the U.S. in 1998 to attend the Culinary Institute of America. Her original style is showcased in the Latin American cuisine served at Vermilion in Chicago. Featured recently in Oprah magazine, she will be hosting a Diwali dinner at the James Beard House this month.

What inspires you to cook Indian food?

I grew up in a small town in India called Ranchi. My dad is an engineer and my mom the principal at a school, and we lived in a small colony with people from all over India. Being the brat that I was, I spent all my meals (i.e., after lunch and dinner at home) at my neighbors' homes. I spent a lot of time in their kitchens asking why they heated the oil or why this spice was used, etc. My mom is an amazing cook and really inspired me.

The variety and variance in the cuisines from different states really fascinated me. Indeed, the vastness of our cuisine inspires me to learn more and more about what is probably the world's most complex yet amazing cuisine.

Have things changed since you began your career here?

The biggest change I noticed is the reaction to Indian spices. Even six years ago, if you ever mentioned spice, people would start getting the green look on their faces. Today I get people who come to the restaurant and say, "We want spicy?and we mean SPICY."

People have started to embrace this Indian cuisine with all its wonderful flavors. I do believe it is becoming a mainstream cuisine.

What is the biggest myth about Indian food?

That it is greasy, hot and spicy; that it will sit in your stomach for days to come. I so disagree with this thinking. Indian food, when made correctly, can be delicate with very little oil. It can be spicy, in terms of flavor, not just in terms of heat. Some of the dishes are so light that they're the healthiest and most flavorful dishes in any cuisine.

Where do you see Indian food going in the States?

India is so hot nowadays, be it fashion or movies, it is becoming very mainstream... With hip and trendy Indian places opening up and the people in the U.S. getting a true picture of what today's India is all about, I think that Indian food is going to be the next big trend.

Druming Up French Fusion

FLOYD CARDOZ, Executive Chef of New York's trendsetting Tabla was named one of "The Innovators" by Bon App�tit

Floyd Cardoz is the Executive Chef of Tabla, a groundbreaking restaurant serving New American cuisine cooked with the sensual flavors and spices of his native Goa. He trained at the Taj Mahal Intercontinental Hotel in Mumbai and received his diploma in Hotel Restaurant Management in Switzerland. After cooking for three years in New York, America's food hub, Floyd met a chef who shared his passion for infusing top-notch ingredients with exotic flavors. Gray Kunz, chef of New York's venerable Lespinasse and the man Floyd credits as his mentor, welcomed the newcomer's ideas. Floyd rose from Chef de Partie to Executive Sous Chef during his five years at the world-famous restaurant. "When I arrived at Lespinasse, there were only four Indian spices in the cabinet," he recalls. "When I left, we had incorporated over twenty-five." Bon App�tit named Floyd as one of ‘The Innovators' in its 2003 Annual Restaurant Edition.

What inspires you to cook fusion?

My cooking does not come from my head. It comes straight from the heart. I'm so passionate about what I do; I'm passionate about the flavors of India. This passion is what drives me. I cook both types of food: fusion at Tabla and very traditional home-style food at the Bread Bar, located on the first level in Tabla.

What makes you consistently reinvent?

I never make the same thing twice! My love of ingredients makes me want to constantly try out new things. The most important thing when creating new dishes is to learn to respect the experience of the guests. Be sure to respect them and they will leave contented and happy.

Who do you admire the most? Why?

India inspires me the most?the diversity and richness of the flavors. And, of course, my mentor Gray Kunz, who's the chef of New York's Lespinasse. For many reasons, he inspired me to think of the French and Asian flavors and how they come together. He inspired me down this path and encouraged me to stay on it.

Where do you see Indian food going in the States?

I think Indian ingredients are going to become more mainstream. People will begin to understand that they can make their food more exciting and give it more depth in flavor by using spices.

Evolving Contempory Indian Food

Chef MEL OZA takes pride in going one step over fusion. He relishes using techniques from other cuisines to prepare traditional Indian dishes, rather than just fusing one with the other.

A graduate of the Indian Institute of Hotel Management, Ahmedabad, Chef MEL OZA started his career in London, where he worked at the Cottage Restaurant and the Rickshaw. Then he moved to the U.S. and worked at Bistro M, a Eurasian bistro in Virginia, and is currently at Marigold, an Indian fusion restaurant.

What inspires you to cook fusion?

I'd call my food evolved or contemporary Indian food as opposed to fusion, since now I use the cooking techniques and refinement of other cuisines, but all the components of my dishes are usually Indian, or have a clone or a close cousin in traditional Indian cooking. I think the unique thing about my food is that I've found a niche in terms of being able to marry components and flavors from within the genre and present it as new. As I get to understand more and more the preferences of my patrons, it helps in the further evolution of my cuisine. I'd like my restaurant to be described as the evolved curry studio as opposed to a fusion restaurant. My favorite dish is my creation?seared sea scallops with cauliflower tellicherry creme and gunpowder (a South Indian dry chutney powder) dusting.

Has your background played a role?

Certainly. My living abroad, my travels and my local friends have helped me. The experiences and influences I've had gave shape to what I do today. I want Indian to be the cuisine of choice for everybody. However, popularity comes with acceptance, compromise and understanding. To me, this leads to the evolution of Indian cuisine.

Do you ever want to return to basic Indian food?

Absolutely. That still remains the soul of my food philosophy; the new flavors I'm able to create are almost always based on the basic ones. I'm a firm believer of the classical foundation. I'd never want to drift so far away from the basic Indian food that I'd have to stage a comeback.

How do you feel about experimental food like el Bulli?

I think it's absolutely mind blowing. To me, food like that is as necessary and important as the classical cuisine for the continuous evolution of global cuisine. I do not think it has a place in Indian food just yet, or for another few years at least.

Who do you admire the most?

Dr. Lee Smith, my culinary mentor. It's amazing how much difference one individual can make in one's life. Since getting to know him, my perception of good food and wine has changed totally. He was the one who kept pushing me to go this route and yet find a way to keep the integrity of the cuisine of my heritage.

Where do you see Indian food going?

In a very short time to come it will be the most sought after cuisine in this country. A little understanding and tweaking to make it more mainstream will help it immensely.

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