Celebrity chef Manish Mehrotra, who’s known to give a unique and innovative twist to Indian cuisine and shot to fame with his fine dining restaurant chain Indian Accent in conversation with Jamal Shaikh, Editor, Brunch shared his culinary journey over the decades and talked about the inspiration behind some of his iconic dishes like blue cheese naan and daulat ki chaat on the second day of 20th edition of Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. The renowned chef also opened up about his most challenging dish, a ‘weird’ experiment and whether or not he takes food critics seriously.
On being asked if fine dining and plated food takes away the soul out of Indian food, Mehrotra said the first plated food in the world or in India perhaps was a thali or a sadya meal.
“Sadhya meal if you see, every particular dish has a defined position on a banana leaf where it goes. So, we have been doing plated food from many centuries but somehow in the middle we got lost somewhere and everything started coming in a big bowl drowned in a brown-yellow-orangish kind of gravies and all,” says Chef Manish Mehrotra, Culinary director, Indian Accent Restaurants, admitting that he derived inspiration from thali, sadhya meal or temple food with different textures, different flavours and colours.
‘Around early 80s, I encountered my first fine dining’
“…whenever we used to come to Delhi, we used to encounter that kind of a meal. So, I would say around early 80s, I encountered my first fine dining where not plated but a fine dining kind of a food I tried,” says the culinary expert who grew up in Patna, Bihar.
‘My father never used to eat onion or garlic’
Talking about the food he ate as a child, Mehrotra said that he grew up eating home-cooked food and that too pure vegetarian without onion or garlic as per his father’s food choices.
“But a lot of festivals were celebrated with the food whether it was Janmashtami, Holi, Diwali, Dussehra, all these things were celebrated in the house with ‘different-different dishes’. So, food was always around and that really taught me that vegetarian food can be really tasty. You don’t need onion, garlic to make food delicious and less ingredients can make a wonderful dish,” he said.
‘Chef Ananda Solomon knows about guests psyche’
Talking about his mentor in the field Chef Ananda Solomon with whom he worked initially, Chef Manish Mehrotra remarked that he was a legend and “one of the finest chefs I have ever seen who (not only) knows about food, but he knows about guests’ psyche.”
“That is what I learnt from Chef Ananda Solomon and that is what I still believe in. I still believe in feedback. That feedbacks are really important and one golden rule that I learnt from Chef Ananda is the plate that goes inside the restaurant was very important but the plate that comes back from the restaurant is even more important. He added that one can make out from the amount of food that is left on the plate whether someone liked the food or not.
Mehrotra agrees that diners are his best critics as they are the ones that help him know whether the taste of the presentation of a particular dish is good or not, or whether “I would be paying that much price for the dish if I will go out and eat this dish.”
On being asked if he takes food critics seriously, Mehrotra said: “I take it very seriously in terms of what feedback they give. But definitely final call is mine.”
Manish Mehrotra on setting up first-of-its-kind fine dining restaurant Indian Accent
Talking about his inspiration behind setting up a first-of-its-kind fine dining plated modern Indian food restaurant Indian Accent, Mehrotra said he wanted to fill the big disconnect between youth of India of the time (1996-2008-9) with Indian foods.
“I was working in London at that time. London at that point of time was more than New York; it was a cosmopolitan city of a different culture, different nationality and everyone’s food was represented in that city at a different level and on a very good level also. Indian food chef Vineet Bhatia, Chef Atul Kochhar, Vivek Singh, they were all doing fantastic work and when you saw their work you got inspired, then you say why can’t you do this kind of thing in India. Because one thing that I felt at that point of time was that the youth of India had a very big disconnect with Indian food at that point of time. Young Indians had stopped going to Indian restaurants and there was a big disconnect. That was one motivation that you have to do Indian food in such a way that it reconnects the young generation also. The people coming outside India can relate to it and cuisine can move forward. The regional cuisine can come to limelight. These were all the reasons to start Indian Accent,” Mehrotra said.
First dish Manish Mehrotra cooked for Indian Accent
“It was Rice Crusted John Dory Moilee. It was John Dory fish with a rice crust, like South Indian rice crust and served with a Kerala Moilee curry and that was the first dish I would say we tried for Indian Accent,” he said.
Inspiration behind popular dishes of Indian Accent
“Blue cheese naan, when I first tasted, I said – who the hell eats this. How can somebody eat blue cheese. But you develop a flavour and it was a unique combination – like bread and blue cheese is a classic combination, but doing it in naans, I wanted to do because the savouriness of blue cheese goes very well with the bread and it goes so well with the naan but you have to tone it down a little to make it more suitable to Indian palate and when we did it in a blue cheese, we tried different cheeses – Mozzarella, Stilton, Danish Blue. But only Danish Blue worked. With other cheeses flavour was gone. We did many trials and then the blue cheese naan came and became synonymous with Indian Accent,” he said sharing the story behind origin of Indian Accent’s popular dish blue cheese naan.
‘I love to cook pav bhaji at home‘
Manish Mehrotra said that although he doesn’t cook much at home, with his daughter he tries instant noodle or bhel puri that is easy to make at home.
“I love to cook pav bhaji at home. I find it very delicious, very comforting kind of food with a nice buttery bread and a mash. That’s something I enjoy cooking at home,” he said.
Manish Mehrotra on initial days of Indian Accent: People used to walk away after reading the menu
“When we started Indian Accent, I have seen empty restaurants. People used to come, sometimes they used to walk out. You don’t have regular Indian khana, you don’t have biryani, kebabs and all these things. After reading the menu, they used to walk out because they were expecting something else. Then slowly they understood the concept and whatever I did at Indian accent, the plate that used to come on the table, we have to make sure the common word called tasty khana should be there. There should be some kind of a familiarity and unique combination which we did at Indian Accent,” said Mehrotra.
Secret of Indian Accent’s longevity
“I would say why we survive is because we constantly innovate. In terms of ala carte menu, it remains same because after so many years it is not difficult to put a new dish on the menu but it is difficult which one to remove. The tasting menu you keep on changing and whenever I do plan a new tasting menu, I think it’s done. Whatever I had I already have given in this menu. But next two months again there is a new tasting menu, so you keep on innovating new things,” he said.
Most memorable re-invention
“Daal moradabadi is one such thing. Everybody said this is not going to work. Moong dal, yellow dal, it will never work. It worked in Indian Accent. There was a dish with a karela. How can people eat karela in the restaurant and it was churan ka karela with prawns and it worked really well. So you keep on thinking, you keep on innovating,” he said.
Experiment with ‘weird’ dishes
“When I look at my earlier dishes there are weird dishes too which I now laugh at myself what were you thinking when you did a chyawanprash cheesecake,” he said.
Most challenging dish
“One of the most difficult dishes I did was Butter-Poached Lobster, with Kashmiri Haak saag. That was very difficult combination because haak is very delicate with just 5-6 ingredients. Lobster again is a very delicate thing. How to merge these two. But when we did it came out very well,” the popular chef said.
On Indian food changing
“Our ultimate goal is to get real Indian food to the world and tell the world that India is not wholly about north-west frontier. There is east, west, south, every different part of India has a unique cuisine to offer which is happening. 10 years back, nobody knew what dosa was now everybody knows that it is one of the best pancakes in the world. Things are changing, regional cuisines are coming up in India. 20 years back anything with coconut on 5-star menu was South Indian which has now changed.