A New World of Indian Cuisine

Chef and Entrepreneur Vineet Bhatia’s brand is known for pushing the envelope when it comes to traditional flavours.


Vineet Bhatia at Ziya, The Oberoi Mumbai.

HE IS a man whose name and creativity is synonymous with the frontiers of Indian cuisine. Vineet Bhatia, Michel Starred chef extraordinaire and the ultimate ambassador of Indian flavours across the world took time off from his busy schedule to speak with BW Hotelier, while visiting his restaurant Ziya, at The Oberoi, Mumbai. Here are some excerpts of our interview with him.

Tell us a little bit about how it all started for you?

When I joined the kitchen in The Oberoi in Mumbai back in 1985, the view was that only uneducated people work in the kitchen. I fell in love with food and learned to cook. I kept heart and soul as a 17-year-old and became a cook, which was a big No in those days. I realised everybody wanted a shortcut to success and everybody who went to the kitchen wanted to work in the French kitchen or the Chinese or the bakery which was a comparatively relaxed job. I actually said I wanted to do something close to Indian food. It was difficult as nobody wants to teach you or guide you. The master chefs all had their little secrets they didn’t want to reveal. I was curious to know about new things, how and why something is being done, I kept asking questions. Initially there were no replies but eventually they (the ustaads in the Indian kitchen) got tired and started sharing and I used to work with them to understand how things are done. In 1993, I decided to quit India. I had four options, to go to Turkey, Bangkok, Dubai or London and I chose London not because of the food, I purely because of my love for aircraft and the Heathrow Airport. I use to stayed in Chelsea, the heart of London and I still remember I use to stay at the third floor of the building of the restaurant and every evening between 4 and 4:30 pm, the Concorde would land from New York and I would watch is from my window.

Until 1993, you were surrounded by people who taught you how to cook Indian food from a very Indian point of view. Then you went to the UK, where you were exposed to a myriad of other influences. How did that mould you as a chef?

I hated it, I did not like the curry immediately. There was one pot of gravy--everything even the ‘saag’ the ‘chicken’ everything had that same sauce. When I saw the menu first, there were 120 dishes and I asked how many guys are there in the kitchen? They said six. When I got in there I realized this is not really the food which I’m used to eating and cooking and it is sold in the name of Indian food. The first thing that I saw in the menu was butter chicken and I was shocked to see a butter chicken which was yellow. I am a person who loves to teach and loves to experiment, so I was doing things in a very classical manner.

Fast forward to now, how has the food changed?

In 1993 when I went in there what I use to cook then and now is polls apart. The heart and soul is still very much classically Indian but the outlook is totally changed. What we will cook now is Indian food for this generation of people who travel around the world and eat at the finest restaurants around the world. You still feed the masses and there is nothing wrong with that. I still say to chefs who went to UK, you have to be with the masses. They work very hard.

The cooking technique is very classic that is the way we cook throughout. If its ‘maa ki daal’ we cook it like ‘maa ki daal’, we can never compromise through shortcuts. The food which we do in our restaurant is a lot more intensive than in any other Indian restaurant.

A normal Indian could have mini kitchens and there could be 100 people turnout on a night whereas in our restaurant, we are more intense--what you get is an experience. Come to our restaurant to enjoy an experience with friends and family.

Fortunately for us it’s not just one signature dish or one approach, it is the entire package, a total cuisine which makes us unique and special. So when someone walks into our restaurant they will always find something which is very classic and at the same time very modern.

There is now a huge shortage of talent especially in Indian restaurants because the second generation doesn’t want to follow in the footsteps of the first. How do you deal with this problem?

My work makes me very anti-social. Very few people can become a Vineet Bhatia, and I can’t expect my children to follow in my footsteps. I rebelled and became what I wanted to become. My kids will do whatever they want to do, and similarly the second generation in the UK are not following the careers of their family. A lot of them stay away. But having said that, there are many people from other fields, like banking or journalism who are coming into the restaurant business as well. There are people who come in with brands and expand. They do well because they are more focused on expansion and not on the restaurant and the product. Everything has changed because of people’s mindset. They still want desi khana but they want a little twist to it they want to adapt it the way they are and that’s exactly what we are doing. It’s a great moment now, we don’t need to employ an Indian to cook desi khana. There is a huge crisis looming because 90 percent of chefs will not be replaces, which is why you see a lot of Bangladeshi restaurants shutting, because there is no one coming to take over and they haven’t adapted, they are stuck where they are. We are lucky because we are fine dining restaurant with just 30 covers.

Tell us a little bit about the beginnings of the Vineet Bhatia brand, about Zaika and then Rasoi?

You actually open a restaurant to build a business which has to be profitable. But the main thing is you have to believe in what you do. I remember the days when I had 50 pence in my wallet and I had to get a meal for my child so I went through hell in 1998-99 and 2000. I have seen those days and I understand the value. I have never done a thing and never will do a thing just to get recognition.

The last thing I want to be is a product. When we opened a ‘Zaika’, it is only going to make a mark after some time. We want to cook great food, 99 percent of the time it makes a huge impact, when you are trying to do food which is authentic but still modern.

Within 4-5 years everybody was talking about the restaurant. We have got the mission started, we have got the awards and after 5 years I left because I had a very poor partnership and we opened up ‘The Rasoi’. But it had teething issues from the start. Five of the biggest banks turned us down for a loan and I was luck to get a connection at a restaurant I was working in Mauritius who helped facilitate the finances needed for Rasoi.

When we were making Rasoi, there were bets outside on how quickly our business will fail, but we cooked from our hearts and hoped for the best.

When we started off in 2001 in Delhi there were no alcohol in the restaurant, there was no electricity in the hotel and we were running generators. So we have grown very organically. There was no formula of actually having restaurants around the world. We have grown very slowly mostly in the past six years but the first few years were very slow and we refused to expand. The first restaurant was in Dubai, where we started off with opening Rasoi, we opened in Dubai because we knew the partnership will last.

We didn’t wanted to do anything short-term because there is so much effort that goes into opening a restaurant and the results will only come up after 4-5 years. That is how we grown in past 12 years. I care about what walks into the restaurant, what goes in the food, what the is guest getting matters the most. The team is very important for us and we have only grown because the team has grown with us. We have 11 restaurants and a team approximately of 300 plus people, but it’s not just restaurants, we also do airline food, and catering to private homes where we fly in food from across the world.

Your wife also plays a very important role in the business, tell us about her role in the brand.

She is the boss. She has been the backbone throughout, without her I don’t think I would be sitting here. She has given me freedom to explore and grow and handled everything extremely well, because she can multi-task and I can’t. She has a Finance and Marketing mind which I don’t, I am an artist who cooks. My wife always says that you get more disturbed when your lunch is of poor quality in restaurant then something else in life, it affects me because I have seen days when I had nothing in life, food has made me what I am, so I am very quality conscious. A normal Indian could have mini kitchens and there could be 100 people turnout on a night whereas in our restaurant, we are more intense--what you get is an experience. Come to our restaurant to enjoy an experience with friends and family.

Fortunately for us it’s not just one signature dish or one approach, it is the entire package, a total cuisine which makes us unique and special. So when someone walks into our restaurant they will always find something which is very classic and at the same time very modern.

You are passionate about training. What are your plans in the future?

We want to do an academy or training centre ideally in India. We bought land here two years back and we struggled with the authorities because we are not based here and I will not give them a bribe, I’ve never done it. I want to do an independent centre which I can control. I want 20 kids to come for 6 months-- kids who are not freshers, but people who have passed out of the so called hotel schools. I will not teach them basics, I will polish them in six months. I would like five of the students in every batch to be economically or socially challenged backgrounds. We will train them and place them in jobs within our restaurants worldwide. It’s important we leave back something and education is so keen you get them something and empower them, once you have the skill in your hand you survive, whatever happens in life. Education and schooling is something we would love to do at some stage, but we don’t know where and when we going to do that, it is still in the planning process. It’s very important for me to give back. I must add here that I have just been announced as global ambassador for a heart foundation in Chennai, where they look after 3000 girls, providing for their education and medical cover as well as feed three meals a day, till class 12. They wanted me to be an ambassador and it’s an honour to do something special for girl child.

You have been working in the UK for many years. When do you think we will get a chef who is not from the subcontinent become famous for cooking Indian food?

It should probably happen soon, the time is not far off. There are people in the UK who are no longer unsure in the use of spices and flavours. They are opening up casual and simple restaurant and they are doing extremely well. It is just a matter of time and it depends on the individual who wants to do it. There is nothing stopping anybody.

This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'MICE issue'

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