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My list of Indian chefs abroad

Every time friends of mine travel abroad, they ask me to recommend Indian restaurants.

When I answer, quite honestly, that I try not to go to Indian restaurants when I travel (it’s a long way to go to eat a butter naan) I am greeted with looks of scepticism. But surely, you have met some great expatriate Indian chefs? I keep being asked.


Well, yes, I have. And I do sometimes go to Indian restaurants when I am abroad. But I don’t go to enough of them to be able to speak with any kind of authority. Nor have I travelled as widely as I would like. There may well be great Indian restaurants in say, Rotterdam or Nanjing. But I have never been to either place so I can’t comment.


   But here’s a list of Indian chefs abroad who I rate, based on my limited experience. I have left out the giants of the profession who would top any list because enough has already been said about them. So, you won’t find Gaggan Anand on this list, because he is now way beyond these lists. Nor will you find pioneers like Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochchar, the first two Indian chefs to have won Michelin stars for their restaurants. And I have not included Srijit Gopinathan whose San Francisco restaurant was the first Indian restaurant to win two Michelin stars, on the same grounds.


   But, of the chefs who currently run restaurants, these are the ones I rate;


Karam Sethi: We tend not to think of Karam as a chef because his JKS group is probably the single most admired group in London, and it includes many Michelin-starred restaurants that have nothing to do with Indian food. But Karam is a chef (he even trained at Delhi’s Maurya) and the group has, at its foundation, his skill with food.


   Gymkhana, which was his baby, may now be the most successful Indian restaurant in London and is the only one with two Michelin stars. Head and executive chefs will, of course, come and go and try and take credit for the food. Many of these chefs are very good but their arrivals and departures make very little difference to Gymkhana. Ultimately it is all down to Karam.


   I am a fan too of Brigadiers’ another of his concepts and, of course, of JKS’s Hoppers, one of my favourite restaurants in London.


Asma Khan: Time magazine has just rated her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and it is easy to see why. Asma’s food is delicious, and she has broken all the Indian chef stereotypes. She does not come from a catering/restaurant background. (She is a former journalist and a trained lawyer.) She does not pride herself on technical wizardry. Instead, she focuses on the often-neglected tradition of women who cook at home for virtually no reward. It is their dishes and their raw authenticity she celebrates in her restaurant and many of them are employed in her kitchen, finally finding recognition and success after a lifetime in the shadows. Unlike fancy chefs who pride themselves on their inventiveness, Asma draws deep into her family history to revive dishes that may otherwise have been lost to today’s generation.


Garima Arora: Like Asma, Garima is a former journalist and an outsider who did not rise up the kitchen hierarchy the usual way by working in a succession of restaurants. She went to work for Rene Redzepi at Noma and he thought she was brilliant.


"Even when Surendra makes the simplest dish at the London Jamavar the flavours are so deep that you realise what it is that makes his food so special."

   When she finally left Noma, she was ready to develop her own voice. She worked first at Gaggan and then opened Gaa right opposite the original Gaggan restaurant. (Gaggan was a shareholder). After Gaa moved out of that space (as did Gaggan) her evolution continued and she has just become one of the few Indian chefs to have earned two stars at the new Gaa, her Bangkok restaurant.


Himanshu Saini: I have yet to meet any of the world’s great chefs who, having tried Himanshu’s food, has not loved it. Himanshu is the best chef cooking in the Middle East, across cuisines and one of the finest Indian chefs in the world. The two Michelin stars for his Tresind Studio last year came as no surprise and each year his food gets better and better.


Mano Thevar: He does not really belong on this list because his food is not entirely Indian. He cooks diaspora cuisine, drawing on his experiences as a Tamilian in Malaysia. But I have listed him anyhow because not many of the non-Indian guests at his restaurant can tell the difference between diaspora and mainland cuisine and his two-star restaurant has given Indian food in Singapore a legitimacy it never had before.


Chintan Pandya: It is part of the greatness of Chintan that even though he runs (along with his partner Roni Muzumdar) Unapologetic Foods, the most successful Indian restaurant group in American history, he is content to let Vijaya Kumar, one of the chefs get all the limelight at the Michelin-starred Semma.


   Chintan is probably best known for New York’s Dhamaka but his responsibilities straddle many successful restaurants, some of which try and give such cuisines as Bengali, the prominence they deserve. Others go in a completely different direction, such as Rowdy Rooster, the pioneering Indian Fried Chicken place.


   In everything he does, you find his signature eye for flavour and detail , his unwillingness to compromise on the integrity of the ingredients and his refusal to tone down the authentic flavours of Indian food for Americans.


Surendra Mohan: Most of us have known Surendra from his decades with the Leela group in India. We knew he was a very good chef, but I doubt if any of us ever thought he would one day run the kitchen at a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in the heart of Mayfair delighting locals and visiting Indians alike.


   His strength is flavour. Even when Surendra makes the simplest dish at the London Jamavar the flavours are so deep that you realise what it is that makes his food so special.


Sujan Sarkar is a serious Indian chef whose talent has never been in dispute but who, many of us, had begun to take for granted because he had become such a familiar face. But Sujan has surprised everyone by going to America and opening hit restaurants there. His latest, Indienne in Chicago won a Michelin star and is admired for the sophistication of the cuisine. His other restaurants operate at different levels, one measure of the versatility of this great chef.


Rydo Anton: A mark of a great cuisine is when people who have not grown up eating it learn to make it better than the locals. Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White are both Brits. But both made their reputations cooking French food which won their restaurants three stars from the very French Michelin guide.


   Indian food is now approaching that stage. You may not have heard of Rydo but as Gaggan Anand’s alter ego, this Indonesian chef has understood the intricacies of Indian food and cooks it far better than many famous Indian chefs. Go to any of Gaggan’s restaurants when the great man is travelling, and the food will be just as good: That’s because Rydo is in the kitchen.


   As Gaggan says, many of the best dishes at the Gaggan restaurant emerged out of a collaboration between Gaggan and Rydo. Some even started out as Rydo’s ideas.



Posted On: 23 Apr 2024 05:00 PM
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