I wanted to be part of UAE's success story, says chef Vineet Bhatia

He revisits his Dubai journey even as he is thankful for all the accolades coming his way, including the latest, an MBE

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Nasreen Abdulla

Published: Wed 18 Jan 2023, 11:56 AM

Last updated: Wed 18 Jan 2023, 12:03 PM

Chef Vineet Bhatia’s name is synonymous with classy and creative dining. Starting his journey as a chef in 1985, after being rejected from flight school for being too short, today Bhatia stands tall among his contemporaries and predecessors.

The first chef of Indian origin to get a Michelin star, Bhatia has played a tremendous role in elevating Indian food from simple, homemade fare to a mainstream part of international cuisines. Now, the British government has recognized his work and bestowed him with the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE).

A Dubai resident for over 18 years, Chef Bhatia was awarded the Golden Visa by the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) for the contributions he has made to the dining scene in the city. He runs two restaurants in Dubai: Indya by Vineet and Indego by Vineet.

In 2021, Vineet was named culinary ambassador for the GREAT Britain & Northern Ireland campaign. He owns eleven restaurants including the iconic KAMA by Vineet, which is located in the dining hall of Harrods in London. He has appeared as a judge on the Netflix show The Final Table and as a judge-host on MasterChef India. He has also written two cookbooks.

When City Times caught up with him for a chat, he had just returned from a cooking expedition to Antarctica. He spoke to us at length about his humble origins, his family and what recognitions like the MBE mean to him.

When did you come to know about winning the MBE?

I was informed by Simon Penney, His Majesty's Trade Commissioner (HTMC) for the Middle East and Pakistan towards the end of December 2022. It came as a complete shock to me because I hadn’t even known my name was up for it. But I was told to keep it quiet until the 30th when the awards would be formally announced. Only my wife and children knew about it.

Chef Vineet with his family
Chef Vineet with his family

Where were you when the awards were announced?

I was in Antarctica cooking on a cruise ship. My younger son was with me as well. He was a little sneaky and had asked the staff to get a cake ready without explaining why. The announcement came around 5pm Antarctica time. We had just finished dinner when the captain summoned everyone on to Deck 6, where he announced that I had received the MBE. The cake was brought out and it was truly special to be able to share the moment with so many people.

Tell us more about the Antarctica cruise. How was your experience?

It is a 12-day annual cruise conducted by a French company for ultra-high net worth Indians and has guests from all over the world. This is the third time I have been invited to cook on the cruise and it is always an interesting as well as challenging experience. I cook 3-course lunch and dinner meals along with breakfast and high tea during the day for all guests on board.

About 80% of the travelers on the ship are vegetarian so after the second or third day, there are no more fresh greens left. This means you have to keep innovating with recipes to serve up freshness. Last year, all the food that we had transported got loaded into the wrong ship. So, it was a really big challenge to cook with what was already on board. We made pakoras out of maida instead of besan because that is all we had. So, these kinds of challenges make it a very interesting assignment for me.

Also, the trip to Antarctica requires you to pass through Drake’s passage, which is known for being absolutely rough. So almost everyone gets sick, and they want some comfort food. I always like to serve up some samosa chaat as the appetizer because it is such a homely dish. And gajar ka halwa is always a hit given it is such a comfort food for most people.

What do these recognitions and awards mean to you?

Whether it is the MBE or DTCM’s decision to give me the golden visa, these recognitions humble me and fill my heart with happiness. For me cooking is all about doing what I love and serving it to people. I don’t do it for these awards but when they come, they remind me how I am being appreciated and I am truly thankful for it.

How did Dubai happen to you?

In 1993, when I wanted to move out of India, I had four options - Dubai, London, Tokyo or Bangkok. I decided to go to London. But when opportunity came knocking again in 2004, when I was offered a position in Dubai at Grosvenor House to open Indego, I didn’t want to miss out on coming to Dubai a second time. In those days, Grosvenor House was in the middle of a desert. The piling of Palm Jumeirah was going on. There was no Dubai Marina or JLT. However, I believed in the vision of the rulers of the UAE. I knew that they were destined for success, and I wanted to be part of that success story.

When I came to Dubai, I faced the exact same issues that I had faced in London more than a decade earlier. Indian food was either a thali or had to be brown curry served in a bowl. There was no concept of fine dining Indian cuisine. We received a backlash with people asking why anyone would pay a premium price for Indian food when the same thing was available for cheap prices in Karama and Bur Dubai.

But there was a certain sense that things would change, and we wanted to be part of the foundation. Today I am proud to say that Indego opened doors for everyone that followed. People who worked in my kitchen have gone on to open multiple successful Indian restaurants and I got to be the mentor for a lot of bright minds. We are a proud homegrown product of this wonderful country and city. And today, Dubai’s dining scene is equal to or has even surpassed London due to the exposure. Indian food is accepted as mainstream. This evolution has been the most satisfying to watch.

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