The United Kingdom National Day experience at Expo 2020 Dubai on February 10 was complemented by a taste of British food and drink. Innovative Michelin star chef Vineet Bhatia, who is of Indian origin and runs two fine dining restaurants in Dubai, co-curated a UK produce-focused menu from the UK Pavilion’s 1851 Restaurant.
Bhatia is the world’s first Indian celebrity chef and is largely considered to be the father of modern Indian food. He recounts how he “first started to see myself being referred to as the father of modern Indian food back in 2001, around the time I had been awarded my first Michelin Star”. “The phrase was used in a number of reviews by well-respected food critics after they experienced my style of cuisine,” he says. “I was the first Indian chef to begin providing diners with an Indian cuisine experience, with beautifully plated, visually stunning tasting courses paired with wine. It was far removed from the ‘traditional’ Indian style and one which clearly resonated with diners and critics alike.”
Despite his critical acclaim in London, he made forays into the Middle East over 17 years ago. And Dubai was his first port of call. “When I decided to leave India to pursue my culinary dreams, I was approached from London, Japan and Dubai. I chose London as I felt there would be more acceptance of dining out with Indian food whereas the other options at the time maybe weren’t as developed when it came to culinary palates,” he says. “When we opened up the Rasoi restaurant in Chelsea in June 2004, on the very first day, we had some management of Dubai’s Grosvenor House Hotel dining with us and they had come with the intention of approaching me to open an Indian restaurant at their soon-to-launch hotel. They approached my wife Rashima who handled the front of the house and she laughed it off and said we could discuss it tomorrow, unaware quite how serious they were. It soon became apparent when they returned the following day.”
He adds, “We did have our apprehensions, but it was casually left at the point of asking the chef to take a look at the proposed location and take it from there. When I travelled to Dubai, it was completely different from what I’d witnessed in prior trips in the 1990s. At the time, Dubai Marina didn’t exist but it was clear that the city was buzzing with activity that was developing fast so there was immediate excitement on my part. When we learned that we’d be located in the new developing area, it immediately took me back to the challenging days of reforming and changing cuisine in Old Brompton Road when I first came to London. I’ve always said that if your gut says go for it, you go for it. That initial visit happened in March 2005. We launched three months later and I’m proud to say it’s still going strong 17 years later.”
Now, he has six fine-dining restaurants in the region (see box). However, he plans to expand further in the Middle East. “We already have a number of restaurants in the region, including Dubai, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Bahrain but we’re continuing to look at further expansion opportunities. The love of Indian cuisine is very much established in the UAE and after so many years operating in the region, we’ve a strong understanding of the tweaks we can make based on the tastes of our audience. With that in mind, and the continued growth of the Middle East, we’re excited to continue expanding and is one reason why I’m so happy to have represented the UK’s culinary expertise on UK National Day at Expo 2020 Dubai on February 10,” he says.
Over the years, the Bhatia empire has grown by leaps and bounds, but also faced a fair share of challenges because of the raging Covid-19 pandemic for a third year in a row. “We’ve consolidated with nine restaurants and a few have matured their terms and some had to close down during the pandemic. There are plans in the pipeline to launch further restaurants around the world and we look forward to sharing our cuisine when that comes to fruition,” he says.
Bhatia is the brain behind several Indian culinary innovations, such as the blue cheese naan, mushroom/truffle naan, dahi bhalla ice cream, kheer ice cream and makhni sauce ice cream.
He explains how he came up with the pioneering experimentations with Indian food. “Some of my most famous experimental dishes were created in London — with my blue cheese naan and mushroom truffle naans first produced in Zaika in Fulham Road when I was first awarded a Michelin star back in early 2000, while the dahi bhalla ice cream, kheer ice cream and makhni sauce ice cream were created in Rasoi in 2004,” he says.
In retrospect, he says, “I was lucky to be surrounded by such wonderful ingredients and dishes. So I always aim to try something new and bounce off the tastes of the diners and their feedback once they’ve tried something for the first time. I often ask myself what they like to eat but equally look at what I like to eat before finding a middle ground. Take the blue cheese naan, for example. I first tasted blue cheese in London and Indians love bread in the same way Italians do, so I asked myself if we have stuffed naans, why can’t I stuff them with blue cheese. So, it was my newfound love of blue cheese which led me to experiment. As for my ice cream creations, I found myself wondering why ice cream always had to be sweet. If you can have salted caramel ice cream with that sweet/savoury balance, why not experiment with other savoury flavours? So, I started experimenting with the dahi bhalla ice cream and served it as an amuse-bouche, which is often how we tested immediate diner feedback. It was an instant winner and it was very exciting to see them tasting it and trying to place where they’d experienced the flavours before. They loved the flavours and when we told them it was dahi bhalla, you could see an appreciation in their eyes. It’s an exciting journey to take them on.”
The other highpoints of his stellar career included signature dishes like chocolate samosa or flavour combinations, such as grated chocolate on lobster or coffee on kebabs. “Many of my signature dishes have interesting stories behind them,” he says. “Take the chocolate samosa, for example, which is one of the earliest signature dishes I created back in 1993 when I’d only been in the UK for a few months. There was already so much positivity around my food and the changes to our menus, including a great review in the Evening Standard. This caused an English gentleman to visit the restaurant a number of times and on one occasion, he asked to speak with me personally. I did so and he quite bluntly told me the review was the only reason he’d come to dine with us and he felt the food was “okay, but nothing out of the ordinary” and asked me a question that has stuck with me to this day — “why do you feel your food is different from anyone else?” The whole of the next day I took it upon myself to see things differently and look at traditional Indian cuisine and give it a makeover.
I remember realising that a samosa will always be a samosa, regardless of the filling, so I went back to the kitchen and began trying different samosa dishes. I started experimenting with a number of sweet fillings before realising it had to be chocolate, arguably the UK’s favourite sweet food. From there it was working on the logistics and finding a way to produce a chocolate samosa with a filling that wouldn’t melt under the intense heat of the frying process. I produced the combination of dark and white marbled chocolate and the rest is history. I, then, invited the gentleman back to the restaurant to present him with the new creation and the smile on his face when he tasted the chocolate samosa for the first time is something I’ll never forget.
Other signature flavour combinations have come from travelling with my wife. We were in Geneva, which is the land of chocolate, and it inspired me to produce a five-course tasting menu inspired by chocolate, which included not only the chocolate samosa but also a lobster dish with grated chocolate. That was definitely an eye-opening experience for both the diners and myself as it’s not something I’d done before. Similarly, the coffee kebab flavour combination was born out of a TV show I was working on with my wife as we visited a coffee plantation and it inspired a fresh round of innovation in my mind.”
No wonder, he loves “seeing the satisfaction on a diner’s face when they try something new for the first time and realise how well flavours work together”.
Bhatia’s wife Rashima has been the biggest influence in his life. He unequivocally acknowledges her larger-than-life presence. “Rashima’s influence is unquestionable — she’s been crucial in the growth and success of the business. I’d go as far as to say that 95 per cent of the business is down to her hard work, I’m just the artist, chef and smiling face for the cameras. Her input can be clearly seen in everything from the restaurant design and concept planning, to marketing, financials and the work with our partners. She’s most certainly the sensible one in our relationship and is truly the unsung hero behind the success we’ve enjoyed globally. If it wasn’t for her, I’m confident in saying I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. She’s my rock and I’m grateful for her positive influence every day,” he says.
At present, the celebrity chef is readjusting his operations in a post-pandemic world? “The pandemic has shown us a different side of the world and has brought many of our scariest nightmares to life. Hospitality was severely hit across the globe and it sadly meant that certain restaurants had to close, including Rasoi in Geneva, due to visa restrictions for the staff we had there. In many ways, it made us realise what we hold close and has taken us back to basics. I’m pleased to say we managed to retain all our staff and it’s become clear that if you’re agile and nimble enough to adapt, you can survive any obstacle placed before you. Whether it’s getting some of our food online and available for delivery for the first time or responding to the expectations of our diners who are increasingly looking at plant-based diets, everything is possible,” he says. “We kept adapting and moving on and it’s served us well.”
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