Recently, celebrated Chef Vineet Bhatia teamed up with Macallan, one of the world’s most sought-after single malt brands, for a tantalizing 12-course tasting and pairing menu. The magic with Macallan unfolded at Ziya, at The Oberoi, and the east met west with alarming ease. When an expert in gastronomy takes over, fabulousness is a given. We spoke to the man who admits to being a chef at heart, mind, and approach despite his many endeavors. From his excerpts on food, its future, his exciting journey, and how life has come a full circle at The Oberoi, we discussed it all.
What is more dominant when a Michelin-star Chef curates a menu that amalgamates the East and West? What was the deciding factor with the Macallan 12-course tasting and pairing menu? The Macallan or the food ingredients?
Whenever a chef is curating a menu, he plays with his tools and incorporates what comes to him naturally. Obviously, food is paramount – something that he is dealing with constantly and is used to playing with. Now as a chef, I have always married the east and the west. East – with the technique and the skills of cooking and the west – by bringing in the use of the ingredients. For example, as opposed to pomfret, I would be using salmon. Instead of bedki, I’ll use scallops or lobsters. My approach to cooking has always been using the skills that I have been trained in and I am proud of my cultural heritage which is very intricate, very varied, very diverse. I use those techniques and skills to the food that is available around me, to the food that is local, the food that my guests enjoys and that is what I am about – cooking with The Macallan was exactly on the same principal. I have used the techniques and skills that come from very much deeply rooted within the Indian heritage and culture but I have used the ingredients that are available around me locally, some are local to Speyside, some to region where Macallan is from but also some local to the audience which was dining in Mumbai so that is how I have worked around this bespoke twelve-course pairing menu.
What, according to you, is the strength of The Macallan Double Cask Range? How easy or challenging was it to fuse in a gastronomic experience?
The Macallan Double Cask range features both the European and American oak. In my opinion, it’s a damn good whisky – a fully rounded single malt which is perfectly balanced with the flavours of honey, citrus and ginger. It was so easy to work with in terms of curating dishes around it, working with the gastronomic experience because you have the flavours of ginger and spiced tones of the citrus and slight sweetness of the honey. It marries well with Indian dishes which are also very largely based on ginger and has hints and sweetness of honey that I brought in with certain ingredients – the flavours, therefore, gelled perfectly.
When it comes to the flavors of Macallan, what cuisine does it go best with?
While Indian cuisine can often be interpreted as overtly spicy, heavy and greasy, it is actually not the case. I find that the palate of the malt, honey, brown sugar and notes on the nose of the spice, dried fruits and vanilla works perfectly with the Indian cuisine. You have that rich caramel colour and dry malty finish to The Macallan. I think it works magically with Indian foods. It’s a no-brainer from my point of view to pair it with Indian cuisine. You might call me biased, but I think it works well with Indian cuisine. I’m not sure about any other cuisine, but it goes perfectly well with the Indian cuisine.
As witnessed at Ziya, at The Oberoi, you created magic by bringing together the two ends of the spectrum. Is there any other region in particular that inspires you other than India?
Well, I draw my inspirations from all around me – what I see, through reading books, what I have experienced in terms of travel, the people I meet, the different taste and the palates I have come across because I firmly believe that food is a language. And whilst others have often many words spoken in it, food is such a language that without speaking, you can communicate and you can learn a lot about the person, the culture, the place you’re in. Thus, I draw my inspiration from everywhere, from all my travels whether it is the black corn that I have experienced in Mexico, the sharp chilies in Spain – I get inspired by a lot of elements.
With eight restaurants worldwide, who takes the lead, the restaurant with the business acumen or the Michelin-star Chef who wants the world to taste his sensibilities and immense talent?
I have never claimed to be having any business acumen – that’s a whole different department, all lot of separate skills and people. I am a chef truly by heart, by approach, by thought, by my mind and I don’t think that I often think about what if I wasn’t a chef, what would I have become or what would I have loved doing. And I can’t seem to zero down on anything. May be a photographer for a day, a traveler for maybe a week but I think for life-long, I keep zeroing down to being a hef and also from my point of view, it is the food that I love to eat that comes natural to me from my region, from my heritage, from my childhood that I have grown up with, the food I have learnt absorbed in my travels – I want people to taste that, to showcase that so that is what I think I’m all about.
Could you share some interesting anecdotes about your journey from Ziya at The Oberoi to KAMA by Vineet in London?
I think that’s one long hell of a journey and it’s been close to 40 years. I set off to London in 1993. Prior to that, I was at The Oberoi so I guess for 1987 to 1993 at The Oberoi involved a young Vineet, who was still thirsty, learning like a sponge, absorbing all and everything around him during working hours and off duty. I was constantly on the go, and London came as a choice. I chose London because I thought I would get my freedom of expression and at that point, I did have the choice between Dubai which I thought was still not very developed and it’s so close to India that it was not in the innovative, cutting-edge space. Tokyo was another extreme option. Funnily enough, I chose London because of my love for aircrafts meant I was that much closer to Heathrow which possibly doesn’t still make sense to many people around me but also with that because of the British raj, I thought there would be a better understanding of food. Also, it’s an English-speaking city which meant that I could fit in there much more easily until you land and you find that well it is country of curries, and I didn’t know what curries was. It was a struggle to sort of find your own niche, talk about your food, your country and your cuisine that you were brought up with, but here it was interpreted and understood in a very different way different. I think it has been a journey with lots of ups and downs and I mean to focus on the ups and that’s the bit I remember anyways. And having to come back with this opportunity in 2010 – to take over exactly the same restaurant that I left in Mumbai with, almost hit with the realisation of the journey I have done, the distance I have travelled, and to come back and showcase my interpretation of Indian food which was not necessarily what it was or what I had set out to do or what I was told back when I was exactly at same place at The Oberoi. It meant that I have covered lot of distance and in some way, it was appreciated, it was recognised and it was wanted. It felt very good and I recall this one headline that will always stay with me till my last day was the heading that read ‘The Prodigal Son Returns’, and that resonated with me very deeply because that’s exactly how I felt and I feel really happy and proud to be back at The Oberoi, Mumbai.
What is more fun? Being in front of the camera as a judge on the Netflix show The Final Table and judge-host on MasterChef India? Or innovating and sweating it out in the kitchen?
I think both are necessary –it’s work and play you know a balance of both is necessary because then all work and no play would certainly made me a very dull, lifeless boy. Sweating it out in the kitchen, getting all those orders rushed through brainstorming in the kitchen for new dishes recreating, experimenting in the kitchen is another thrill with the release of endorphins –you feel happy, you get elated, you also hit rock-bottom hard and also have lots of failures but it’s extremely rewarding. Interacting on such global platforms as a judge/host gets you much closer to people and you don’t realise how much you end up inspiring somebody who is at a lost point and is not sure what he wants to do. Whilst wine is very sweet, only that little touch of salt enhances the sweetness so I guess both in moderation leads to a very good, balanced life.
What, according to you, is the future of food?
Future of food has many, many arms to it. Food has never been packaged so much. I think, now, food in different forms, grades can be expected to be packaged. While growing up it was okay just to end up in restaurants and experience food, now you get food delivered right at your door step or you have food that you are able to store away in your cupboard or take along with you. You don’t need your mum any more to make you suji ka halwa. You get it in a dried from, in a package and you can rehydrate with water – sitting, surrounded by cold, frosted mountain perhaps. It’s weird how much food has changed. I just think the future of food will continue go in the same direction with so much technology – different cuisines, experience of eating out-of-season foods, and not expecting to get it in a particular place at any point is slowly going to merge too.
What’re your views on robots cooking in the kitchen? We came across a Swiss robot developed to make the perfect cheese fondue?
Well, I don’t know – I am so old fashion that way. I expect and look forward to another human who has cooked my food because, for me, here in lies the uneasiness – how do you define perfection?! and am I looking for perfection?! That’s where I keep drawing back to – what makes the perfect cheese fondue? I just think, with robots, how does that emotion translate into your food like, how does your mum’s feelings, her love, her emotion, her care, all her love for you, how does a robot transfer that onto a dish? When I am cooking for my children, I know that a lot of essence is going in, and believe it or not it does come across – it can be tasted, it can be experienced, it can be felt. I’m not quite sure that this robot can do that for me so I think I am perfectly happy for a human to cook my food and even if it’s a burnt toast that I’ll be fed, I’m still going to find that more delicious.
Do you have a favourite dish? What’s the one thing you wouldn’t mind eating for the rest of your life?
That’s a pretty hard one to answer! I don’t have a favourite dish. There are however few ingredients that I find very difficult to say no to like chocolate or something that is sweet – I find them very difficult to turn down. In fact, they call me! If I am walking past a chocolate shop or a cakery, I can see things staring & looking out of shop window, almost calling me out to come in, try and taste them. So, sweets are something I can’t imagine giving up for the rest of my life but on the other hand, I can eat and taste so many other kinds of foods and cuisines and even my cuisine and yet I can crave for a simple bowl of yellow daal that I always find very comforting so, I’m a little bit torn here. I won’t essentially pinpoint one ingredient but I know maybe 4-5 days maximum I can go without Indian food and then I yearn for that comforting, familiar flavours that take me back to my home and my sense of security – even if it’s cumin-tempered yellow lentils.