HE MIGHT be the world’s only Indian chef to have two Michelin stars, but 43-year-old Vineet Bhatia is still as alarmingly mild-lipped as ever. He came and opened his first proper restaurant in India about a year and a half ago — Ziya at The Oberoi, Mumbai — where he has continued serving pre-plated modern Indian cuisine. For months, he’s been rumoured to be one of the frontrunners to replace Akshay Kumar on MasterChef India 2, but such shows have never appealed to him. Now he’s finally launched his first ever television show called Twist of Taste on the newly refurbished (and renamed) Fox History and Traveller channel. Gaurav Jain caught up with the master chef and his wife and co-host Rashima as they were shooting their Mumbai episode — sampling the fares at iconic restaurants like Britannia and Mahesh Lunch Home and reinventing city staples like pao bhaji and vada pao. TV might mean being kitted out in Camel boots and Giorgio Armani tees, but Bhatia still cooks with that peculiar ease that some professionals have — they make it look so damn easy.
How do you interpret the concept of your first TV show?
It’s a travel and food show where Rashima and I travel to 13 cities across India and see what the local flavours are. We visit three or four iconic restaurants, not five star hotels but places where ordinary people go. At these restaurants Rashima picks up a challenge for me. She decides what element from the city’s culinary landscape she wants me to cook with. That’s a surprise she picks from each city. Then we have cooking demonstrations showing how we can twist the food in a modern environment. We change the presentation, cleanse it wherever possible, make it lighter and more flavourful without losing the authenticity.
Besides the food, there is also the travel element, the local culture, shopping, the heritage. Rashima goes around the city and sees what is available. It might be chikan work in Lucknow or saris in Chennai.
Why did you choose this particular format for a television show? You must have considered many shows.
No, I haven’t been thinking of television shows. I’ve been running away from TV. A lot of people do a lot of things on television that are gimmicky without being informative. I’ve been asked to do shows in the United Kingdom which are more like you turn up in a studio and they give you a bag and say, “Cook from here.” Fine. Then they like to put time constraints. Or there are two chefs fighting against each other. I don’t want to get into that. That’s not what I am about.
I wanted a show that would be informative. People anyway think my food is not Indian, which is wrong. I didn’t want to make it worse! When this show came up, my first reaction was to say no. Fox wanted a show that was about travel as well. There are so many shows that take you to a new city and show you a place, which has fantastic jalebi or whatever. Nothing wrong with that, but why do you need a chef for it?
So why did you agree to this one?
I cook. I am a khansama. I look at what people are eating day in and day out and integrate it with my style. Restaurants that have run for 90 years are there for a reason. I am not there to teach people making a living how to cook or criticise them or be obnoxious. I wanted to do a show only if I have carte blanche to bring a twist to the food we eat. It has been an extension of our daily lives, the constant bouncing of ideas, the arguing… it’s been an adventure.
What have been the biggest surprises on the show?
In Jodhpur, we had gulab jamun ki sabzi. That was really a shock. I was very intrigued. It was savoury but looked like a gulab jamun. I thought it was kofta and the guy was pulling a fast one. I had the gravy, it was pure Marwari gravy. I took the gulab jamun. It was all khoya, but savoury. So then I asked him: why? It was out of necessity. In the summer you don’t get vegetables there, but you still get dishes that both feed you and satisfy your palate. I also ate egg halwa for the first time. There was a family restaurant which makes a halwa with eggs. It tasted of khoya, not of eggs at all! It’s their family secret, I would never be able to make it.
If the emphasis is on innovation and making the flavours jump out, why not just focus on that? Why do you also insist on plating the food for each diner?
The guests that we were getting then and now are people who didn’t want to share. They like their presentation. They like to dress well and come to eat, and they like to have their food look good.
What do you mean when you say you cleanse your Indian dishes?
For example, we won’t use mota-mota garam masala in the plate. You will not find big elaichi or a big red chilli in your mouth. You cook them with the garam masalas but restaurants keep them in the plate. It is not required. Why do you need them when the food is already cooked? Why put them on the plate and then have the diner take it out? On the plate, it looks awkward and you can’t eat it. If we put a garnish, it will be an edible one.
When you opened Ziya you had told me that if you do this properly, a change will come. Has there been change?
Yes. You can feel it. Hoteliers keep calling to say we want you to come to Bangalore or come to Calcutta. We cannot go everywhere, so we turn them down politely, but they can go to others. It means people are opening their minds now to what can happen in Indian khana. The popular imagination is more of a mixed bag. Seventy five percent of diners are positive. The rest are: oh, I don’t know what this is, why do you fuss over the food. We will never please everybody.
Gaurav Jain is a Literary Editor with Tehelka.