Since the time she took up a position as guest relations manager in The Manor Hotel, New Delhi, a little more than a year ago, Palki Singh has felt like she’s walked into a storm. It’s been a year when the definitions of words, the descriptions of jobs, a city’s attitudes, everything seems to have changed. Singh has been redesignated to Assistant Manager, exclusively looking after its contemporary Indian restaurant Indian Accent. While in early 2012, a “busy night” referred to some 40 guests, even 90 can’t be called a “busy night” now, she says. The average do-you-know-who-I-am Delhiite has learnt that he can’t just walk in unannounced. The restaurant needs at least three days’ advance notice for a dinner reservation, a phenomenon that’s more New York than New Delhi.
At the centre of the storm is the chef who cooked it all up: Manish Mehrotra. The 38-year-old executive chef, who conceptualised and runs the restaurant, appears to be on top of things, even at his busiest. When we meet him, he has overseen a lunch, responded to journalists seeking “innovative recipes without onions” (a rather common query nowadays), emailed Diwali recipes to others, jumped to receive the restaurant phone while the desk was empty (“Namaste, Indian Accent. Manish, may I help you?”), straightened a tilted painting in the lobby, even chased down a few mosquitos with an electric racket. And it’s just late afternoon.
It’s perhaps this degree of ‘hands-on-ness’, of ownership, that’s put Indian Accent on the fine-dining map of the world. Although the twists and innovations in the food have been hailed by critics like Vir Sanghvi and Marriyam Reshi from day one, in the last year there’s clearly been something that can be described, for the lack of a better word, as an explosion. In January 2012, there was Foodistan, a reality TV competition featuring chefs from India and Pakistan. Mehrotra participated, much to the horror of his well wishers — “Why is someone like him staking his reputation on a competition?”, many wondered — and finally emerged victorious. In August 2012, Indian Accent was listed in Newsweek’s pick of ‘World’s 101 Best Places to Eat’ for its fabled galawati foie gras. The New York Times, in a list of ‘46 places to go in 2013’, named New Delhi second in the Asia- Pacific, with Mehrotra in the accompanying photograph. Post-April, there was a steady stream of guests from Israel; Mehrotra later learnt of an article in one of their newspapers on him. “One of my guests read it to me,” he says. “It was in Hebrew.”
It wasn’t always like this, though. When owner Rohit Khattar first asked him to start this modern Indian or, as he prefers to call it, “inventive Indian” restaurant in 2009 in response to Hemant Oberoi’s Varq, someone called it “Indian Accident”, Mehrotra recalls. Modern Indian cuisine, although practised globally by star-studded stalwarts such as Vineet Bhatia, was still taking its tentative steps within the country. Guests would frequently walk in, sit at the table, read the menu, and leave. The ones who stuck around wondered why their food didn’t come with any papad, achar or onions.
To explain how he dealt with that problem, Mehrotra launches into a childhood anecdote, something we realise is a recurring theme through all his conversations and his cooking. “Doordarshan used to have this serial on Mirza Ghalib, and all those couplets flew like bouncers above my head. Then, one day, my brother brought home a book. Once we understood the meaning, we started enjoying it. The same goes for this food, or an abstract painting,” he says. Mehrotra started spending more time at the restaurant, and the house staff was trained to talk to guests, explain that this was “no vague fusion” where disparate flavours would be randomly combined, that there was a reason behind every dish: the blue cheese kulcha was a reinterpretation of the classic blue-cheese-white-bread combination; the galawati kebab and foie gras were combined because they are similarly-textured delicacies.
He also paid heed to the criticism, something that continues till today (Mehrotra personally calls all complainants the next day). For instance, realising what an integral part of the Indian diet papad was, he whipped up a delicacy featuring six different papads with accompanying chutney dips. Meanwhile, customers have become a lot more accepting, even enamoured with modern Indian cuisine itself, watching Masterchef Australia, and trading recipes about gorgonzola and galangal. “Although some critics tried to dismiss it by calling it “Frenchified”, modern Indian cuisine freed Indian food from its intimidating shackles of “authenticity”, and made it more accessible to a global audience. This is the future of Indian food,” says food historian Pushpesh Pant. “While many chefs, such as Gaggan Anand in Bangkok and Zorawar Kalra in Delhi, are doing exciting things with it, Mehrotra certainly is its flag bearer,” says food critic Sourish Bhattacharyya who has followed Mehrotra’s work from his days as a pan-Asian chef. “His background in pan-Asian cuisine, and the experience of setting up Tamarai in London, where he brought together the different Asian and Chinese cuisines whilst catering to a global palate, gave him the edge he carries with him today,” he adds. Pant goes a step further to describe him as one who bridges the divide not just between two cultures, but also classes of people. “He’s aware of earthy delicacies, like sattu, which is poor man’s fare.”
But the lead flagbearer of fusion never tries to claim the word for himself. “The first fusion dates back to the first guy who thought up the manchurian. China Garden by Nelson Wong was the first restaurant to serve it,” he says. Then, of course, there was Tarla Dalal, with her paneer and aloo tikki burger, who is to food documentation in India what Jesus Christ is to the Gregorian Calender. “Her recipes featured in Grihshobha and Sarita much before there was Vogue or Femina. There is the India before and after Tarla Dalal.” Somewhere along the way, fusion got derailed, and produced things like the paneer makhni pizza.
Mehrotra’s, in his words, is fusion with a reason. “If someone tells me about the combinations in the dish, it has to make sense to me. I try not to mix two Indian cuisines in a dish. I won’t do paneer chettinaad, or Kerala-style roghan josh, or dhokla made the Bengali way. Classic flavours are not to be played with.” For someone who’s synonymous with the words “inventive” and “innovative”, you can’t help thinking that at the heart of Manish Mehrotra’s love for fusion is a deep, almost rigid regard for the traditional. Of course, there are no claims to be “authentic.”
Nostalgia is a big element in Mehrotra’s cuisine. “Our generation is the only link between Binaca Geet Mala and Indian Idol. We’ve known Chitrahaar on Sundays and the agitated school discussion on Monday mornings — “Arre yaar, phir wahi Teri Meherbaniyan ka gaana dikha diya” — or the painful adjustment and readjustment of the TV antenna before every TV-watching session.” Mehrotra’s kitchen has glasses typically found in railway stations for serving cutting chai, tiny charpais used for serving Fatafat and other mouth fresheners presented along with the bill. He serves amuse-bouche in miniature Hawkins pressure cookers, and palate cleansers in miniature dhobi-ka-istri (irons). His banana sticky cake comes with a Phantom Sweet Cigarettes garnish, and every winter, the sarson ka saag gets a new avatar.
“In a few years these things will disappear, and unless I revive these, my daughter will see photographs of sugarcane in a book never knowing what a ganderi is,” he says. “I miss my childhood, and the way people react to these things, I know they miss it too.”