Vanshika Bhatia was 23 years old when she was appointed as the head chef of Ek Bar in Defence Colony, Delhi. “I wasn’t even of legal drinking age (which is 25), and I was leading the kitchen in a bar,” she chuckles. By the age of 25, she opened one of the buzziest restaurants in the capital, Together at 12th. The now-shuttered restaurant was known for innovative cooking and zero-waste dishes made with scraps and peels. Bhatia’s professional journey is like a dream roadmap for an aspiring chef. She interned at Noma, worked with Gaggan Anand and tasted success at an age when chefs are just graduating from culinary schools.
The unwavering ambition to be a chef was seeded when she would skip studying for baking as a teenager. It was a stress buster for the restless Bhatia. “I have an anxious mind, and baking calms me,” she shares. Now, the 28-year-old is the founder of a cafe named Petite Pie Shop in Gurgaon, is a chef partner at the ingredient-focussed vegetarian European restaurant Omo in Delhi and runs the Instagram page @bannurevivalproject to document the cuisine her community Bannuwal.
In an interview with Lounge, she talks about Bannuwali food, chefs who inspire her and shares a recipe of a pound cake from her childhood. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about your background.
My grandparents are from the Bannu region in Pakistan, and after partition they settled in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. We are known as Bannuwalis. When we fled Pakistan to build a new home, we had limited resources which reflects in the simplicity of our cuisine. There are vegetable preparations with just onion and ginger, or tomato and onion, or just black pepper and onion. The use of spices is minimal and limited to whole cumin and coriander. Our meat preparations contain vegetables like gourds to increase the quantity of the dish. At Together at 12th, I had introduced the lightly spiced Bannwali dish chicken painda. We eat a lot of wheat, and prefer roti over rice. We have a sooji halwa, known as doodhi halwa, that contains just five ingredients. Sooji is soaked in milk and sugar for five hours and then cooked in a pan with ghee till it clumps into a chewy candy-like texture. For a nutty mouthfeel, one can add some chironji.
When did your interest in food begin?
Everybody in my home is a passionate foodie. My dadaji used to make great dishes with mutton and chicken. For my dad, cooking is a stress buster. My nani used to make jams, preserves and chawanprash. She would pay attention to zero-waste cooking, loved gardening and grew roses for making gulkand. She passed away when I was five, and my mom says the food I make, or my approach to cooking, is similar to my nani’s. When I was around 15, and studies got harder due to boards, I found solace in baking. My parents used to hide my cookbooks so that I would spend more time with my books, instead of being in the kitchen. That's how it began, and then it became an obsession. When those books were hidden, I would innovate. I would watch Sanjeev Kapoor and Master Chef which fuelled my passion to be a chef. Cooking, I realised, grounds me. My father wanted me to study finance after standard twelve and I got through Warwick college in the UK. But, I wanted to be a chef, and joined an intense nine month diploma course at Le Cordon Bleu in London.
Tell us about your professional journey.
I returned to India and interned under the Italian chef Davide Cananzi at Mezzo Mezzo in Mumbai’s JW Marriott. He managed my internship quite well and I learnt a lot from him. Meanwhile, I started to apply for jobs, and filled an application to join the world’s number one restaurant, Noma. It was a shock for me when they called. I was there for about four months and bagged my first proper job at Junoon in Dubai. Then I got a call from chef Garima Arora in Bangkok to join Gaggan. My work there was cut short due to visa issues. That’s when I returned to India and joined the Olive group in Delhi. It introduced me to the wide world of spices and ingredients that we have here, and then I never wanted to leave. I moved on from Olive to start on my own. I always wanted to open my own restaurant at the age of 25. Three years ago, I started Together at 12th, but unfortunately it shut down in the pandemic. Meanwhile, I began to bake at home and delivered fresh bread, cookies and cakes to my neighbours. I started to bake with such frenzy that it led to weight loss. By the end of last year, I opened the cafe Petite Pie Shop in Gurgaon and now aim to take it to other cities as well. In March, I joined Omo as a chef partner.
What has been the biggest shift in your career so far?
It would be Noma because I learnt to respect ingredients from the founder and chef René Redzepi. We would spend four to five hours just plucking leaves, digging out ants and collecting ingredients from the woods to take back to the restaurant for cooking. It was a turning point for me, because we were taught to build a dish in a sustainable way. Despite taking copies notes, I would feel that some information slipped through the cracks. But, now when I look at ingredients or try to crack a dish, that learning comes back.
What did you learn from the chefs that you worked with?
From Garima, I learnt to hustle and keep going no matter what life throws at you. From Gaggan, I learnt to stick to my roots. From Davide, I learnt about using the best quality ingredients. From Sujan Sarkar, who was at Ek Bar, I learnt how to make progressive Indian without the drama of molecular gastronomy.
Vanshika’s home-style pound cake
100 gm eggs
100 gm refined oil
100 gm sugar
100 gm all purpose flour
2 gm baking powder
Few drops of vanilla essence
Mix the oil and sugar using a beater and add the egg. Whisk properly. Then slowly mix the flour, baking powder and vanilla essence.
Pour the batter in a lined baking tin. (Lick the rest of the batter for ultimate satisfaction). Bake at 175 C till a skewer comes out clean.
Note: The trick is to measure the eggs and match the quantities of refined oil, sugar, and all purpose flour.
Inheritance of flavours is a series of interviews with chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality experts and professionals about food memories and tastes of home.