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How chef Hari Nayak spices it up

The chef speaks about not diluting flavours and showcasing Indian food globally

Chef Hari Nayak at Alchemy.
Chef Hari Nayak at Alchemy.

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The joy of seeing a dish, well-known in your regional cuisine, on the menu of a restaurant far from home is special. That is the joy I felt when I saw Lobster Bezule over Sago Majjige Anna (bezule is a spicy, tangy Mangalorean fry; over sago buttermilk rice) on the new menu at Alchemy, at The Chancery Pavilion in Bengaluru, last week.

What makes it so special is that Alchemy has celebrity chef, restaurateur and author Hari Nayak, 48, as consulting chef, showcasing globally influenced delicacies featuring the diverse flavours of India. This man from a small town, Udupi, is the culinary director of Sona in New York, consulting chef for Masti and Bombay Bungalow in Dubai, and chef-owner of Jhol in Bangkok (all of them have made it to the Michelin Guides of their respective cities or countries). He has, so far, authored six books on cooking. Alchemy is the only place in India he is involved with at present

So it’s interesting to know how his approach to Indian food, globally and at Alchemy, has evolved. On his first visit to India since January 2020, Nayak describes the menu at Alchemy as the outcome of a collaborative effort with its kitchen team and head chef Sanket Hoskote. “A lot of things can be done virtually now. While Sanket drives the menu, I am here to help and guide him. We discuss a dish he has in mind, he creates and photographs it. Back in New York, where I am based, I have a test kitchen, and, with my experience, I know how flavours work. When I come here, we try a lot of dishes together and tweak them. It is always a collaborative and fun process.”

The Lobster Bezule, one such effort, plays on the curd rice with pickle concept. A pickle-flavoured lobster here works much like a prawn pickle would, with the sago lending an interesting texture without taking away the traditional flavours of classic curd rice.

Lobster Bezule
Lobster Bezule

There is also a Prawn Ghee Roast with a Jaggery Kallappam, a coming together of Mangalore and Kerala; and a Bihari Champaran Lamb cooked in a mud pot, bringing some earthy flavours together.

For much of Nayak’s career, in fact, India re-imagined has been the underlying theme of his approach to Indian food. The Indian theme is interesting, however, because Nayak says he never really wanted to cook Indian food once he was done with culinary school. “It was because of my first experience in an Indian kitchen. As a kitchen trainee straight out of culinary college in Manipal, I was placed at a high-end Indian restaurant in New Delhi. While I wanted to learn recipes and cook, I was made to clean bags of onions and the walkway.”

But ever since he first stepped into a five star kitchen, he had known he wanted to be in a chef’s position. “At the age of 23, I was sure about wanting to go to the best cooking school and though Switzerland was a choice, I got in at the Culinary Institute of America and went for it,” he says. He started his career in New York, at the eponymous French kitchen of chef-restaurateur Daniel Boulud.

By now, though, Nayak was missing Indian food. He began experimenting with flavours at staff meals, purchasing what he needed from Indian grocery stores in New Jersey and whipping up dishes with duck, asparagus or whatever was available. “Everyone loved it! It was not new or intentional. I was driven by my hunger for Indian food. I started cooking like this regularly and chef Daniel found the food to be nice and asked what it was. I responded by saying modern Indian cooking and he advised me to collect the recipes I was creating. That is how the book Modern Indian Cooking (2007) came about, with chef Vikas Khanna, my classmate at Manipal and friend, as co-author,” explains Nayak. Thereafter, he was asked to consult on restaurants showcasing this food.

His approach since has evolved. Till a few years ago, international diners would find Indian food showcasing elements from different Indian cuisines. It is something Nayak too has done. “But I realised that in trying to cater to the Western palate, we were diluting flavours and dumbing down seasoning. It may have been needed to help people adapt and gain an understanding of our food but I don’t think it took our cuisine forward,” he says.

Today, things have changed. This year, chef Chintan Pandya of Dhamaka, was, for instance, named Best Chef: New York and Meherwan Irani’s Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina, has been named America’s Most Outstanding Restaurant by the non-profit James Beard Foundation. The recognition is encouraging an increasing number of chefs to present Indian food unapologetically. Nayak, for instance, says, “While there is a limit to how much oil should be floating on a Roghani Murgh, I would no longer skim it off and make a caviar out of it.”

So while at Sona the Galouti Kebab may be served on puff pastry, the Malabar Biryani will take you to Kerala, the Ghee Roast wings are reminiscent of Kundapur homes and the Yellow Dal Tadka is just what every Indian chef ever interviewed will say is their go-to meal. At Jhol, an Alleppey Fish Curry will come with Matta Rice, as it should, but will also have tempered taro—a doff of the hat to local ingredients, which Nayak always tries to incorporate.

I saw such culinary acknowledgements at Alchemy—The Butter Board has warm Iyengar Khara Bun, the snack that powers college students and harried professionals in Bengaluru. Paired with a Dabeli butter that expertly brings in those flavours into a butter, you can’t but think India. The Bheja Fry over a crispy potato basket is like the Sunday treat made in many homes across Karnataka, packing together soft, spiced goodness with the never-fail crunch of well-done potatoes.

The butter board
The butter board

“It’s a constant battle—I don’t want to present Indian food with a spin to it but it can’t be helped in some situations, many times, from a business perspective,” says Nayak. “In America and the West there is a change coming and I may just be able to open a regional restaurant in New York City, which is now ready for it, perhaps Goan! Just such an opportunity is presenting itself for me in Bangkok right now.”

Till then, Nayak plans to grow Sona—in Miami and Las Vegas. And six months down the line at Alchemy, he hopes to bring in a meat smoker, perhaps try some Texas BBQ or even a suckling pig. “I am excited and working on it all,” he says. So are we.

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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