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Innovation is their superpower

What defines a chef's creative process? Six culinary masters speak about their signature dishes

Ajit Bangera, Senior executive chef at ITC Grand Chola, Chennai

A chef's creativity is often shaped by the flavours of home, curiosity about exploring an ingredient to its full potential, an urge to reimagine a dish, and the desire to drive social change. Each factor imparts meaning to their menus. Six Indian chefs, within the country and abroad, speak about their signature dishes and reveal what moved them to rethink food.

Ajit Bangera: Gourmet south Indian

Senior executive chef at ITC Grand Chola, Chennai

Chef Ajit Bangera is credited with giving a gourmet spin to traditional south Indian food at his restaurant Avartana at the ITC Grand Chola. The set menu has reinvented versions of rasam and coriander rice. He explains how the menu was planned, and shares the two-step distillation process for their prized rasam, which is served like a delicate drink.

“We wanted to give the food a gourmet spin without impairing the sanctity of the dish. Let’s consider our take on the rasam, a dish loved by both Chennaites and foreigners. Our golden-hued rasam, which is similar to a delicate consommé, took the longest to perfect. On an average, each dish goes through 12-15 tastings before it is put on the menu, but the rasam needed about 40. It’s a lot about technique. We have a variety of rasams, but to explain the backstory, let’s pick the tomato rasam. Ripe tomatoes are placed in a large bowl, then slightly bruised and seasoned with salt, pepper and herbs. These are then tied in a muslin clothe and hung in a cold room. The tomatoes start to give out the juice. This is the first distillation. This juice is collected, tempered with spices and frozen. When it turns into ice, two layers emerge; the concentrated part settles at the bottom, which is carefully separated. This is the second distillation. Before serving, a French press filled with herbs like coriander is placed on the table. The rasam is passed through the French press and decanted into a martini glass. It ticks the right boxes of aroma and flavour.”

Chef Rishim Sachdeva: Rethinking everyday ingredients

Founder and Chef, Tendril —A (Mostly) Vegan Kitchen, London

Chef Rishim Sachdeva, Tendril —A (Mostly) Vegan Kitchen, London
Chef Rishim Sachdeva, Tendril —A (Mostly) Vegan Kitchen, London

Rishim Sachdeva was the head chef of the Olive Kitchen and Bar, which has restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, from 2016 to 2019. He made a mark with his creative, almost genius, take on simple everyday ingredients such as the cauliflower. At Olive, he elevated the cauliflower in a dish with yoghurt. As we waited for what’s next, he moved to London last year and opened Tendril, a restaurant known for its plant-based menu and made a 2.0 version of this cauliflower dish.

“Taking a humble vegetable like cauliflower and turning it into something incredible that people keep coming back for, has been quite the journey. This dish has seen various avatars over a few months (more like years!) to develop and master. The cauliflower is slowly caramelized and turned into a very rich puree, where the fermented cauliflower juice adds another layer of flavour. This in turn is paired with roasted cauliflower and dry, aged cauli stalks and pickled cauli trimmings. The whole dish is rounded off with an XO sauce made just with leek, salt, lemon and aromats. To add bitterness and more layers, we finish off with cacao nibs. Being vegan, it celebrates Mother Nature with a lot of different textures and pops of flavour and love. No wonder it continues to be one of Tendril–A (Mostly) Vegan Kitchen's all-time best-sellers.”

Chef Rahul Akerkar: A taste of home

Chef and founder, Qualia, Mumbai

Chef Rahul Akerkar, Qualia, Mumbai
Chef Rahul Akerkar, Qualia, Mumbai

At the turn of the millennium, Rahul Akerkar established Indigo in Mumbai. It was one of the very first restaurants to incorporate local Maharashtrian flavours into gourmet dishes. He took inspiration from his Malwani background of coastal Maharashtra.

“About 20 years ago, there were two stand-out dishes from my Indigo menu—the first was basil crusted grouper with kokum curry accompanied with sun-dried tomato basil poha and prawn balchao, and the second was a pan-seared rawas with Panchamrut-inspired sauce served with coconut braised spinach and a warm artichoke salad. I was at my aunt’s home and she served the Malwani panchamrut sweet and sour tamarind chutney. When I had it at her home, the first thought that struck me was it would pair really well with pork ribs.

“So, I went back to my kitchen and after several trials found out that it went really well with rawas. That’s how that dish, pan-seared rawas with Panchamrut-inspired sauce, came to be.

There’s no perfect bite. When we are reimagining a dish, we have to keep in mind that people eat in different ways. It’s important that the various combinations and permutations of what you have on the plate work together in the mouth. Texturally, in terms of flavour, consistency, sweet and sour, maybe crunchy and soft. All of these elements combine to create a mouthfeel and allows you to appreciate a dish.”

Chef Thomas Zacharias: Reimagining regional foods

Chef- partner, The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai

Chef Thomas Zacharias, Chef- partner, The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai
Chef Thomas Zacharias, Chef- partner, The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai

If The Bombay Canteen (TBC) is known to celebrate regional ingredients and dishes, it’s in large part due to Zacharias, who travels around India to discover little-known foods and introduce them, with a fun twist, in urban platters at TBC.

“Before attempting to create something new from a traditional dish, I first try recreating the dish in its original version, as much as possible. I am very particular about this, because if the new version is too disconnected from the original, any experiment will feel dishonest. To justify the creative process in this manner, it takes several tries sometimes,” says the chef.

“One of my personal favourites is the Pakhala Bhaat, which got quite popular at TBC. It is inspired by the Odia pakhala bhaat. In Odisha, it is had as a fermented cold rice preparation tempered with spices and paired with a mash, a fried dish and a pickle. Considered to be cooling, it is typically served in summer. At TBC, we included it in the summer menu. I added a twist by introducing pumpkins. We made pumpkin flower fritters, braised pumpkin leaves, charred pumpkin bharta and used the peels too; eating all parts of a vegetable is a philosophy that we promote.

“A TBC initiative that I am particularly proud of involved championing wild greens from the tribal communities of Maharashtra. Eating local is a tenet of our restaurant philosophy, and for the menu that resulted from this initiative, we sourced ingredients such as Shevla bhajji, garbandi, and karvanda from this region, which falls within a 100km radius of Mumbai. While the locals make a simple preparation or sabzi with salt, turmeric and fresh chillies, we had to rethink how to introduce them in a modern manner. We did a garbandi taco and, with mahua sourced from the Sahyadri, we made a toffee pudding."

Chef Amninder Sandhu: Recreating memories

Chef partner at Food Matters Pvt. Ltd and the comfort Indian delivery kitchen Iktara, Mumbai

Chef Amninder Sandhu, Chef partner at Food Matters Pvt. Ltd and the comfort Indian delivery kitchen Iktara, Mumbai
Chef Amninder Sandhu, Chef partner at Food Matters Pvt. Ltd and the comfort Indian delivery kitchen Iktara, Mumbai

Chef Sandhu grew up in the North-East and her food is flavoured with memories of her childhood spent in a region known for its rice and meat preparations steamed in bamboo.

“As a kid, a visit to my uncle's place was usually followed by a picnic in the dense, gorgeous forest of Deomali, a village in Arunachal Pradesh. The family would trek into the forest to spend the day by the river. We would catch fish or hunt and cook the game in bamboo on coal, like the local tribe. It is served with Alpinia Leaf Wrapped Jasmine Rice. Every time I make it, I think of my uncle, who taught me the family heirloom recipe, and made me realize that cooking is super cool. When I travelled across Assam, I interacted with the Fakiyal tribe in Naharkatia and the Mishing tribe in Majuli, who cook rice wrapped in Alpinia leaves. I started doing the same to help impart a delicate flavour. Cooking in a bamboo is popular in Nagaland and I learnt this technique from my uncle, who had many Naga friends. Slow cooking in a bamboo seals the juices, enhances flavour and results in a far better texture of food. I drew from these memories and learnings to create a dish named Deomali. It is meat cooked in bamboo over charcoal and served with rice. It is one of my signature dishes.”

Chef Anahita Dhondy: Championing millets

Chef partner at Sodabottleopenerwala, Cyber Hub, Gurugram

Chef Anahita Dhondy, Chef partner at Sodabottleopenerwala, Cyber Hub, Gurugram
Chef Anahita Dhondy, Chef partner at Sodabottleopenerwala, Cyber Hub, Gurugram

Chef Dhondy is known for championing millets in her menu at Soda Bottle Openerwala. Once, during Navratri, she introduced a Buddha-bowl-style dish with specialties served during this festival, such as samak ki rice (buckwheat rice), sweet potato chaat, sabudana vada or khichadi, classic aloo ki sabzi, raw banana chips and makhana. Another time, she introduced a complete millet-based menu with a modern makeover. “To make people eat millets can be challenging. So we have to constantly innovate. I did an entire menu which had only millets, from the starters to dessert. The appetisers were made with kodo millets, salad with foxtail millets, berry pulao with buckwheat and for dessert, we had an apple crumble made with jowar flour."

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