“Balance” is a word that you will hear often during a conversation with Sameer Taneja. As the executive chef of the celebrated modern Indian fine dining restaurant, Benares, in Mayfair, London, Taneja strives everyday to not just get the flavours right but also put emotions on a plate for a guest. Every dish on the menu seeks to evoke nostalgia, while bringing together local British ingredients with regional Indian flavours. This is Taneja’s second stint at Benares, having first joined in 2012 as head chef under Chef Atul Kochhar. In 2015, he decided to open his own restaurant, Talli Joe, to offer Indian dishes as small plates to guests, paired with innovative cocktails. However, the venture had a brief lifespan and shut down in two years.
2019 saw Taneja return to Benares, this time as the executive chef. It was a challenge from day one, with the restaurant having lost its Michelin star after Kochhar left. However, Taneja managed to win it back within a year of having joined, and is now working relentlessly with the team to create a menu that brings a smile to people’s faces. In an interview with Lounge, he talks about his humble beginnings—growing up in a village in Nepal before shifting to Delhi—and about influences of the likes of Pascal Proyart, Michel and Alain Roux and Pierre Koffman on his life.
If you could look back at 2012, when you first joined Benares. What was that like?
My training lies in classical French food. However, Chef Atul Kochhar gave me the opportunity to cook Indian food. I accepted with a great deal of nervousness. It was a great experience to learn and execute at the same time. I was there for four years. Benares was a very modern Indian restaurant, but one that was influenced by the Western world. Soon after, I got to collaborate on a restaurant that was very close to my heart—Talli Joe. I came to India for inspiration and then started work on the menu. It was welcomed by Londoners and managed to carve a name for itself.
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It explored the idea of the Indian tapas?
You could say it focused on Indian small plates, instead of chaat or street food. It was a challenge to make raan in a smaller form, or to tell people that India was not just about vindaloo and chicken tikka masala. We changed compositions on the plate regularly to represent India. But we had to close it down. That’s when I got to know that Chef Atul Kochhar had parted ways with Benares. I went for a second stint as I knew the place. I knew that I was going to a restaurant that lost its Michelin star. But I took on the challenge.
How has this experience been different?
Earlier the menu was influenced by the West. But now the food is deeply rooted in India. Members of our team hail from diverse cultures, both from within India and other countries. From the very beginning, I requested them all to get food from home at least once a week—whatever it may be, dal, chutney, laddoos. This has now become a part of our culture, and we are learning from one another. We want to stay progressive while staying humble.
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Today, the Indian consumers in London have tried to get in touch with their roots. They are now aware of regional cuisines. How do you design a menu that keeps their memories in mind?
We want Benares to be a restaurant where people come to celebrate. Through the connections we provide, we want them to say, “maza aa gaya”. Certain touches on the plate should offer a clear bridge with their roots, no matter which generation they belong to. They have travelled around, so their palate is very neutral and honest. Indian food is not considered hot on the tongue anymore. Rather, it is now perceived as flavoursome and spice-oriented. People now understand the difference between cumin and coriander, whereas earlier it was all about garam masala. They understand that just a simple hing ka chaunk makes dal so beautiful. Supermarkets have also now started stocking all the lentils and spice mixes. There has been a global acceptance of the ingredients. People don’t want to settle for curry anymore.
Your menu at Benares is really eclectic with its macchi ceviche chaat, samosa ragda tartlet and celeriac bhatti kebab. If you could talk about this play on regional flavours and contemporary format.
Our tasting menu starts with papri chaat and bread pakoda. It is served on a tray, with a note by me. Street hawkers in India have survived through generations by selling food under the shade of trees. I still have memories of those. This is my way of paying homage to that. The moment this dish hits the table says it all. We make paneer for a tikka using goat’s milk. My brief to the team is that it should be the softest paneer in the world. This tikka is served with beetroot murabba and bhakri cracker.
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I grew up drinking aam panna. I use that memory in the macchi ceviche chaat, in which I marinate the fish and oysters in aam panna tiger milk. And the response has been phenomenal. Guests tell me that they have never eaten oysters in this form. I had wanted to take the dish out during winters but guests would simply not hear of it. Recently, we did a segment on liquid street snacks with spherification of kanji, and more. But we don’t use molecular gastronomy for gimmicks. The usage has to make sense. Sometimes we underestimate our food so much and don’t understand the value of things like makhana. But jab khaate hain tho accha bohot lagta hai (it feels good when we eat them). At Benares, we add a fun element to such ingredients and dishes. Take, for instance, chestnut shorba served with a momo and shaved white truffle. It’s turned out to be such an exciting dish. We make mistakes along the way as well, but the idea is to constantly learn from them. We are our biggest competitor and we strive to grow every month.
You worked at The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur, until you moved to London in 2003. There you worked with people like Pascal Proyart of One-O-One Restaurant, Michel and Alain Roux of three Michelin-starred Waterside Inn, Joel Antunes of Brasserie Joel and Pierre Koffmann of Koffmann’s. How have they influenced your culinary journey?
When I was a young chef, I would write letters to chefs across the world, hoping for opportunities to grow. I was not academically strong, but had confidence that maybe someday I could be a good chef. One fine day I got a call and with that came the chance to work at One-O-One Restaurant, one of the finest seafood restaurants in London. It was my dream to work with five iconic chefs, out of which I have worked with four. Pierre Koffman continues to be a huge influence. There is hardly anything on the menu at Benares that he has not tried. He comes out of pure affection. His feedback usually spans a couple of pages. He is not very effusive in his praise. If he says, ‘good’, it means you are on the right path. I realise that the more accolades you receive, the more responsible you need to become. And we at Benares are very conscious of this fact.