Chef Vineet Bhatia made a small change on his Instagram profile, @chefvineet, recently. His name now reads as Vineet Bhatia MBE.
It is an acronym for Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. I ask him what it means to be awarded this title. “It is about the three As—acknowledgement, appreciation and acceptance. More than 30 years ago, I left India for the UK and lived there as an immigrant. To be accepted eventually is an honour and speaks volumes.”
In December, the 55-year-old chef became the first chef of Indian origin to be honoured with an MBE “for services to UK cuisine, to Hospitality and to International Trade”. It’s recognition of his role as a cultural ambassador for the UK, going beyond the Michelin stars awarded to three of his restaurants. He runs 11 restaurants, including Kama By Vineet at Harrods in London, Indego by Vineet in Dubai and Rasoi By Vineet in Bahrain.
Bhatia is part of the UK-India living bridge initiative introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 to forge cultural diplomacy and strengthen bilateral trade between the two countries. The chef showcases Indian cuisine and food items, such as spices, and British produce, like cheeses, at various culinary platforms, high profile events and food festivals around the world.
He notes: “The idea is to bring both the countries together in best shape and form through food and cuisine. That is what an MBE is given for. You could say I am a food diplomat.”
He has an innate understanding of the soft power of food. Ever since he moved to London in 1993, he has instinctively picked up the right cues to make Indian food appealing to an audience that didn’t know desi dishes beyond curries. At the time, he was hired as the executive chef for the now shuttered restaurantStar of India in South Kensington. A British guest rejected his warm gajar ka halwa, saying it’s not served hot because he was used to the cold, barfi-style version sold in London sweet shops. Bhatia repackaged it as slow-cooked caramelised carrot fudge with dry fruits. It was lapped up.
“I started looking at the food very carefully. I realised from Day 1 that things done very classically will not work,” he shares. This helped him to break boundaries, push the limits of Indian food and earn three Michelin stars—Rasoi, London, in 2006, Rasoi, Geneva, in 2009 and Vineet Bhatia London in 2017. In the aughts, he was the only Indian-origin chef in the UK to win three Michelin stars with his flair for creating modern Indian food; think chocolate samosa paired with filter coffee shrikhand. It unlocked the possibilities of how Indian food can be reimagined and paved the way for other Indian chefs abroad to experiment with food. Bhatia is regarded as the ambassador of restaurant-driven contemporary Indian cuisine. A natural progression perhaps was planning menus for power tables.
When erstwhile British prime minister Boris Johnson visited India in April, Bhatia cooked for him and Modi. At the opening of the Fifa World Cup last year, he prepared a special meal for members of the Qatari royal family, British delegates and officials from the Indian embassy. When the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth 2 of the Royal Navy docked in the Indian Ocean near Mumbai in 2021, he was flown in on a chopper to plan meals for a confidential meeting between dignitaries from the UK and India. “There is a lot of stuff which happens and meals are curated as one of the many ways to build diplomatic relations between two countries,” he says.
To reflect diplomacy, he blends key ingredients and dishes of cuisines belonging to those present on the table. For instance, the British favourite, roast potatoes, are tempered desi style with cumin, onion and fresh coriander; French poached pear, traditionally paired with vanilla ice cream, is served with cardamom ice cream; and chicken tikka is flavoured with rosemary. “In this manner, we bring in the element of cross-cultural influences,” he says. “India and British cuisines have a shared history and there has been cross-pollination of foods (puddings, chutneys, devilled eggs, for example) between these cultures over centuries. We tap into those things and try to fuse the cuisines.”
For the menu at the opening ceremony of the Fifa World Cup 2022, he drew inspiration from the cuisines of three countries—UK, India and Qatar. Aged cheese was flown in from the UK and served with a sprinkling of roasted cumin, a lamb dish was flavoured with za’atar to incorporate an element from Qatari cuisine, and a zero alcohol gin fizz was sweetened with jaggery. “When one creates these menus, one knows that the guest may not understand the dishes, but if they see a certain element which resonates with them or their culture, you (as a chef) will gain their respect because you acknowledged their presence. It goes back to the three As—acknowledgement, appreciation and acceptance.”