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The chef who transformed a menu from bland to brilliant

Chef Viraf Patel, chef at Neuma, follows classical techniques and places the focus squarely on the ingredients.

A dish at Neuma, Mumbai.
A dish at Neuma, Mumbai.

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It’s not often that a dish at a dining experience is so good that you set aside all table etiquette, pick up the bowl and use your fingers to help lick it clean. Chef Viraf Patel’s Himalayan Black Bean Hummus that accompanied a braised lamb made at least three of my dining partners join me in polishing our bowls this way. Besides the incredible dining experience, watching Patel and his small team execute a 6-course meal – his homage to the food of the Levant titled Being a Parsi at The Conservatory in Bengaluru in December 2022, was akin to witnessing the grace and perfect timing of Olympic-level synchronised swimming.

Mumbai-based Patel is a well-known name in the culinary world. He began his career with erstwhile Indigo in Colaba, which incidentally is the current location of Neuma, of which Patel is now chef – a full circle of sorts. He has worked with brands like Impresario Handmade Restaurants, Olive Bar & Kitchen and Independence Brewing Co. Through his Firebred Hospitality Pvt Ltd he set up The Table, and Gateway Taproom, both in Mumbai, Frida Cantina in Goa and The Salt House in Kolkata. His own very popular Café Zoe (2012-2019) did cosy breakfasts by day and transformed into an energetic bar at night, both with equal panache.

Recently, just a few hours away from presenting a six-course wine-paired dinner at Neuma, a soft-spoken Patel explained to me that this restaurant is modern European, formal and upscale. The restaurant did not have a good reputation for its food and he came in to change things. Today, Neuma’s menu comes from an intimate understanding of how the Mumbai market works and what it needs. “I have seen this space go from a Hyderabadi restaurant to Indigo, to another brand and now Neuma. I understand this area and know personally most of the people who walk through the door," Patel says, his finger well placed on the pulse of his diners. Having grown up close by was an added benefit.

Chef and restaurateur Viraf Patel. (Photo courtesy: Neuma)
Chef and restaurateur Viraf Patel. (Photo courtesy: Neuma)

Going back to his growing-up years, Patel had a short DJ stint before getting into a professional study course. “I remember hotel management being the only choice given to me as it offered a wider scope than culinary school. But I focused on the culinary aspect and would try and spend as much time in the kitchen as possible,” recalls Patel, who went on to Switzerland to study before returning to India.

It’s hard to narrow down on highlights of one’s 24-year career when you are as accomplished as Patel, but he says that everything he worked on has been about pushing the boundaries of understanding the market and how people will react. “Café Zoe was tailor-made for the aftermath of the 2008 recession which happened a few years before we opened doors. People were coming back to India from the UK and other countries and it worked well," he recalls. “The Table needed a piece of California and its culture to be recreated in Mumbai. More recently, I did Frida Cantina in Goa and worked for the first time with Mexican cuisine. All it needed was for me to understand the ingredients and work them to my style," he says.

His style ensures that ingredients are always in focus – the lesser known they are the more Patel wants to make them shine. His Roasted Eggplant and Spiced Shrimp with a crisp rice salsa and toum at the Being a Parsi lunch equally placed the spotlight on the eggplant and the shrimp, with accompaniments that worked to elevate the dish.

At Neuma, Patel’s star dish is a charred cauliflower one. “We use a lot of local produce like cheese from The Spotted Cow Fromagerie. While we do serve cod that is imported, I also have a Cured Prawn and Avocado Salad. I have the confidence to do this, being close to the ocean,” he says.

Chef Patel’s approach to cooking is clearly classical and he says it comes from his training. “In Switzerland, there is an apprenticeship programme where students have to cook their way through a German culinary book Classical cooking - The Modern Way by Eugene Pauli. It takes around 3.5 years to complete the book and I did it too. I apply these classical methods to the modern world. You can be extremely creative but, if you do not know how to bind a sauce, it won’t work. It is important to have a strong foundation," he says.

And this strong foundation is also the basis of how Patel runs his tight kitchen. “Most of my team who are sous chefs or at that level started with me in the utility section. It has always been about enhancing their knowledge and in turn, their lives. Almost 90% of them have little to no education but it does not mean they cannot be sous chefs, head chefs and more," he says.

And over so many years of his staff seeing him work the range, the line and on the pass, they understand the nuances of how chef Patel likes things done. “We work on simplifying things. I am open to suggestions and new approaches from my team. At the same time when I give them ideas, they know how I would like them done. Though, I sometimes like to throw them off guard and surprise them by going completely against what I normally do,” he laughs.

Chef Patel currently is working on a steak house in Manila, Philippines, a multi-city ramen house, a dessert forward café, a food truck design to be rolled out pan-India and more. Not easy to find some free time in the midst of all this but he says, “I do take around 10 days off each month to spend with family. We eat out a lot and cook together too, go out for walks in the hills and do lots of other crazy stuff”.

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.

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