Raj kachori is sacrosanct. It needs skill, confidence and creativity to experiment with this beloved street food. Chef Manav Tuli has all three in good measure. He is the chef de cuisine of the Hong Kong-based restaurant CHAAT which was awarded its first Michelin star last month.
Typically, raj kachori is a messy affair of chutneys and fillings. It wouldn’t have worked in its Haldiram-avatar for a fine dining restaurant like CHAAT, located at the luxury property Rosewood in Hong Kong. Tuli had to be innovative. He noticed diners spend several minutes taking photos of food before digging in. And, chaats are eaten as soon as they are served in India. For his version of the raj kachori—to please Instagrammers and diners in Hong Kong—he tweaked the aesthetics while ensuring it didn’t go soggy. Instead of piling it up with chutneys, they are served on the side, and the shell is crisper to withstand a long photo sesh. It is experiments like these, and more—marinating foie gras with tamarind and kokum chutney—that has made him a top chef in Hong Kong.
Tuli, who turned 40 today, spent the early days of his career with the Oberoi group at Rajasthan’s Udaivilas, and shuffled between Delhi and Mumbai. Infact, the lowest point of his career was the night spent at Mumbai’s Trident during the terror attack of 26/11. “It was a really bad time,” he shares. In 2011, he bagged a job at the glamorous fine dining restaurant Chutney Mary in London. In 2018, he joined Tamarind in London which had a Michelin Star. In 2019, he moved to Rosewood in Hong Kong and opened CHAAT the following year. In an interview with Lounge, he unpacks what it takes to create Michelin-worthy food.
Tell me about your background.
I wasn’t good at anything while growing up. During my class 12 board exams, I was the first from the last in my town—although the marks weren’t low. It was a disaster for my family; like someone died in my home. My dad thought the best career path for me was to open a cement shop. I was born in Bhilai, famous for the Bhilai Street Plant, and grew up in the adjacent town named Durg in Chattisgarh. My neighbour who was a civil contractor offered me a job saying if I picked up the logistics of the cement business, I could run a shop one day. My first job was building the staircase of the BSNL building in Durg with a monthly salary of ₹ 1000. I never expected anything good to come my way then. But, in my 12th standard, I had filled a hotel management form on the suggestion of a friend who said working for hotels meant travelling to exotic places and meeting film stars.
Till date, I don’t know how I cracked the hotel management entrance exam. When the results were out, I decided to pick a college as far away from home as possible. It was the Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology in Kovalam.
Why and when did you decide to be a chef?
While growing up, the one thing I clearly remember was loving food—eating not cooking. The motivation to be a chef in college was khaana toh achaa milega (atleast the food will be good). There wasn’t a five year plan, and I took one day at a time. I had good teachers along the way. In hospitality college, we had a professor named Ranjit Pillai who handed out a pamphlet with names of Michelin-starred chefs like Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. He said if we ever wanted to do anything life, those were the guys we needed to look upto. It instilled the dream to work for a Michelin-starred chef one day.
And, you did work at Tamarind in London, followed by CHAAT, and both earned Michelin stars. How did it happen?
You're talking to a guy who was a failure half of his life (laughs). I thought of working with someone who has a Michelin star, I never aimed to win one. But when I went to London, I thought, maybe it was a possibility, because I had the right teachers (so to speak). I learnt to maintain consistency, quality and execute the food at a different level. Chef Karunesh Khanna of Tamarind would never let go of his standards. With Tamarind, the focus was to have ‘lighter Indian dishes’. I wasn't sure how to deliver that because my learning was steeped in traditional Indian cuisine. Chef Karunesh knew about ‘lighter’ Indian food. In butter chicken, for instance, he used more tomato than butter; in seekh kebab, butter (ghee) was replaced with olive oil. His menu was ahead of its time.
How did you zero in on street food for CHAAT?
In Hong Kong, nobody was focussing on street foods of India, and I wanted to do something different. The management at Rosewood, which owns CHAAT, asked me what I could create for them. The CEO Sonia Cheng, said she wanted this Indian restaurant to be the best in the city. There was this pressure, combined with the knowledge that food would be served to Indians who are familiar with the cuisine, and each dish had to be beautifully presented. I had to deliver something fun, bursting with flavours and can be refined for an ultra luxurious experience. That is why I chose street food along with dishes from across India, and refined each dish.
How did you refine it?
So, I have already told you about raj kachori. Another example is the samosa cones. It’s inspired from the Hyderabadi patti samosa whose coating is similar to wanton sheets. We make a cone with the sheet, bake it, and then stuff it with kheema. Then we have the foie gras biryani, shrikhand strawberry Eton mess, and more.
It’s impossible to win a Michelin without a solid team. Tell me about your team.
I'm lucky to have a great team, always. My kitchen has boys from India and Nepal. It’s not a young team—my tandoor guy is 45 years old—but they are young at heart and are eager to learn. Except for my sous chef who worked in a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, none of them got the right exposure, and I had to train them. During the interview process, the one question I would ask was what would they cook for their idol—be it their favourite politician or favourite film star. Every time, I would get the standard answer; butter chicken, palak paneer or dal makhni. Then I would follow up the question with, wouldn’t they want to give them something extra. The ones who said they would go the extra mile are now on my team. To win a Michelin, every member of the team has to work like they are aiming for it. The best part is even if you don’t get the prize, you still are happy with the team.