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India’s top 10 young chefs

An expert panel picks India's best young chefs—culinary magicians who are taking the craft forward with flair

India's best young chefs, from left, top row: Prateek Sadhu, Hussain Shahzad, Himanshu Saini, Rahul Gomes Pereira, Megha Kohli, bottom row, Niyati Rao, Dirham Haque, Sachiko Seth, Vinesh Johny and Kavan Kuttappa.
India's best young chefs, from left, top row: Prateek Sadhu, Hussain Shahzad, Himanshu Saini, Rahul Gomes Pereira, Megha Kohli, bottom row, Niyati Rao, Dirham Haque, Sachiko Seth, Vinesh Johny and Kavan Kuttappa.

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“You need to keep learning outside the kitchen. It’s not enough to perfect your cooking skills and techniques; you have to be curious, you have to travel, read books, and ask plenty of questions not only from others but also from yourself. Cooking is not a manual act; it is an intellectual and multi-sensory activity,” says chef Ajit Bangera, a veteran of the Indian hospitality industry, with a long stint at the ITC group.

A few weeks ago, we roped in Bangera, along with four top culinary experts in the country—Manu Chandra, Manish Mehrotra, Anahita Dhondy and Kashmiri Barkakati Nath—to be our guides and advisers in the quest to identify India’s top young chefs, defined as professional chefs aged 35 or younger who are working in India. When we set out to draw up this list, that’s what we were looking for: not just skill and precision but passion, dedication and an intellectual obsession with food.

We asked each expert to name five such chefs and rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 on five parameters: innovation, consistency, knowledge, aptitude/execution, and that undefinable X-factor (which one of our team members memorably described as ”Bappi Lahiri had it, Anu Malik doesn’t”). From the list of 25 names, we used a slightly complicated weighting process to arrive at our final list—with the disclaimer that like all such lists, this one is subjective and far from definitive.

What makes a chef great and their work memorable? “We create dishes for you to remember—the sound of crackling bread or the searing of fish, the aroma of smoky butter on a cast iron pan, the sizzle of an egg.... For me, you are remembered as a chef because of the flavour of your food and the memories created around it,” says jury member Anahita Dhondy. We couldn’t agree more. Here, then, are the 10 talented young chefs whose work constantly amazes and inspires us.

PRATEEK SADHU, 35 | MUMBAI

Chef Prateek Sadhu. (Photo courtesy: Culinary Culture)
Chef Prateek Sadhu. (Photo courtesy: Culinary Culture)

“I am on a mission to tell a new story of our food with meaning and purpose. And I have only scratched the surface,” says Prateek Sadhu. Being real, respectful and responsible is key, believes the former head chef of Masque, which opened to rave reviews in 2016. In a novel approach to Indian food, Sadhu turned to regional ingredients, not dishes. He sourced quince from Kashmir and made an ice cream with it. Inspired by the Kashmiri winter delicacy of grass-smoked trout, he adopted the technique for smoking mackerel. For Sadhu, it didn’t make sense to bring Himalayan trout to the coastal city of Mumbai. Sadhu, who moved on from Masque in March, now plans to take this story overseas, participating in events and pop-ups in different countries. He will take little-known ingredients from India with him. “That’s when conversations begin and the fun starts.”

What he dreads: Being disrespectful to ingredients.

One ingredient he’s excited about right now: Kafal and hisalu berries from Uttarakhand.

MEGHA KOHLI, 32 | GURUGRAM

Chef Megha Kohli
Chef Megha Kohli

Megha Kohli is considered one of the few and finest women in professional kitchens in India. But it has also been one of her biggest challenges. A new supplier, for instance, would much rather speak to a man, even if he were a junior, than address her. Kohli, though, has been creating waves outside the “woman chef” box. Having started at the Oberoi group as a teenage trainee, she found her groove in her early 20s, under the mentorship of chef Sabyasachi Gorai, aka Saby. It was at Lavaash, the Bengali-Armenian restaurant Gorai started in 2015, that “I discovered my style as a chef”, says Kohli. She had never really connected with fine plating styles. At Lavaash, she began expressing herself through generous, hearty plates of soul food. She left in 2020, hoping to open a restaurant of regional foods. Covid-19 got in the way. While she still holds that dream close, Kohli is following her love for Middle Eastern food and history as executive chef at Cafe Mez. She’s also executive chef at Wine Company, a bistro in Gurugram, Haryana.

What she dreads cooking: Hummus. It reminds me of long days, making batches of it, as a trainee.

One ingredient she’s excited about right now: Raw mango. It’s summer, so I am excited about marinating kebabs with it.

DIRHAM HAQUE, 34 | BENGALURU

Chef Dirham Haque
Chef Dirham Haque

Dirham Haque cooked for over 45 heads of state, including Barack Obama, George Bush and Vladimir Putin, in his very first job at ITC Maurya, Delhi, where he joined as sous chef of Dum Pukht in 2010, before going on to handle banqueting operations for the entire hotel. Those years at Dum Pukht, known for its rich Awadhi cuisine, shaped his attitude towards food and what he enjoys cooking most—the complex, delicious, aromatic food of the North-West Frontier, especially biryani. “Biryani is something I easily relate to,” says Haque, currently executive chef, Four Seasons, Bengaluru. He adds that growing up in a Muslim household filled with passionate cooks also shaped his cooking style, which he describes as “traditional, rustic, artisanal”.

Delhi-born Haque, a graduate of the Institute of Hotel Management in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, has worked in five-star hotel kitchens across the country and in Dubai. Since his father, a civil servant, was on deputation to UNDP Asia, he spent a large part of his childhood travelling the world, living in Iraq, Poland and London. “I got to taste the best of kebabs at a very early age,” he says, adding that this peripatetic lifestyle deepened his fascination for food. His mother, a fabulous cook herself, would learn to cook the food of the places they lived in—she learnt how to make perfect dolmas, for instance, when the family lived in Baghdad. And this is perhaps why, even today, despite the multiple accolades under his belt—including three Black Hats for the Amala restaurant at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray in Dubai, the regional equivalent of a Michelin star— having his mother appreciate his cooking continues to be a gratifying experience for him.

What he dreads cooking: Anything that is cooked in a hurry.

One ingredient he’s excited about right now: Onions. They are so versatile.

NIYATI RAO, 28 | MUMBAI

Chef Niyati Rao
Chef Niyati Rao

A star-shaped achaapam cookie placed on a sheet of Tinkle comics speaks eloquently of its chef. It’s made by Niyati Rao, who has emerged as one of Mumbai’s top chefs since she opened her restaurant, EKAA, in December. Her approach to food is a pastiche of memories, ingredients and techniques served with a dash of fun. After graduating from the city’s Dadar Catering College, she aimed to get a job at the best Japanese restaurant, Wasabi at The Taj Mahal Palace, but was placed at Zodiac Grill, known for classical French dishes. She did eventually have a stint with Wasabi. Before long, though, she had joined the legendary Noma, in Copenhagen, which trained her to unlock the potential in locally available ingredients. “The biggest challenge for me was that as a young chef I didn’t tick any boxes of specialising in a particular cuisine. It took me a while to realise I can pick the best from all, examine what works for me and find my niche,” she says. Rao’s ultimate goal is to make the country proud: “To do so as a chef, one has to not only go beyond the curry and stay relevant with food, but also take the team along.”

What she dreads cooking: Cakes.

One ingredient she’s excited about right now: Blackberries from Mahabaleshwar.

RAHUL GOMES PEREIRA, 30 | GOA

Chef Rahul Gomes Pereira
Chef Rahul Gomes Pereira

“I have managed to put Goan chorizo on all my menus,” says Rahul Gomes Pereira, fondly known as chef Picu, chef-partner at Passcode Hospitality, which runs several restaurant brands, such as Saz and Jamun. The food of Goa, famed for its vibrant hospitality industry, has always been his favourite, says Picu, who grew up in the state in a “household obsessed with food”. After graduating from the Institute of Hotel Management, Mumbai, he went on to join The Oberoi Group of hotels. “The Indian stand-alone scene was just emerging then,” he says, recalling the opening of The Bombay Canteen in 2015. He quit in 2016 and spent a year in Goa, travelling, spending time cooking with his grandmother, and planning his own restaurant. After he joined À Ta Maison, a private members’ club in Delhi, there was no looking back. Currently, his focus is on Jamun, Goa, located in a restored Portuguese villa in Assagao. He calls it “my passion project”.

What he dreads cooking: Dessert. I am terrible at them, and I hate being mediocre.

One ingredient he’s excited about right now: Kokum. I just love it and use it in various forms and cuisines.

SACHIKO SETH, 30 | KOLKATA

Chef Sachiko Seth. (Photo courtesy: Bong Eats)
Chef Sachiko Seth. (Photo courtesy: Bong Eats)

“I have a momo with a crown,” says Sachiko Seth, sharing a photograph of his tattoo. Just like this tattoo, Seth is quirky. He is the child of the legendary Doma Wang, who runs The Blue Poppy Thakali restaurant in Kolkata with Seth and his partner, Manisha Sangma. Seth, who is from the LGBTQ+ community and prefers the pronouns he/him, says one of the biggest hurdles they have faced is sexism. Their entire team of 55 is male. “They won’t listen because they perceive us as women.” Their core team, however, has remained unchanged and Seth now plans to expand to other cities. His journey in the kitchen began in his teens, with the intention of earning more pocket money. There was no looking back. Seth, who specialises in Tibetan, Nepali and Indo-Chinese dishes, says: “There’s no fancy plating. But if you try my food, you will feel like you have eaten at home.”

What he dreads cooking: Momos. My mum is a momo nazi.

One ingredient he’s excited about right now: Chives.

HIMANSHU SAINI, 35 | MUMBAI, DUBAI

Chef Himanshu Saini
Chef Himanshu Saini

In retrospect, it seems to Himanshu Saini that he grew up in a professional kitchen. “My nani’s house was huge, with close to 50 people. It had an enormous kitchen, with all my aunts performing designated roles—one would wash the vegetables, one would knead the dough. My grandmother was leading it all, and I was a mama’s boy who would help out there,” recalls Delhi-boy Saini over a call from Dubai, where he heads the “modernist Indian fine-dining” spaces Trèsind and Trèsind Studio. In 2019, a branch opened in Mumbai, and he splits his time between the cities. Saini got his break as a trainee in Delhi, when he happened to be part of a team Manish Mehrotra worked with for trials, before the launch of Indian Accent in 2009. Saini went on to work at the pathbreaking restaurant, moving up from executive trainee to a sous chef there. “It was probably my most challenging and difficult time, but also the most fruitful,” he says. He now focuses on reimagining Indian staples, not usually thought as “restaurant dishes”. For example, at Trèsind, the khandvi, normally available at tea shops and halwais (sweet shops), becomes a fresh, savoury ice cream. He now finds himself gravitating towards exploring vegetarian food.

What he dreads cooking: Fish. Even in my menu, you won’t see any fish dishes.

One ingredient he’s excited about right now: Tomatoes. Its varieties and flavour profiles are underrated.

HUSSAIN SHAHZAD, 34 | MUMBAI

Chef Hussain Shahzad
Chef Hussain Shahzad

Chef Hussain Shahzad, executive chef at Hunger Inc. Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, is currently obsessed with tinda, turai and petha—the dreaded summer vegetables that practically no one seems to be fond of. “We associate these vegetables with sad dishes we would be forced to eat as children. I want to find ways to make them exciting,” says Shahzad. Another pet peeve is the term “modern Indian” to describe the kind of food he serves up at The Bombay Canteen: “I believe we are creating forward-thinking Indian food; celebrating ingredients and telling a story.” Shahzad, who completed hospitality school in Manipal, Karnataka, was for a short time personal chef to tennis legend Roger Federer and spent a year at Eleven Madison Park in New York before embarking on a culinary journey across the US, Portugal and Turkey. It was conversations with the late chef Floyd Cardoz that brought him back to India and to what he sees as his mission today—bringing the focus back to flavour rather than rigid definitions of dishes when it comes to Indian food (and making tinda interesting).

What he dreads cooking: Bhindi (okra). It is my nemesis.

One ingredient he’s excited about right now: Baingan (aubergine). Such a versatile yet misunderstood vegetable.

VINESH JOHNY, 33 | BENGALURU

Chef Vinesh Johny
Chef Vinesh Johny

As much as pastry chef Vinesh Johny loves baking—and it could be anything from a croissant to a complex chocolate flute that can actually produce music, which he created for World Chocolate Day last year—what he really takes pride in today is his role as co-founder of the Lavonne Academy of Baking Science and Pastry Arts in Bengaluru, one of the country’s premier pastry schools. “At the time I wanted to learn the craft, there was no great pastry school in India. Most people who wanted to specialise in pastry used to go abroad. I think we have managed to make a big change there—now we conduct workshops and masterclasses abroad,” says Johny, who specialises in incorporating Indian flavours into classic desserts (or the reverse) at the workshops. Educating and mentoring a young generation of Indian pastry chefs is one of his biggest passions today, and he takes his role as chief expert for pastry and confectionary at WorldSkills, a global platform for showcasing vocational skills through biennial world championships, very seriously.

What he dreads cooking: I love cooking so much even a dreary job like chopping 20kg onions is a joy for me.

One ingredient he’s excited about right now: Chocolate. It will never not be chocolate.

KAVAN KUTTAPPA, 35 | BENGALURU

Chef Kavan Kutappa
Chef Kavan Kutappa

“I am obsessed with ramen at this point,” says Kavan Kuttappa, who, after working at prestigious restaurants like Eleven Madison Park in New York and Olive Beach, The Permit Room and Toit in Bengaluru, started his own venture, Naru Noodle Bar, during the pandemic. “I do everything from cooking to taking orders to setting up deliveries and handling social media. I am my only employee,” says Kuttappa. While his earlier experience cooking European food, followed by creating a modern south Indian bar menu at The Permit Room, relied on his classical training at the Culinary Institute of America, making ramen is pure passion for this electronics engineer-turned-chef from Kodagu in Karnataka. Kuttappa says he has found great joy in following the Japanese concept of kodawari: absolute devotion to perfecting one thing. His handcrafted ramen bowls are generally considered the best in the city, and after a couple of years selling ramen kits from home and doing pop-ups across Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Mysuru, Kuttappa will soon set up an eight-seater ramen bar in Bengaluru.

What he dreads cooking: Bread.

One ingredient he’s excited about right now: Kaipuli or bitter orange, which is similar to Japan’s yuzu.

The jury
The jury

Jahnabee Borah, Shrabonti Bagchi, Avantika Bhuyan, Preeti Zachariah and Vangmayi Parakala contributed to this story.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    22.04.2022 | 06:00 PM IST

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