Two-Michelin-starred chef and owner of the newest restaurant at Gulf Hotel Bahrain, Vineet Bhatia talks to Elma Bartholomew about how his height failed him (twice) and led him to the kitchen.
Becoming a chef didn’t come to me naturally. I wanted to be a pilot. Apparently, my legs were too short for the job. Then, I tried a textile designing course – for a week. It was not my cup of Darjeeling. So I thought I’d try my hand at hotel management. I wanted to be a barman at Lancers’ Bar at The Oberoi in Mumbai. Little did I know there was a height requirement of 6 feet!
I then found myself being assigned to the kitchen; I was absolutely amazed by the discipline. That’s how I got into food. They say it takes 10,000 hours to excel in a field. I must have done that in the first three years. At 21, I was junior sous chef with 130 staff members working for me in six outlets. At 24, I left to the UK with seven pounds in my pocket and two suitcases – one full of books.
When I moved to the UK in 1993, I was told off for doing things the traditional way. They were used to Indian dishes that were in fact not truly Indian. So we stopped calling rogan josh a rogan josh. We would call it a slow-cooked shank of lamb cooked with Kashmiri spices – and they would love it. So how you word it and present it makes a dish work. If you eat my food with your eyes closed, it’s India on a plate. But if you look at it, it’s European.
Classics are important to any menu, but just because you have them there doesn’t mean they have to be the same. Samosas could have goat cheese in them, or even chocolate. Chicken tikka doesn’t need to be red in colour; it could be white, black or yellow. This is where we step in as chefs.
My harshest critics are my sons. They were born into the world of restaurants and hotels. They’ve been travelling with us since they were a few days old. A lot of my experiments start at home. They’re honest. To them it’s all black or white.
There are few things better than Japanese fare. However, my comfort food is yellow dal and rice, the thin chapathis that my wife makes and, being of Punjabi lineage, I absolutely can’t do without achar.
My mother didn’t teach me any tricks. She always made good food at home. It’s her passion that I take to my kitchen. I don’t dare to say that I can replicate the flavours she put on a plate – because I can’t.
I love to cook fish. It’s delicate, and it needs precision and technique. The trick is to listen for the sizzle and always watch it. The seasoning has to be perfect. As a cook, you can savour what’s in the pan without even tasting it. People think it’s crazy when you say you can smell the salt in a dish. You can. It’s a knack you get with practice.
I get bored easily. I like to experiment and I try something different each time. Butter chicken is a classic Indian dish. It’s just tomato sauce with chicken tikka. It’s always red in colour. In London and Geneva, we do a white butter chicken. (Visit foodandtravel.me to learn his trick to making this innovative dish.)