Perhaps the celebrity culture is so ingrained into our psyche that we’d expect a chef who has won two Michelin stars to be nothing less than a diva. And then we meet Chef Vineet Bhatia, perhaps one of the most down-to-earth celebrities that scatter the earth.
He was one among the many celebrity chefs to grace the Taste of Dubai 2011 food festival with his presence, for the third year running. I caught up with him over the phone and then met him at the food festival, where I jumped up on stage to assist him with the cooking demo.
After slapping on pastes on filleted chicken breasts and whisking a mixture for him, he conjured up a colourful and magical meal of chicken, kadi and (pink!) upma, which earned him much applause from the enthralled audience.
For someone who became a chef by accident, Chef Vineet Bhatia is doing exceedingly well. Born in Bombay in 1967, a young Vineet was more interested in aeroplanes than anything else. When he was 17, he took an exam in order to join the Air Force but failed the physical part of the exam. Then giving himself completely to food, he secured a place at a catering college in Bombay. He says with a hint of nostalgia, “When I went into hotel school, I was 17. Why do you want to go into the kitchen?’ is what people said. At that time, we were encouraged to become doctors and engineers. Now it’s okay but I joined hotel school in 1985...25 years ago.”
Recruited as a trainee by the Oberoi hotel group in 1988, Vineet Bhatia hasn’t looked back since. Unable to experiment with his food, he moved to London in 1993, but ended up being appalled by the state of Indian cuisine there. He said, “The state of Indian cuisine at the time was very, very sad. Everyone thinks of Indian food there as curry. I find that derogatory.” He admits that those opinions have somewhat changed over the years, and said, “I wanted to give Indian food more respect.”
After a few years of working in restaurants, and short-lived ventures, he opened his own restaurant, Rasoi Vineet Bhatia in London in 2004. Why did he name his restaurant Rasoi, I ask? “All the French restaurants call themselves Chez this, and Chez that. We wanted to say something that described a kitchen. We thought about ‘Nivaas’ but didn’t want foreigners pronouncing it ‘neev-ass’. So what better name for it to welcoming people into our kitchen than call it Rasoi Vineet Bhatia? It’s as if I’m saying ‘Come into my kitchen’.”
Vineet has received a Michelin Star for Rasoi, as well as for Rasoi by Vineet – Geneva, giving him the privilege of being the only Indian chef to have two Michelin Stars. In spite of this, he says the honour isn’t daunting when opening up new restaurants. “The elevated status is given by the media. It’s nothing to open new restaurants; the challenge is to excel after achieving so much.”
He also shares the honour with Gordon Ramsay of being the second UK-based chef to hold a star outside of the UK. He says, “It always makes you feel privileged to be in such company.” He does say that he’s not an aggressive person and hasn’t made a dedicated effort to win accolades. For him, the guests come first.
Vineet Bhatia follows the Indian adage of “Athithi Devo Bhava” or “The Guest is God”. He wants to pamper everyone who steps into his restaurants. He says, “For me, dining about is about escapism. You go out to rest and enjoy your meal as well as the ambience, but it does not have to be flashy. It is very important for us that the guests are looked after by the staff exactly how we would like to be. Food becomes secondary, like the background. Everything has to be pretty much perfect. People go out to have fun, you go out to get your ego massaged.” Ego pampering and escapism is what visitors can expect from his ventures!
Vineet, whose favourite dish is lamb rogan gosht, has come out with his first cookery book, called Rasoi: New Indian Kitchen, which took almost 2 years to complete. He says, “I’m so glad we did it because it showcases Indian food differently. It changes our mindset and how we look at Indian food.” Talks are afoot for a sequel to the tome.
He gives out some advice to budding chefs, saying, “The best thing is that they should come with a clear and open mind. There is so much to learn and study!” He also advises chefs to be creative with their food while keeping the essence of Indian food intact, as much as they possibly can. We saw him practice this example with the pink upma he created at the Taste of Dubai cooking demo, using chopped as well as blanched beetroots to add some colour and flavour.
At the end of the demo, I wandered over to speak to him one-to-one (again!) and found, much to my delight, that he was as friendly and warm as he sounded over the phone. With a smile and a photograph, I left the demo area, leaving the genial chef to be surrounded by his throng of admirers, as he patiently answered their questions.
A lovely person, who delights in pampering his guests, Vineet Bhatia’s philosophies of innovation, respect for Indian food and his guests shine out in all his ventures.