What inspired you to become a chef?
A. Food’s always touched me at different stages and different ages. Lucknow in particular has a lot to do with me being a chef. Be it cooking the meethe chawal [sweet rice at the langar at the age of 13, or interacting with the food vendors on the streets of Lucknow, inspiration came to me at every level. But it was at the age of 15 that I decided food was my true calling and to pursue it professionally.
Q. How would you describe your style of cooking?
A. I would call my style of cooking experiential and progressive. For me, food is feelings transferred on to the plate. All that I experience during my travel, cuisines I explore, food stories that I hear, I try to interpret and incorporate them into my dishes.
Q. With international ingredients so easily available now in our cities, how do you see the Indian food market growing?
A. When it comes to Indian cuisine, one of its best aspects is adaptability. We have adapted so many ingredients and dishes, even, into our style of cooking. But that said, our own ingredients base, like millets and lentils, have always had a stronghold in our pantry. If we see the trend for quinoa, we also see people experimenting with millets. In fact, the awareness for the latter and the back-to-roots culture is growing, which is quite encouraging to see.
Q. In your career span, you have come up with various restaurants all over the world. What motivated you to do so?
A. Opening restaurants for me was, and is, a way of expressing myself as a chef; across different cities and cultures. Before getting to the actual nitty-gritties I would set out to explore the city, its culture, its connection with food and my target audience — how would my interpretation of a dish work in a given scenario and so on. The more I explored, the more I learned and the more it contributed to shaping and re-shaping my visions of food.
Q. You have too many accolades to your name, like featuring as one of the top 50 chefs in India Culinary Forum, as well as being the youngest chef to work in 5-star restaurants. How has your journey been till now?
A. God has been kind and the journey has been fun till now. Lots learned and a lot more to learn.
Q. Food-based reality shows are bringing forth the best talent in the country. How difficult is it for someone to become a successful chef without the help of these?
A. Reality shows have opened up an avenue for more people to aspire to be chefs, in that they give people an opportunity to climb a few steps a little faster. But while it speeds up the process and provides the factor of visibility, in my opinion it’s not difficult being a successful chef without being on a reality show. On the plus side, the biggest contribution of food-based reality shows is that the aspirants’ base has grown and more people are stepping forward to give wings to their dreams.
Q. How was your experience with MasterChef India?
A. It was a great experience. The USP of MasterChef India is highlighting the power of the Indian homemaker, because we believe that a big part of our cuisine evolved in home kitchens. Our food history speaks of royal food, street food, but the biggest influence was home food, which is unlike anywhere else in the world. Everywhere they try and create or recreate restaurant foods at home, here we try and create home food in restaurants. That’s what MasterChef India represents and that stood out for me in my season of the show.
Q. You have also come up with many cookery shows for TV. The newest show being Raja Rasoi Aur Andaz Anokha. Could you tell us about it? How is this one different from your other shows?
A. This is the third season of Raja Rasoi, entitled Raja Rasoi aur Andaaz Anokha, and it started airing early July. We have tried to deviate from the typical counter-type cooking and explore food stories as also some forgotten ingredients and aspects of the Indian cuisine.
“All that I experience during my travel, cuisines I explore, food stories that I hear, I try to interpret and incorporate them into my dishes.”
Q. There are many lost Indian ingredients, forgotten equipment and methods of cooking. Do you ever feel the need to rediscover these, and telling people about them through your shows?
A. A bit of both, I would say. In each of the episodes I did my research on the cuisine, history, stories and practices attached to it and that is what we attempt to present to the viewers through this show. For instance, we have an entire episode dedicated to martial food, or food that was typical to wartime, and many such.
Q. What’s the one cooking experience that you can never forget?
A. I cooked for Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee when I was 23 years old. He was right across the table and we connected over food stories. That’s one experience that I still cherish.
Q. What is your signature dish?
A. The dora kebab fascinates me. It’s a sandalwood- and khus-flavoured delicate kebab that’s cooked on a silken thread.
Q. Which is your favourite cooking ingredient?
A. Dried shrimps and coriander remain my favourite.
Q. Nowadays, the younger generations are big on health food. Any advice you would like to give them on how to eat healthy without compromising on taste?
A. Our body’s system is actually quite clever in figuring out what it needs and when. That is why one tends to get sudden “cravings” for certain foods at certain times. The best “diet” is one that is balanced, which provides us with a bit of everything. As long as we do not overdo or overeat, we keep our body happy. “Har cheez ki ati buri [anything taken in excess is bad],” is my favourite mantra.
Raja Rasoi Aur Andaz Anokha airs every Friday at 8 p.m. on Epic Channel