Earlier this week, Chef Priyam Chatterjee became the first Indian chef to be conferred L’Ordre du Mérite Agricole (the Order of Agricultural Merit) by the French government. The ceremony took place at the Residence of France in Delhi on the evening of 12 August.
Chatterjee was trained under the French chef Jean Claude Fugier, at the Park Hyatt, Hyderabad. He headed a few restaurants in Delhi and later moved to the Fauchon Paris Cafe in Oman. He is currently the head chef at Jaan Restaurant Yacht in Saint-Tropez, France.
The dishes he creates are an amalgam of varied tastes and food cultures. Much of his cooking is inspired by his Bengali roots. But there’s another dimension to his talent, having to do with the many influences he has absorbed in his professional journey, spanning India, the Middle East and Europe.
The Delhi event began with an address by the French Ambassador to India, Alexandre Ziegler. “It is a great delight for me to host this ceremony to celebrate your appointment as Knight in the Order of Agricultural Merit this evening. This is actually the first time we are celebrating the talent of a young chef at this embassy by conferring this distinction… This honour, dear Priyam, recognises your talent and your commitment to promoting French cuisine.” he said.
The ambassador also talked about how commonalities between the respective food cultures of India and France. The culinary arts are part of the cultural mainstream in both these countries, and there isn’t a community in India or France that doesn’t take food seriously. If not cooking food, then at least talking about it at length. “If there is something that links India and France, it is our ability, our talent for talking about food and nothing but food over a meal without even getting bored for one second,” he said.
In his acceptance speech, Chef Chatterjee said that the more he learnt about France as a country, the more he fell in love with its culture and cuisine. Recalling the beginnings of his culinary journey, Chatterjee said, “Big feasts and family gatherings were a regular feature at my house and this is where the art of hospitality and food was introduced to me at a very tender age. Since childhood, I have seen my mother and my aunts cooking traditional Bengali food and I have been learning since then.”
There’s much that separates Indian and French cuisines. While the former is all about rich flavours and spices, the latter is low-key in comparison, focusing on different nuances of taste and fragrance. Still, Chef Chatterjee has found one similarity between the two cuisines: the passion that goes into the cooking.
His mentor in Hyderabad, Chef Jean Claude Fugier, played a big role in Chatterjee’s life. It was through Fugier that he was introduced to French cuisine, in which he was to find a vocation for life. “I met Chef Jean back at the Park Hyatt and he immediately took me under his wing. He trained me, taught me everything related to this cuisine and made me who I am,” Chatterjee told Guardian 20.
“I fell in love with the French culture first, the French philosophy then with France and then with the cuisine”
Chatterjee, who was called “the ambassador of French cuisine in Delhi” by Alexandre Ziegler, is hopeful that in time to come, more and more Indian chefs, and indeed diners, would develop an interest in French food.
This award was certainly a dream-come-true for Chatterjee. But he insists that this is only the beginning of the dream. There’s much left to achieve yet. Possibly even a fusion restaurant of his own, somewhere in France. “I want stabilise myself in France. That is where I belong and that is where I wish to be, and most probably open a restaurant where I can experiment with subtle flavours of Bengal and mix them with my French cooking techniques,” he said.