One of the biggest names in the culinary world today, Chef Alfred Prasad was just 29 years old when he received the coveted Michelin star in 2002, becoming the youngest Indian chef to achieve the title. His restaurant, Tamarind of Mayfair in London was one of the first Indian restaurants to be included in the Michelin Guide. He is ranked among the pioneers of modern Indian food revolution in London, long before the trend extended to India.
Over the years, he has provided consultancy services to various big names from the hospitality industry around the globe. And this time, he is in the national capital after cooking in London for 18 years, for what he calls “a dream homecoming”. The Oberoi, New Delhi has collaborated with the renowned chef for their Indian speciality restaurant, Omya.
Serving as the mentor chef at the fine-dining restaurant now, Chef Alfred told us that he always had the desire to do something in India at some point in his life. “I believe that no matter how much you achieve in any part of the world, you will only truly be respected in your country when you prove yourself back home,” he said.
Now a celebrated chef who has held the Michelin star for 13 years, Alfred had never planned to enter the culinary space. He admitted that his childhood ambition was that of being a fighter pilot. But looking back, he told us that his upbringing contributed to his passion for cooking. He said, “Most chefs would admit that their mum was their biggest inspiration. When I was about 10 years old, I started helping her in the kitchen over the weekends. I used to do odd jobs like peeling prawns. I was a big lover of seafood and meat. Those early memories of the aroma wafting out of mum’s kitchen at some subliminal level must have drawn me towards cooking.”
In retrospect, having parents with diverse backgrounds—Anglo-Indian mother and Tamil Brahmin father—also helped him experience different cuisines and cultures. Since his father had a transferable job, they lived in various locations in India, which he said opened his eyes to the eclectic cuisines this beautiful country has to offer.
Not realising his potential as a chef just yet, Alfred spent some time doing an MBA after his bachelor’s degree in botany. Meanwhile, his mother had sent an application to a hospitality school on his behalf. Of his experience at the hospitality institute, he said, “I graduated from there in the early 1990s. In a town like Vellore, which is famous for premium engineering and medical colleges, getting into hospitality was unheard of at that time. So it was almost path-breaking in some ways. Certainly my mom recognised a hidden talent in me that I wasn’t aware of myself. That’s how it all began and it has been a wonderful journey so far.”
After receiving a formal education in hospitality from Chennai’s Institute of Hotel Management in 1993, he underwent advanced training at a couple of premium restaurants in Delhi, Dum Pukht and Bukhara. By the time he was 26, he was heading one of India’s premier South Indian restaurants, Dakshin in Chennai. Soon after, he moved to London and joined Tamarind of Mayfair, which was just the first of his many achievements in London.
What appeals to everyone about his cooking is that he presents age-old Indian recipes with an original take, while retaining the traditional flavours. He spoke to us about moving to London and winning the Michelin star. “When I moved to London, I had absolutely no expectations of ever having a Michelin star. My only aim was to cook honest Indian food. But I quickly realised that Indian food in London is a bastardised version of what we know as Indian food. This was because most migrants opened Indian restaurants there out of desperation. I give them the credit for popularising the flavours of the subcontinent. Even if they could not do justice to the cuisine, at some level, they introduced new flavours to the British palate, making it easier for chefs such as myself to achieve accolades and glory. But it was truly special to feel like an ambassador of Indian cuisine in a foreign country that was known to be serving the finest Indian food… And Michelin certainly opened some doors, it makes you known globally but it comes with a certain responsibility.”
Alfred believes that the culinary spectrum is always evolving and one needs to research and learn constantly. Every time he is in India, he learns about ingredients and explores new micro cuisines. Being a chef is a learning curve for him. And he said he learned a lot while curating a menu for Omya at The Oberoi, New Delhi.
Having been away from home for so many years, he wanted to understand the clientele and their expectations. He found out that Indian consumers are now open to experimenting with their cuisines and have become adventurous with their palate. So he has introduced seasonal menus and pushes his team to come up with new ideas.
He now views Omya as his homecoming project. He said, “When I was approached to do a presentation for what was going to be The Oberoi, New Delhi’s rekindling of a new Indian concept, it came as a surprise to me because I was never associated with Oberoi Hotels before. But it was an honour to collaborate on their signature Indian restaurant Omya, which means ‘the beautiful one’ in Sanskrit. This ties in perfectly with the concept I had in mind to preserve the authenticity of the beautiful cuisines, but presenting them in a way that is appealing for the eyes. For the longest time, Indian food was perceived as gloopy curry in a bowl with coriander on top. We believe India has one of the oldest, grandest, most interesting melting pot of cuisines, and preserving that heritage while passing it on to the next generation, with a little bit of our signature flare, is very important to us.”
Chef Alfred has adopted Omya’s menu based on his food philosophy grounded on three pillars—heritage, health and happiness. He explained, “Heritage refers to the nature of our produce, or a particular ingredient that we traverse the country for. It also refers to the heritage of the recipe, the cuisine that we try to preserve. Health is important because as food ambassadors, chefs have an audience today and it’s important to spread the message of eating healthy. And lastly, happiness is at the core of hospitality. People eat out to be entertained, to feel special.”
Although Michelin has recognised and awarded various Indian restaurants in different parts of the world, it hasn’t yet expanded to India. Chef Alfred feels that this due to the fact that India is such a large country and Michelin would probably need to recruit anything between 300-400 inspectors to do justice to this market. But he thinks that the recent Michelin model of rating cities on the basis of the quality of available restaurants could well be brought to India.