In 2018, I Cooked.....

India's finest, up and coming chefs talk about that one "influence" that showcased best in their cooking.

By Madhulika Dash

The year 2018 has been a mixed bag of a lot of things. If there has been a rise in regional cuisine in one, on the other "fusion cooking" has got a much cleaner slate and yet on the other, fun has returned to food. But what made this year so much about food? The young chefs, many of whom led some of India's finest kitchens – and of course remained the "hot" topic of the culinary world. Here they share what made them cook up a storm literally that made the diners and critics rise in applaud.


Influence: Local ingredients

The way she manages one of the popular fun hotspots of Mumbai would remind you of the characters of Coyote Ugly. Charing, warm, energetic and yet an Iron Lady when it comes to working the kitchen at service time. Meet the big pack of talent all fondly call, Kshama Prabhu. Known for her quirky take on traditional bar food, Chef Prabhu made her name from kickstarting a trend of collaborating with peers, homechefs and writers alike to not only up the food experience but her own skills as a chef- a factor that time and again plays in her food, which has over the years been an interesting representation of "think glocal with local". Her biggest strength is her love for her own roots that allows her to bring that one surprise every year.

"This year for me has been a lot of emphasis on local produce, which has moved me into just being a sustainable chef to food-conscious chef. Today, when I cook, I not only use seasonal, local ingredients (by which I mean I have begun discovering food mile), but the placement of each produce in the dish is on what more does it get to the dish aside the fabulous taste – which is that smidgen of wellness as well. Of course, in doing so I have also been able to standardise produce for The Bar Stock Exchange. So the tomato puree we use is made from tomatoes directly sourced from local farmers. Even our menus are now designed to convey that food-consciousness to our diners. And for the year to come, it will be my endeavour to bring in even more such produce – and introduce them to people."



Influence: Traditional Cuisine
As the head chef of India's only Armenian cuisine-based restaurant and an exceptionally women chef, Megha Kohli is an all too familiar face for the culinary world in India. What made her stand out from the crowd though is her penchant to learn new things and her gradually increasing grip on some of India's lesser known cuisines – including that of West Bengal, where it started all. She is India's brightest bet on regional, sustainable cooking.

"I was part of Lavaash By Saby's pre-opening team. We did the research, the conceptualising and the many, many trials and the menu rewriting. I even did the initial photography that would go along to explain why an Armenian restaurant. It was an invigorating experience. But it is the past few years of running this restaurant as the head chef that I have realised the goldmine of an opportunity I have had to learn, to research and to get actually travel the country documenting cuisine. My biggest influence this year too has been local and regional cuisine. From doing regional cuisine pop ups at Lavaash to travelling through small villages of Karnataka to explore local cuisine. In fact, it has given me an insight into how ‘sophisticated' and ‘advance' our cuisine really is."



Influence: Chef Sabyasachi Gorai
If you ever visit the largest restaurant in India, there is little chance you would miss meeting Rabi Kant Singh. Easily the face of this Bengaluru hot spot, he is the happy presence at Asia's biggest kitchen turning the service like a well-played symphony. What he is known for the most is his constant innovation in the kitchen that includes mixing two techniques to make something as interesting as caramelised popcorn cheesecake. Or perfecting the art of making the South Indian pork masala – right down to the spice level. His current obsession is the franco Japanese (a blend of Japanese cuisine with French food philosophy).

"In my years of cooking, I have experimented with a lot of cuisines – both Indian and international. And for most part of it, I would think I have done a fantastic work putting them together. My high point once was mastering the art of molecular gastronomy that could bring a lot of drama on plate. But it was until I met my mentor, Chef Sabyasachi Gorai while working with Byg Brewski. For a restaurant that had world cuisine to play, his insistence of keeping a lot of it "thinking global, playing local" was nothing less than a crash course in food thinking. Suddenly, I began understanding the finer nuances of cuisine – especially Southern Indian food – and how simple cooked food can create bigger impact. Plus, the importance of research.



Influence: The Street!
He is the youngest chef to adorn the jacket of not only a Corporate Chef but also launch not one but four restaurants back to back in two food capitals of India – Delhi and Mumbai – and do so with a uniquely themed menu and character. No wonder, he is considered one of the brightest young culinary minds in India. A sheer joy to watch in the kitchen, this soft spoken chef has always used his food to do the talking – which interestingly has ranged from the modern to the traditional to outright sheer comfort.

"For me, the biggest food influences this year has been the street food. It is a sheer wonder to watch these street food vendors dole out interesting comfort, tasty food, year-after-year without the need to change it ever. And the best part, the taste is consistent. And for 2018, they have been my biggest food influence as I learned the art of making the perfect samosa to the interesting foreplay of flavours that make the frankie, such an addiction. And even the trick to make these mini, fluffiest idlis with a dense rasam that can be an instant treat. Many of these little nuggets is what I have used to present my food at the different restaurant."



Influence: Middle Eastern and North African Spices
He is the quietest member of the Big Brewski family. And yet, ask anyone and he would vouch for the brilliance that Chef Sandeep Sadanandan gets to their daily service. He is the probable "fix" when things move downhill at a station, and is often known to add interesting twist to dishes by reworking the spices. His fondness for constantly discovering newer masalas are all too well known – and admired.

"I love food, but I am fascinated with spices. And this year it has largely been about the Middle Eastern and North African spices like the harissa, sumac, Ras el hanout, Tabil and za'atar. There are so many great ways to use these spices, they aren't hard to cook with, and the result when paired with the right kind of ingredient and technique is outstanding. In fact, it is interesting how the base thought of most of the spices are the same, but they get tweak as you move geography. Isn't it a great way to learn food?! Well it has been for me – and is likely to continue."



Influence: Japanese Danshari lifestyle
The charm of a chocolate boy, the finesse of a good chef – Chef Dhruv Oberoi, as many peers say it, a complete package with an added dash of madness. Which is evident if you see him loosen up on a lighter day at the Olive in Qutub. But make him stand behind the burner and a different person surfaces – a mature chef who is confident of producing some of the best seasonal menus in town, and with sophistication that is often associated with seasoned chef. What keeps him up there? Great peers and a hunger to find a different expression on plate that resonates with diners. Travel has always been his biggest influence, confess the chef who is currently working on a literary table concept for The Grammar Room.

"I would not deny: there was a time when I loved putting everything on the plate to make it look more jovial, colourful or even interesting. My plates had everything: great ingredients, good techniques and a story, or what I thought was one at the time. But then I was introduced to the Japanese "Danshari" lifestyle - i:e; the process of getting rid of clutter in your life. It taught me the art of constantly decluttering – and that became evident on my plate where I began telling a simple story. And gradually, my colourful, over-laden plate became what the culinary world defined as sophisticated. I, on the other hand, call it telling a simple story. Of course, it's a process in learning as I get better every day, and even experiment with the art of monochrome."



Influence: The Highway Stories
If you ever seen the behind-the-burner happy chef at Prankster, it will be Chef Ravi Tokas. Even at his high post, Chef Tokas prefers the heavy-duty hustle and bustle of his kitchen than being front of the house, where almost twice a week he is cooking for his staff the new dish he discovered while going biking. A superbike aficionado, he owns a limited-edition bike too, he loves exploring the road less travelled and in that the food, lesser known. Blessed with the gift of taste in his hand, he is one-half of the brain – the other, more prominent, he insists, is Chef Harangad Singh - when it comes to some of the most fascinating dishes at Prankster like the Aghori Raan has been his innovation. Of course, on a given day this Western cuisine chef gladly presents the traditional Punjabi thali without breaking into a sweat with taste that is closer home.

"I discovered the love for biking and gorging at the same time. There is something fascinating about discovering food in the nook and cranies of a highway – even Maggi. In fact, it is these highway street stalls where I have had a chance to polish my cooking skills – especially the art of thinking out of the box. It was with them that I learnt how to use local ingredients to recreate a dish that was closer to their home, and even pick up a few indigenous tricks that we use to create dishes at Prankster – bamboo smoking being one of them. The other is the roasting-steaming of Sidku."