How do you recreate the taste of home? In Dubai, three young Indian chefs recently turned the spotlight on modern Indian food when they were awarded Michelin stars for their restaurants, Trèsind Studio and Avatāra. And while their luxurious multi-course menus wowed guests and judges with their creativity, the biggest triumph was distilling familiar Indian flavours and presenting them authentically on a global stage.
Chef Himanshu Saini of Tresind Studio, which was awarded two stars; Chef Rahul Rana of Avatara, which was awarded one star and Chef Omkar Walve, who won the coveted Young Chef award, are inspiring ambassadors for Indian cuisine.
At the age of 35, Himanshu is also the corporate chef at Passion F&B, which runs Carnival, Amara, Avatara and Tresind Studio in Dubai, all of which were mentioned in the guide.
With more than 13,000 dining establishments, and some of the culinary world’s biggest names — including Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal and Nobu Matsuhisa — Dubai is a famously competitive market when it comes to restaurants. The Michelin awards, seen as the Oscars for food, are awarded by a set of notoriously rigorous, anonymous inspectors from the industry, who travel the world looking for the best restaurants.
After the recent high-octane Michelin award ceremony at Dubai’s plush new Royal Atlantis hotel, the chefs discuss how their hometowns influence their food.
Chef Himanshu Saini: Trèsind Studio, Two Michelin stars
“The attitude to Indian food is changing the world over,” says Himanshu. “When I started to travel, I realised the perception of Indian food is still so poor in the West. It is still thought of as ‘takeaway,’ and all about curries and breads.”
Stating that there is no point talking about ‘modern Indian’ food, when people know so little about the cuisine, Himanshu says guests at Trèsind Studio are first shown a map of India. The 16-course menu is divided into North, South, East and West, with four courses from each region.
Defiantly, there is no rice or bread on the menu, which enables the team to give guests more variety. Himanshu also deliberately avoids all the cliches of luxury dining. “You will not find any caviar, foie gras or wagyu on my menu…. This makes the whole experience so much more unique,” he says.
Their Sadhya course for instance, which showcases Kerala, begins with a plantain leaf and evolves with gracefully choreographed live plating. “Each chef comes out with an ingredient. Pineapple, mango curry, ice cream with coconut and pepper corns. Papadum and rasam is served on the side…” says Himanshu.
Familiar flavours bring back vivid memories, he says. For Himanshu, who grew up in Old Delhi — where he helped his mother and grandmother in the kitchen — his kebab course is a tribute to his childhood. “When you make kebabs, what is left on the pan is the tastiest part. We would use a paratha to scrape that up. So, we serve guests kebabs that are still cooking — the scent and taste transports them to the streets of Delhi. I have seen people moved to tears with that dish.”
Getting modern Indian food right, according to Himanshu, comes down to getting the flavours and spices right. “I worked under Chef Manish Mehrotra at Delhi’s Indian Accent, and he would tell us to first make the food as tasty as possible, then think about how to plate it. Even now, we follow the simple philosophy of serving flavours that we love to eat,” says Himanshu. Not surprisingly then, instead of a trendy fermentation room, Tresind Studio has a pickling space. “Being a Delhi boy, my palate needs those flavours.”
“The Michelin is like the World Cup, in terms of football… When I spoke to my mother saying I was stressed about the awards, she asked what it was,” states Himanshu, adding, “Now after I won, they are very proud. They keep doing research and sending me trivia!”
Chef Rahul Rana, Avatāra, One Michelin Star
“When I travel home to Rishikesh, my mamma always makes me gaith ka parathas… they are stuffed with horsegram, and I love it,” says Chef Rahul Rana.
As part of the 16-course Avatāra menu, Rahul serves an interpretation of this dish from his home, riffing off chole bhature. “We serve horse gram curry with ragi bhatura, and potatoes tempered with jakia, or wild mustard,” he says.
Avatāra has taken an interesting, and bravely contrarian, route to compete with Dubai’s ultra-luxe menus, dripping with caviar and champagne. “We are vegetarian, which is a new concept in the Dubai fine dining space,” says Rahul, adding that they deliberately also avoid using paneer and mushrooms, which are cliched meat substitutes.
They gave themselves one more challenge. “We don’t use onion or garlic, because their flavours tend to be overpowering.” The result is a delightfully whimsical menu that heroes vegetables we often take for granted. “I asked my team what vegetables they do not want to eat, and we began with those: karela, laukis, shalgam (bittergourd, bottle gourd, turnip),” says Rahul, adding with a laugh, “I don’t know why people hate so many vegetables!”
His solution is to understand the nature of each one, and complement it. “Bitter gourd needs to be balanced, so I pair our ghee roast karela with mango sambar gelato and dosacrisps. We serve lauki bharta with papadum waffle and pickled pumpkin.”
The 37-year-old chef introduces a touch of exotica by using ingredients sourced from his home State, Uttarakhand. “We serve a sorbet made out of java plums with our version of bal mithai, made by our pastry chef who is from the Almora region,” says Rahul, adding “Our new menu features burans flowers, which grow in Uttarakhand and Nepal.”
Omkar Walve: Michelin Young Chef award
“Even now I don’t have the words to fully express how happy I am,” says Chef Omkar Walve, who at the age of 29, won Michelin’s Young Chef award. The Michelin panel praised his professionalism, adding that he has a “calm and nurturing aura as well as an exceptional palate”. The fact that his restaurant, Avatāra, got its first star at the same event made the celebration even sweeter.
Back in Mumbai, his parents are beaming with pride. “In the beginning they did not know what the Michelin was. My father used to work for the Leela hotel as a chauffeur. And my mother ran a food stall at fairs, where I would help her, cooking fried fish and sol kadi,” says Omkar. “But they watched the ceremony on YouTube, and understood it’s a big deal.”
Growing up in Bandra, and then Dombivli, Omkar’s first brush with restaurants was when he visited the Leela. “We would go for staff functions, and I thought — this is my dream. This is where I can see my future.” Inspired by his mother’s cooking, he got into Mumbai’s Anjuman-I-Islam to learn Hotel Management and Catering, after which he worked for Sofitel BKC.
A senior chef suggested him for a job in Dubai, and for the next six years Omkar relentlessly worked his way up. “Working here is fun. You have to be quick, you have to think fast… I also learnt how pretty you can be with plating, and how innovative you can be with menus.”
It is also hard work. “There are challenges everyday,” says Omkar, adding “For example, we have a salad made with pomelo, where we remove each strand with a tweezer and arrange it in a circular fashion. And I do this everyday.”
As he gets more comfortable at Avatāra, he Is introducing some of his mother’s flavours into the new menu. “To be frank, there is nothing till now. But the new menu will have a little Marathi influence,” he says.
Meanwhile he is looking forward to his next trip home. “I don’t cook when I’m there. I enjoy eating everything I have missed. Especially my mom’s chicken curry, which I crave all year.”
The writer was in Dubai at the invitation of Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism.
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