Whose table to dine at? Here are India's top 10 chefs
To make the process more interesting, we asked 7 chefs and restaurateurs for their 2 or 3 nominations for the best chef.
Well, I have three criteria. One, what is the chef’s legacy? How much has she changed the way food is cooked and consumed? Two, how creative is she? Does she have an original style? For the record, there are only a few chefs in the country whose plates you can eat off and know immediately who is behind them. Three, has the chef been intimately involved in creating or sustaining an enduring restaurant that people love? I am not looking at TV chefs, who may be entertainers but are not really creating restaurant food.
To make the process more interesting, we asked seven chefs and restaurateurs for their two or three nominations for the best chef — discounting, of course, themselves and their restaurant chefs.
The eventual rankings take these into account but are based on my subjective assessment. Food, after all, is a personal matter.
1- MANISH MEHROTRA
I got an endearing glimpse into the mind of Manish Mehrotra, the chef, when we went shopping at Delhi’s INA Market, his favourite haunt in the early years of his career. He picked little treats for himself — from various masalas to kohlrabi, churan, papads and the kidney-shaped orange sweets he is addicted to. And, then, he excitedly stuck his fingers into a bag of Fryums. At that moment, the pressure of running India’s top restaurant and being the poster boy of Indian dining was cast away. Mehrotra could have been a child in Patna and I was transported to an earlier time, to a faraway land of nostalgia.
Also Read: Culinary delight: When chef Manish Mehrotra's delicious food impressed Halle Berry
That’s what he does at Indian Accent. If food is about memory, Mehrotra is a master at creating memorable flavours. He creates sophisticated dishes that also tug at your heartstrings. He changed the way we eat Indian food by turning popular recipes from homes and streets into detailed, layered, gourmet dishes. In the process, he hasn’t sacrificed bold flavours. He is the most influential Indian chef of his generation. As Riyaaz Amlani, CEO of Impresario, says, “He was really the first modern Indian. His influence is all-pervasive.” First among equals.
2- MANU CHANDRA
A small painting by a New York artist rests on the floor in Manu Chandra’s Bengaluru apartment. It shows a solitary figure contemplating the horizon, its back to us. It could be Chandra himself. While he is intensely private, uncomfortable in parties and large social gatherings, many of which inevitably happen in his restaurants, Chandra is clever and cosmopolitan enough to keep guests riveted to one-on-one conversations, as he effortlessly switches from politics to literature, design to music.
Also Read: Chef Manu Chandra is all praises for local produce
This larger view of the world finds expression in his plates. They are cosmopolitan but not showy; complex, yet deceptively simple. Consider his latest at Toast & Tonic where rillette meets haleem. It comes in a jar as a flavourful meaty paste that can be smeared on toast and eaten sans fuss by diners who can be oblivious to the maillard reaction and the confit technique that have produced it. “If Manish (Mehrotra) did modern Indian in a formal setting, Manu showed us how to do it in a fun way at Monkey Bar and inspired restaurateurs,” says Sameer Seth, cofounder, The Bombay Canteen. Where others complicate the simple, he simplifies the complex.
When Bollywood Went On A Food Trail
A Time To Feast
3- RITU DALMIA
At the turn of the millennium, Ritu Dalmia’s Diva restaurant in Delhi kickstarted the standalone boom in India. Eighteen years later, it remains just as relevant. Dalmia is the undisputed diva of Italian cooking in India, sourcing the best ingredients and being hands-on with the cooking and running of her restaurants. She is equally good with Indian dishes, which people don’t often know. One of the first chef-restaurateurs in the country, she is breaking new ground by going international in an unusual way. Cittamani, her restaurant in Milan with Indian-Italian food, is making waves and drawing an Italian clientele that may have never tasted Indian food before. The brand is set to go all over Europe. “For such a hands-on chef, she has also been an influential restaurateur, managed funds for her company and is expanding internationally, which no one else has achieved,” says Manu Chandra.
4- VIKRAMJIT ROY
He was part of the opening team at the Wasabi Delhi and rated highly by the city’s gourmet set. However, Roy, often called a magician for the way in which he can combines flavours and creates spectacular dishes, came into his own at Pan Asian at the ITC Chola. It was during this stint that he travelled to the East — to South Korea and Japan, China, Hong Kong and Thailand and lived and worked with ordinary cooks running small, street establishments. The result was Tian in Delhi, a one-of-itskind restaurant that used influences from all these cultures and served plates that only someone with Roy’s imagination could produce. His style of “modern Asian” is widely emulated, not the least by his understudies who worked in his kitchen and now run a clutch of standalones. However, to copy the marriage between flavours and theatrics that he manages is near-impossible. “I don’t think there is a chef not just in India but in the world who does pan Asian like him. His is a unique style, which is unmatched,” says restaurateur Marut Sikka.
5- NAREN THIMMAIAH
Known to be as self-effacing as he is talented, Naren Thimmaiah reigns over Karavalli — India’s best South Indian coastal food restaurant — at the Taj Gateway in Bengaluru. He is a legend — he has manned this kitchen for more than 25 years (he began as a management trainee there) and has guarded its reputation for quality and research. “Much before local gastronomy caught on and chefs began travelling to small towns, Naren was already doing it. He is quiet about his research and lets his restaurant reflect it, unlike others who make a show on Instagram but will not necessarily have those dishes at their restaurants,” says chef Manish Mehrotra.
Bucketlist for a foodie: Culinary Trails form an integral part of a traveller’s itinerary
Forging New Bonds
6- GHULAM QURESHI
He was just 15 when he arrived in Delhi from Lucknow to assist the legendary chef Imtiaz Qureshi. Since then, he has more than come into his own. The top exponent of Avadhi cooking in India today, he inspects every day the spices and ingredients at Dum Pukht restaurant at the ITC Maurya, Delhi. He also personally oversees the cooking of kakori kebab — the star dish of the restaurant and the best anywhere in the world.
Should he offer to cook you a biryani, grab that offer. You may not taste anything more sublime at any other traditional restaurant. “His cooking proves that traditional Indian food cooked with effort has takers across generations,” says chef Vikramjit Roy.
7- BAWMRA JAP
Bomra’s is not just a Goan phenomenon but a national one. Foodies flocking to the idyllic state make it a point to have at least one meal at the small restaurant in Candolim. Bawmra Jap took his Burmese heritage and created dishes, using local ingredients and seafood, that are simply delicious — be it his lime and chilli red snapper or the tomato salad. “It is his sheer talent that has resulted in such a fan following for a small restaurant in Goa, open just six months a year,” says chef Ritu Dalmia.
8- GRESHAM FERNANDES
Gresh, as he is known, loves to rides his bike around Bandra to get fresh air, clear his head and concoct recipes. He is recognised by many of his peers as supremely talented, but he remains understated. While you may have eaten his food at Social or Smoke House (he is the culinary director of Impresario, the company that owns these chains), to get a real taste of his potential, find your way to the “antirestaurant” St Jude’s Bakery in Bandra. This is his test kitchen, which he opens out to diners once in a while. It’s a creative, edgy space unlike any other in India. “He is very talented and eager to learn but also satisfied and not running after fame,” says chef Manish Mehrotra.
9- REGI MATHEW
Even before avial and meen curry reached restaurants across the country, there was Ente Keralam in Bengaluru and Chennai, serving food that Malayali grandmothers would be proud of. The man responsible for this was chef Regi Mathew, who painstakingly researched recipes, cooking techniques and utensils like clay pots, stone grinders and cast-iron pans and put these in a fine-dining restaurant. Now, Mathew, who has been running a successful pop-up called Kappa Chakka Kandhari for the past two years (it travels from city to city, serving quality, “authentic” meals), is on to newer things. Kappa Chakka Kandhari is set to open as a chic tapas restaurant in Chennai, putting another spin to “regional Indian” food that will undoubtedly be emulated.
10- RANVEER BRAR
It is not easy balancing restaurant cooking with television and social media celebdom. Brar is perhaps the only “celeb chef” to even try that credibly. Between brand endorsements that undoubtedly fetch him handsome rewards, he conscientiously picks restaurant projects to showcase his cooking chops. While many of these may not have done well, Brar remains a talented chef and can win you over with real cooking.