Interview with Michelin starred Chef Rohit Ghai

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2020 was due to be a big year for Rohit Ghai. The accomplished Indian chef, known for securing a Michelin star in the record time of ten months at Mayfair’s Jamavar, was expecting to be bestowed with similar accolades at his establishment Kutir, but it was not to be. Has this stopped the spring in the gentle, upbeat chef’s step? Absolutely not. Instead Ghai is throwing himself into his first book and has successfully launched an Amazon Prime TV series. All this and hosting regular live classes on chefs for foodies, teaching budding home cooks how to make his signature dishes, including slow-cooked lamb rogan josh, paneer anardana and chicken tikka masala. For Ghai, lockdown is certainly no time to rest on his laurels, but build his reputation and drive himself forward. So, how did he become so driven? Our editor Sally McIlhone caught up with Ghai to find out more about his cookery roots and his plans for the future.

1. So many chefs learn to cook from their mother, what was the first thing your mum taught you how to make?

I’m proud to give the credit to my mum because, with me, there was no plan to become a chef. I’m the youngest in the family and I spent a lot of time with my parents. My mum used to cook for six to seven family members every day and I would watch her making different delicious recipes. Her dips and pickles are amazing and I always try to accommodate her recipes in my menus. It was a very basic set-up at home. My parents were pure vegetarian, so I always consider my childhood memories and what she used to make for the entire family, like paratha, a very common bread cooked on the griddle. The way she’d make a dough, I’ve always appreciated. It’s called Chur Chur paratha, made with multigrain flour, some carom seeds, a bit of oil and salt. She used to serve it with a basic, home-style butter. That’s it, that’s all you need with paratha, along with - if you’re lucky enough - maybe a cup of tea. She taught me the right techniques. Her recipes were awesome - especially the dhal makhani, which is very popular in the UK. Usually when people make it in a restaurant they cook it with kidney beans, but she always added the split gram lentils, the big chana lentils. So I asked her, ‘Why do you use this rather than considering kidney beans?’ She said, ‘When you cook split gram lentils it will give a lot of shine and a velvety texture to the dahl, it will become more creamy.’ I still follow her recipe in the restaurant for my lovely customers.

 2. Would you say cooking is about love?

Of course! My mother always said to me, ‘Rohit, whatever you cook, if you cook with your heart and soul then you don’t need any special ingredients. Your dish will stand out.’ When I recruit people - chefs, front of house - I always look for just two things: flexibility and a positive attitude. In our industry, it’s very demanding. You have to work long hours. I don’t mind paying good money to my team, the only thing I always request is whatever you do, whatever you cook, cook with your heart and soul and always keep yourself happy.

3- What are the traditional dishes of Punjab?

India is a wide country and if you go you’ll see more than 26 different types of cuisine. Punjab is one of the most popular because if you go, the people welcome you like they know you, with heart and soul. The food is very popular, people love it. They like rich food, the spiciness, the flavours. Lassis - mango lassi, pistachio lassi, saffron lassi - these all came from Punjab and there’s a very popular wintry dish called makke ki roti sarson ka saag that’s made with mustard leaf.

4- How does cooking in hotel kitchens in India differ from your restaurant experience in the UK?

I was lucky, I got my break from one of the biggest organisations in our industry called the Oberai hotel. I started my career with them, then I moved to the Taj group. When I was cooking for Taj, I met Atul Kochhar and he offered me a job at Benares in London. In India at that time we used to get all the imported vegetables delivered once a week. It was very expensive, so you’d have to look after the supply, the deliveries and to order according to your one-week deadline. But when I came to London, my eyes were like you wouldn’t believe when I saw the quality. The UK is one of the biggest hospitality hubs where you see different nationalities and food varieties, whether it’s vegetarian or non-vegetarian. I was amazed with the variety so I took one or two months to understand seasonality and quality. I’ve come to understand the standalone business restaurant scene from London, because at that time it was not developed in India. Here you have massive chefs like Michael Cain or Michel Roux Jr, the biggest legends in our industry who have their own standalone restaurants. In India, most people, corporate clients and tourists, would just stay in the hotel. So, it was different. Now I’m used to it because in Europe it’s all about restaurants, not hotels. Even Andrew Wong has started doing consultancy for hotels in India, so everything is getting a chain now. Standalone chain restaurants in India are making a name for themselves in the market. Times have changed. Especially with Covid, it’s destroyed the hospitality sector worldwide - it’s not just about Europe, it’s affected everywhere - and we are hoping it will come back very soon.

5- Getting a Michelin star for Jamavar within ten months of the restaurant opening is incredibly impressive. How did you achieve this?

To be very honest with you, I’m quite aware of the criteria of Michelin and their expectations. I was lucky because since I arrived in the UK, I only worked in Michelin-starred kitchens. I was the face of Jamavar and Bombay Bustle. My team put in a lot of hard work from the first day and we tried hard to keep the consistency, always. Consistency is one of the key things you need to achieve a Michelin star - and, of course, seasonality. You have to create the menu and keep changing it according to the seasonality. And you have to make people happy! We got the opportunity to get one Michelin star in a record-breaking time. It never happened before and it was one of the biggest successes in my career. We had a lot of media support and a lot of god’s blessings as well. Even Atul Kulcha, Vineet Bhatia, they had to wait for two or three years so I’ve been really lucky to achieve this. After the success of Jamavar and Bombay Bustle I decided to open my own place. When I opened Kutir, it was completely packed from the first day. At the weekends there was a waiting list for one and a half to two months. It became one of the hot restaurant openings for 2018/2019. In three to four months we had a couple of visits from Michelin as well, so I was expecting something by 2020. This year was very, very crucial for us. But in the end, Covid happened and everything is destroyed. This is a very difficult time for everyone. You can’t do anything other than work or try to bring something else. I acquired another site in central London, so that’s a big deal. I’ve already started working on my new concept because that’s all you can do. Keep the positivity with you, always.

6- Do you prefer creating menus for Kutir or street food options for Kool Cha?

What skills does it take to create dishes for two very different types of restaurant? It's all about your vision. In my opinion, the concept is completely dependent on the location or the clientele. Chelsea is a wealthy area and Kutir is a small place. I really wanted to make Kutir a destination so I came up with very fine dining. There you have to put in a lot of effort and consider small details. Kutir in Hindi is a small cottage, so we stick to that with the entire team, the name and the food. The London food scene gets changed every single year but the only thing you have to consider are the classic dishes. Indian food is everywhere and I would say it’s evergreen. Gastronomy goes on and off in the London food scene, so we have to come back to the basics and the roots, always. What I do when I cook or make special menus or create different concepts is classic recipes, but more presentable. Rather than losing any flavour or the authenticity of the dish, I play around with the ingredients.

7- You have a film on your website called ‘For The Love of Cricket’ – are you a big fan of the sport?

Who are your cricketing heroes? I used to play cricket a lot back in college. Since I entered this industry, I hardly get enough time to spend with my family but usually we organise a team-building exercise and once a year, [the restaurant team] play cricket in Regent’s Park. My biggest cricket hero is Sachin Tendulkar. I personally served him in London more than five times. He knows me very well and whenever he’s in town he always messages me, so I know the entire family. He loves Indian food. At Kutir, my regular clients are Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova - even James Bond came a couple of times with his family, Pierce Brosnan. I got the pleasure to serve them more than five or six times, so there’s a personal touch. Most of the royal family from Dubai, from the GCC, whenever they are in town, they always come. I’ve got so many people who are very loyal to me, it's all blessings, to be honest.

8- What’s your favourite dish to cook?

I love to cook a lot of seafood, like pan-seared fish, and use a lot of slow techniques like whole kid leg of lamb, which is very popular in India.

9- Other than Indian cuisine, is there another world cuisine that gives you inspiration?

I always prefer French cuisine in terms of cooking techniques. French cuisine techniques with Indian flavours.

10- What will you be teaching our members to cook on the chefs for foodies platform?

It will be a very homely approach, where people can easily source the ingredients because when you start cooking Indian cuisine you have to find out the right rules and get the right ingredients. I’d love to start with the basics, to make them understand Indian food. There will be a variation, veg/non-veg, different types of pickles, gluten-free Indian food, vegan-style Indian food. It’s going to work well because there are a lot of flavours and spices that can make a vegan or gluten-free meal very interesting and flavourful. At Kutir we always offer a gluten-free menu. If people have any dietary requirements we just ask for at least 24 hours notice. There’s a couple from the US and they prefer food without salt, so sometimes I have to cook a seven or eight course tasting menu without salt. There’s another couple, they are my parents' age, but they love to try my food so whenever they come they always give me one week’s notice. ‘Rohit, I would like to try your Game menu, I would like to try your Expedition menu’, so I cook and make them happy.

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