“You can reduce the sweetness,” said 8-year-old Trisha Ghai, as she tasted the dish made by her father.
“What is missing?” he asked.
“I don’t know, daddy… it’s nice, but make it less sweet next time,” explained the child as she wiped the plate clean with her spoon.
Tasty as it was, Trisha was quite sure of what she said. As for the 39-year-old Indian Michelin starred chef Rohit Ghai, he had no choice but to listen to his daughter, who is his biggest critic. This conversation was simply an excerpt from a day in the life of the culinary mastermind back in his London home.
Where it all began
Born into a Punjabi family, Ghai credits his culinary journey to the roots of his upbringing in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh in India. As a child, he was always curious about what occurred in the kitchen – not just his, but also wherever there was good food involved. His inspiration was his mother.
Eventually, Ghai was sure about the journey he wanted to take – a flavoursome experience, with a pinch of education, a dash of passion and a few spoonful of memories from his mother’s kitchen – all of which he wanted to share with the world.
“Being the youngest in the family, I used to spend a lot of time with my parents, especially my mum. It started from there… my love for food. Whatever I’ve learned in the beginning is from her, and I have accommodated it in my menu… especially her pickle recipes, and the lotus kofta, which I serve at the restaurant [in London].
“I grew up in a Punjabi family, so the yoghurt-based drink lassi or buttermilk, which I have in my restaurant kitchens – is a personal favourite. I think my fondest food memory would be when my mum used to make makki ki roti, or buttered flatbread from cornmeal, with sarson ka saag (spiced mustard greens curry), which is a dish primarily with ginger and garlic. It’s my absolute favourite; however, it’s been two years since I’ve eaten the dish made by her. Even the khichri (or lentil and rice dish), I’ve never liked it being made with green lentil, so I’ve taken my mother’s recipe of using yellow lentils and added it into the menu. I serve it with wild mushrooms and truffle on top, to give it that distinct and exotic flavour.”
Growing up, Ghai was never pressured to follow a certain career path. His parents were supportive of his decision to turn his dreams of being in the kitchen into a reality. And as unusual as a path it was during that time, Ghai consistently proved that success comes when you are passionate and deliver with hard work.
After graduating from the Institute of Hotel Management (IHM) in Gwalior, Ghai’s first step to a Michelin star began when he started as a commis chef at Oberois Hotels & Resorts. He worked there for two years before moving to Taj hotels in the same city.
The first star
You know you have put your heart and soul into something, when its rewards come. While working at the Taj hotels, Ghai wanted to expand his dreams and establish his culinary roots outside India. The late Chef Pankaj Mehra – under whom Ghai was training – suggested that the 21-year-old move to London eventually. “When I said that I wanted international exposure, my mentor said London is the best place to go, especially because there’s quite the demand for Indian food there. However, it’s very difficult to get an opportunity – especially because I was cooking continental food more than Indian food – and in the UK, every chef cooks every single day.
“I had immediately asked Chef Mehra if he could transfer me into an Indian kitchen [to gain experience] but he denied it. So, I took extra shifts to understand more about the cuisine… at least for four years, I worked more than 16 hours in the kitchen,” Ghai added.
With his experience, Ghai ventured into the kitchens of restaurants in the UK, such as Benares, Trishna, Gymkhana, Hoppers and most recently Jamavar and Bombay Bustle, all of which are based in London. It was then, after years of effort that he was awarded his first Michelin star for heading the launch kitchen at Jamawar, within 10 months of opening.
However, throughout the 14 years he has been in London, Ghai’s heart yearned for something to call his own. This soon fuelled his passion, and he soon launched KoolCha, Iksha360, Manthan and Kutir – all of which are focused on the different styles of Indian food – street, fine dining and fusion. His recent venture Kutir, which translates to ‘hut’ in Sanskrit, has a second branch at Expo 2020 Dubai, where he serves a menu filled with memories of home.
Bringing a piece of London to Dubai
Located at the Opportunity District, Ghai’s Kutir opened recently to visitors. The menu encompasses a variety of Indian food with an international twist such as, spiced prawns, aloo tikki, and chicken tandoori chops among others. When it comes to Indian cuisine, Ghai believes the “backbone” of it is solely spices: “I have at least 22 kinds of spices when I cook food.”
However, going to London did have its benefits, especially since Ghai has changed the cuisine a little bit to suit every palate. When asked how, he said: “I deconstruct it. I take a recipe and I layer it out ingredient by ingredient. For example, the dhokla, which is such a basic dish you would find in an Indian restaurant… I’ve taken the same recipe and converted it into a grill salad, where we make the dhokla crunchy and toasty. And this, I’ve paired it with apple, beetroots, and the classic chutney of course.”
As for cooking, Ghai believes that each dish must be made with passion, not just because one is focused on making it tasty. “First of all, the industry is very difficult, especially due to the long working hours, lack of social interaction and lack of family life, so it can take a toll on you if you are doing it for just finishing your daily job rather than out of passion. So, if you can’t make your food interesting, people will get bored of it.
“And whenever you cook, you need to have heart and soul – that’s what my mother has always taught me. Even if you are running short of ingredients, but you’re still happy when you cook, your dish will turn out perfect – trust me on that.”
Doing your homework is always good
When representing food internationally, there are quite a few challenges that could arise, be it fussy diners who are particular about what goes where in their dish, or adjusting a recipe without taking the ‘Indian’ factor out of it.
“I try to mix modern with classic – be it through my food, the ambience or simply by introducing new recipes. I do my homework and that makes all the difference, especially because you need to have a ‘new’ thing – a concept, a dish, or an ingredient, that makes a difference every day.”
Plans for the future
As for new adventures, Ghai aims to expand his culinary skills across the GCC and aims to bring the best of Indian cuisine to all. In addition to this, the Indian chef has also launched a cookbook recently in London, where he lives with wife Akansha and daughters Trisha, 8, and Tanisha, 3.
Meen moilee recipe
While Chef Ghai spoke to Food by Gulf News, he also demonstrated a quick recipe on his version of the authentic Kerala fish Moilee.
- 400-600 gms sea bass fillet
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tsp ginger-garlic paste (equal measures)
- Salt to taste
For the gravy:
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 20 gms fresh ginger, julienned
- 4 green chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
- 10 fresh curry leaves, finely sliced
- 200 gms onion, finely sliced
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 400 ml coconut milk
- 6 cherry tomatoes
1. To marinate the fish, mix the turmeric, salt and ginger-garlic paste together to a thick consistency. Once marinated, leave to cool in a fridge for an hour.
1. To make the gravy, heat oil in a pan and add mustard seeds, garlic, ginger, chillies and curry leaves. Stir until it starts to splutter.
2. Add the sliced onions and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes until translucent. Add the ground turmeric, and stir for another minute. Add coconut milk, bring to a boil and cook for two minutes. Next add cherry tomatoes and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes.
3. Using a nonstick pan, sear the marinated fish on a low flame. Make sure the skin of the fish turns crisp and golden brown.
4. Add a dollop of butter and sauté the fish once it stops foaming. This is to increase the nutty taste. Once your fish is cooked, place it over the gravy and serve it hot with plain rice.
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