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Michelin star chef spices up Indian cuisine to bond with Qatar

Michelin star chef spices up
Indian cuisine to bond with Qatar

Talking to Michelin-starred chef Alfred Prasad is like having a conversation with a culinary philosopher. The youngest Indian chef to get Michelin star, Prasad achieved this pinnacle of culinary glory at the age of 29 and retained it for 12 straight years. One of the most celebrated Indian chefs, Prasad is known for his culinary philosophy of heritage, health, and happiness. In a glorious career that has spanned more than 25 years, Chef Prasad is best known for heading the kitchen of the iconic Tamarind in London for nearly 14 years. Having wooed the Britishers with his innovative take on Indian food at Tamarind, he collaborated with The Oberoi Hotels to successfully launch his ‘homecoming’ project Omya, a fine dining Indian restaurant at The Oberoi in New Delhi. In just over a year of its opening, Omya has become the favourite of both well-heeled Delhiites and expatriates. After proving his mettle in Britain and his home turf India, Prasad has marked his presence in Qatar to satisfy cravings for delicious Indian food. His first foray into the Middle East, Prasad is at the helm of Dalchini Restaurant at the recently opened Centara West Bay Residences & Suites Doha. Much to the delight of food connoisseurs in Doha, the menu at Dalchini Restaurant will carry the imprimatur of the London-based chef-consultant. He spoke to Qatar Tribune’s Satyendra Pathak about his journey from an aspiring Indian Air Force pilot to one of the top chefs in the world. He also discussed in length about his plans to showcase India’s rich culinary heritage in Qatar with a special menu that features both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Excerpts of the interviewcTypeface:>
Q: What were the circumstances that led you to become a chef?
A: I grew up in a town outside Chennai called Vellore, which is famous for medical and engineering colleges in India. To be honest, when I finished high school I did not know chef as a career choice. At that time hotel management courses were not very popular. I wanted to join the Indian Air Force as a fighter pilot. However, my mother had some other plan. She probably knew something about me which I did not know myself. She applied for a course in hospitality on behalf of me at the Institute of Hotel Management (IHM) in Chennai without my knowledge. I suddenly got a call for an interview and discovered hospitality as a career. I got selected and with each passing day, I got more fascinated by this new world of culinary. That was the time when I made up my mind to become a chef.
What does your family background bring to your cooking?
My parents are from very diverse backgrounds. That certainly helped me as a child to appreciate food from a different culture. In my father’s family, vegetarian cooking was central and I used to spend hours in the vegetable garden tending to ingredients before bringing them to the dinner table. My mother had great skill in preparing non-vegetarian dishes due to her Anglo-Indian background. I used to join her in the kitchen at every opportunity to help her with preparations. My father had a transferable job. Extensive travel around India with my parents also exposed me to the incredible breadth of Indian regional cuisine. But of course, my three-year stint at the college was instrumental in shaping my career as a chef.
What opportunities came your way while doing hotel management course?
While in college, I was quite lucky to be selected for an advanced chef training at two of India’s finest and most iconic restaurants Dum Pukht and Bukhara at the Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi that specialised in north-western frontier cuisine. Those two and a half years were instrumental in laying my foundation for north Indian culinary expertise. After that my first posting took me to Dakshin at Chennai’s ITC Park Sheraton, which specialised in south Indian cuisines. In my short career in India, I had worked at the best of north Indian and south Indian restaurants and perfected my skills.
How did you get the opportunity to move to London?
For four years, I headed the kitchen at Dakshin and that is what brought me the opportunity to move to London. In 1999, officials of London’s best-known Indian restaurant at that time Veeraswamy invited me to join their team as some of them had tested and liked my dishes at Dakshin. I readily agreed as I was very much fascinated by a city like London.
How was your initial experience in London?
The first two years were very challenging as I was asked to tone down my spices keeping in mind the mild British palate. I ended up cooking food that I did not believe in. It was in 2001 I started enjoying when I got my dream job of a sous chef at the fine-dining Indian restaurant Tamarind of Mayfair.
You are credited with reinventing how the world eats Indian food during your stint at Tamarind. What were the significant changes that you made?
The time when I joined Tamarind not many people used to come to the restaurant for lunch due to the perception that Indian dishes are very heavy and greasy. People thought such food would make them feel sleepy during office hours. My biggest challenge was to change this perception. I diversified the menu by keeping meat dishes authentic but lighter. Used seasonal ingredients and kept the spices subtle. These changes helped me in attracting more people for lunch. I also took the initiative to change another perception that Indian food is only about chicken tandoori and chicken tikka masala. I experimented with bold flavours and the vibrancy of contemporary regional Indian cuisine. My work was noticed and I was soon promoted to executive chef. That was the time I got a Michelin star. That was the biggest imaginable honour for me. I was with Tamarind for 14 years and it won the Michelin star for 13 of those years.
What brought you to Qatar?
When I was approached by the Centara head office in Bangkok, I knew very little about brand Centara and what it stands for and I also knew very little about Doha as I had never visited Qatar before. The more I learnt about both, the more I became excited with the prospect to present my cuisine at Centara and in Doha. And of course, I do understand the Middle Eastern cuisines. London also has a lot of good spread of Middle Eastern cuisines restaurants. The opportunity to bring Indian food to Doha in collaboration with the best Thai hospitality was something that was a perfect marriage. I am very pleased that it has worked out. It has been a fantastic journey so far and I am happy to present my food and philosophy at this beautiful restaurant in Doha.
What pioneering food concepts are you planning to introduce in Qatar through Dalchini?
Through Dalchini, I would certainly like to bring my food philosophy to the table. Each dish in some way or the other will have the elements of heritage, health and provide happiness to the customers. I look at preserving the authentic flavours of the recipes and authentic flavours of the ingredients that we use. The presentation of the dishes will be creative and contemporary, but the techniques of cooking and the way they taste will be as they have been known to be as long as these dishes have been around. I will try to create something unique for Dalchini as I did for Omya. The concept of the menu at Omya is based more around cuisines of Delhi. Here in Doha, I want to recreate my philosophy borrowing a few bits from ancient Middle Eastern cuisines as well. I would say that food at Dalchini is Indian at heart borrowing a little bit of inspiration from Middle Eastern cuisines that have influenced Indian cuisines historically in many ways. For example, the world kebab is actually Turkish. The Tandoor is a cooking method that has come from the Middle East to India. What we know as northern Indian cooking today is largely what has moved from central Asia to India. So there was a natural connection. The whole ‘spice route’ is something that I have also used as an inspiration.
What advantages and challenges you see in
attracting customers to Dalchini?
Doha is very similar to London in the sense that we buy ingredients from all across the world. I would love to showcase the abundance of ingredients that are available in Doha. Qataris are frequent visitors to London and we know their fondness for Indian food. I have seen many Arabs including Qataris visiting Indian restaurants. Many of them have already tested and liked my dishes. My experience in serving such customers in London will be another advantage in our aim to establish Dalchini as the best Indian restaurant in Qatar over the next 12 months. I do not see any challenge other than the general misconception that Indian dishes are very heavy, greasy and spicy. I took care of this aspect while in London, and I will repeat the same here. I can assure that dishes at Dalchini will be light, healthy and provide happiness. The perception of Indian food is changing and slowly, people are beginning to understand that it is not just about spices but has an extensive range to offer.
What plans do you have to satisfy the taste buds of Qataris so that they visit Dalchini frequently?
From my experience in London, there are few dishes like biryanis, kebabs and Indian deserts that will always bring them to Dalchini. What I hope is that when they come they try and they like it. I am sure that in their second or third visit they will be attracted to try some of the other dishes and they like it even more. If there is a large group there is a good chance they will try a few other things as well. We will focus on having a limited menu so that it can be changed according to the season and have something new when they come back the next time either for lunch or dinner.