Chef Vicky Ratnani popularly known for his cook show Vickypedia, is a gourmand, connoisseur, and in his own words, ‘a chef who is celebrated for his good work’. Having worked with various cruise liners and restaurants abroad in the initial years of his professional career, Chef Ratnani shares with Steena Joy his insights on the food scene in India and why he feels Indian cuisine has moved up in fineness into a different zone
How has your journey been as a chef?
I think what people must realise that a chef’s career is not a bed of roses. It’s been very hard work and I am not complaining about it. The journey of any professional in the F&B industry can be as volatile as they want it to be like accepting challenges; working long hours; staying away from family; spending nights in the middle of the rough waters of the ocean; celebrating when everyone is sleeping and actually working throughout the year when people are celebrating. So it has been an amazing journey in which it has been like an all-round management school whereas a chef you learn about punctuality, productivity, morale and motivation, cost efficiency, etc. So it is actually all of the management that one can think of has come into my life. It’s working with 37 different nationalities, learning a lot from different people. And, when I returned to India, I have been fortunate enough to set up two world-class restaurants which are Aurus and Nido where we did a lot of modern cooking. The F&B industry has moved by leaps and bounds. There are restaurants which come in and go out every day. Television has been good to increase the reach of the people. I used to serve 200-300 people in a restaurant, but it’s a great feeling when you influence over 20 million people every year! So it has been a good journey until now and I would just say that at the end of the day I don’t like the word celebrity chef. I am a chef who is celebrated for his good work.
Who has been your inspiration?
I have followed chefs in America who were culinary students or head chefs in restaurants and then went on to create their own restaurants and businesses in different verticals and empires around it. Jean-Georges, Daniel Bello are few of the chefs who have created multi-vertical businesses and restaurants.
How has the food scene changed in India over the years?
I think people have become more aware of food. Earlier people either ate in a five-star hotel’s fine-dine restaurant or on the streets. But, I think now the whole food culture has moved in a lateral way as now you have an enormous number of eateries that are serving really good food at modest pricing as well. The standalone restaurants are way ahead of their time now with more creativity and freedom in what they want to do. I think regional Indian cuisine has become hyperlocal now wherein you have a restaurant in India which literally boasts about the cuisine of a community or the locality itself. We have always had the foodie culture, but it is now that the people are coming out of the closet and expressing their whole interest in food.
Your style of cooking?
My style of cooking is pretty much global. Though most of my years as a chef I have spent internationally and it has been only 10 years ago when I returned to India, the food that I cook now is global cuisine but with a touch of Indianness to it, because more and more you stay in a place you start to use the ingredients available in the place. So however global my style of cooking is, my soul is very ‘desi’ when it comes to food.
Has the global perception about Indian cuisine changed?
Absolutely. About 10 years ago, Indian restaurants were treated like a curry house or a place used to order a meal via telephone. But, it is not that. It has become very aspirational. It has become very refined. You have a lot of Michelin star fine dining restaurants in the top cities of the world like London, New York, Paris, Melbourne. Indian cuisine has moved into a different zone with a lot of fineness and has become more upmarket. Also, at the same time, we have a lot of young chefs from India who are cooking very good Indian food both in India and abroad. I think Chef Manish Mehrotra has done a great job by opening restaurants like the Indian Accent right from Delhi to New York and London, and there are few others like Chef Manisha Chauhan who has been in the USA and has moved to smaller cities there like Nashville in Tennessee and has been cooking really good Indian food there. So Indians are promoting the Indian regional cuisine and not just as north Indian or south Indian but a lot of regional cuisines and let the Westerners experience these cuisines through the chefs.
Your association with The Bandra Project by Pizza Express.
I develop and curate menus for them and I work in tandem with all their head chefs. We have different price points, different cuisines and also different restaurants which give me a chance to be creative at different levels.
What are the kind of menus you curate for these projects?
The Runway Project is a modern Italian menu which has a little luxe to it. And I am also working with a pottery store who designs plates and crockery for the restaurant. In the Bandra project, Bandra which is almost like a hippie chic place so the food is very much like that. We have six or seven different cuisines which come onto our menu. We have influence from Korea, India, a bit of the USA and also Italian. We make most of the pastas in-house. So it is basically a very community style and innovative menu which could be savoured by people of all ages.
Your thoughts about sustainability in food and encouraging organic produce?
We are trying to be as sustainable as much we can. We discourage the use of too many imported products. We have a lot of good cheese makers in India so we use a lot of local cheese. We use only local vegetables. We work with local farmers for the supply of products like cherry tomatoes. In terms of organic, it is very difficult for a restaurant of large size to be 100 per cent organic which is because of the lack of accessibility and regularity of quality organic produce here, and there is a price factor that comes in play as well. So we are trying to catch small co-ops who are doing things like this. Until 20 years ago, we were an organic country. Some of our farmers cannot even afford pesticides. We have only started buying pretty looking vegetables for the last 10 years. And I say the ugliest looking vegetable is the healthiest!
Your views about Hydroponics?
Hydroponics is the future of farming as it is soil-free, it uses less space and less water. Also, it is grown in perfect conditions and its nutrients are calculated. And, the advantage of this is you get the same quality consistent for 12 hours a day. Also, I do use quite a few hydroponics in my dishes.
I have a health food startup called Hello Green, but further to that, I think we are going to do a few more restaurants with this group, Gourmet Investments as they are keen on doing a lot of innovative restaurant concepts. I am also in talks of designing a menu for their upcoming signature restaurant which is going to be based on seasons.
Your advice for aspiring chefs?
A chef’s job is not about glamour and aspiring chefs need to understand it. It is about being genuinely interested in cooking.