Modern Indian cuisine that’s not afraid to push the boundaries
My recent visit to Punjab Grill marked my second encounter with the restaurant’s Executive Chef Bharath Shridhar Bhat, and the 37 year-old’s even-keeled mannerism and soft-spoken tone—imagine the opposite of Gordon Ramsay—remained consistent with the first time I had met him. Not even a prestigious Iron Chef Thailand win in 2017 wavers his coolheaded modesty. But when it comes to his creative talent in the kitchen, Chef Bharath is anything but predictable.
Take for instance the first entrée, Gulabi Chicken Tikka. Chef Bharath breathes life into this staple Indian dish by serving us a visually-striking portion of pink chicken breast, placed over peppercorn yoghurt sauce and adorned with saffron tuile. The pink, which is achieved with a beet root and cream cheese marinade, gives your taste buds a smoky, zesty boost.
Even though Indian food has taken great strides in the last decade, it is still not perceived as a sophisticated cuisine that will have critics and fine dining aficionados waxing lyrical. But a new breed of chefs like Bharath, are striving to revolutionize food from the motherland by modernizing traditional Indian food through taste and presentation. After a brief stint with the Taj Group as a junior chef at the company’s airline catering division, Bhat joined the renowned Grosvenor House in Dubai in 2005, working as a sous chef for their one Michelin-starred restaurant Indego by Vineet, headed by Chef Vineet Bhatia.
“I started my career under the Chef de Cuisine Satish Shenoy, who went on to become my mentor. He taught me the basics of modern Indian cuisine, and whatever I am today is because of him,” Bharath recalls reverentially.
He continued his culinary sojourn at Amal, an upscale Indian restaurant at the Armani Hotel in Burj Khalifa in 2009, and then at Mahec at the Le Meridien Dubai, where he honed his skills; incorporating modern methods and flavours into Indian cuisine. My guest and I see this in our second entrée, the Malai Lobster, a knockout dish from his Iron Chef Thailand days. Here he melds the delicate flavours of the shellfish in a piquant marination of green chillies, fresh dill, and cheese, which he serves alongside sweet mango relish. The spicy-sweet combination packs a distinctive punch to the palate. The dish may bear some semblance to the French classic thermidor, but it is undoubtedly Desi, without being too overbearing. It’s a fine line to walk, but Chef Bharath, does it with aplomb.
After 8 years in Dubai he returned to India, and eventually found himself the Senior Executive Chef for Lite Bite Foods, one of India’s largest F&B retail companies—and the owners of Punjab Grill restaurants in India, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, and at the Radisson Suites Hotel here in Bangkok. Since relocating to Bangkok, Chef Bharath has established a name for himself with the city’s Indian community, who keep coming back to try his creations. However, he also wants to bring the cuisine of his motherland to both Thais and other local residents.
“When I arrived in Bangkok the trend here at the time was molecular Indian, but personally I do not like using chemicals for food. So, I stick to what I enjoy doing, which is modern Indian,” he points out. “As a chef I am trying to make a difference by bringing in dishes that are not famous and many people have not heard of, like Daab Chingri.”
Daab Chingri, which translates to “coconut prawns”, is native to my own home town of Kolkata, so I couldn’t wait to try this dish. Served in a coconut, the curry is a zesty combination of tiger prawns—cooked in pungent mix of mustard seeds, coconut milk, green chillies, and coriander—served with coconut rice. The bitter yet fragrant flavours of this regional delicacy are captured beautifully by Chef Bharath, who proves that he isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of our palates.
“There is such a misconception here about what Indian food is. People generally know the generic dishes, which tend to be greasy and spice-heavy, but India is a big country. Every month we do a new special menu, and through this we get a chance to showcase different parts of India—incorporating the essence of Thailand as well with use local spices and cooking methods,” the chef goes on to say, and his Amritsari Crab Claw with Kaffir lime, lemongrass, and galangal illustrates this union perfectly.
Chef Bharath was the first Indian chef to win Iron Chef Thailand—there were three others before him, in previous seasons, who all failed to leave a mark—and he considers this win as a feat not only for him, but for all those who are pushing the boundaries of Indian cuisine worldwide.
“It was a prestigious moment for us all that our effort to showcase modern Indian was recognized,” he says with obvious pride. “When someone accomplishes something out of the country on an international platform, I feel the whole country feels proud of such an achievement.” Interview by Reena Karim