Chef Vineet Bhatia, sits down with Sophia Soltani to talk about his ‘happy home’, Ashiana restaurant in Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel & Towers, and how leaving a sweet taste in someone’s mouth stems deeper than just a sweet treat.
As I sit down with, twice starred, Michelin Chef Vineet Bhatia, I can already sense that I am going to be intrigued and slightly beguiled by this humble and charming chef as I dig a little deeper to find out how this small town kid with a dream of being a pilot turned his charm to becoming a world renowned chef and restaurateur.
Bhatia begins our interview talking a little about his career background, launching straight into it he tells me, “I was born into a middle class, well educated family and I was brought up in Mumbai. I always wanted to be a pilot, so I went for my exams and passed, then I went for my medical and I flunked, they said I was too short and my legs weren’t long enough! So after that, I had a few options and I went into textile designing just like my father but I soon came to realise that it wasn’t my cup of Darjeeling. I had cotton in my eyes, ears nose and everything, and so I really didn’t like that too much and I lasted five days there.
After my traumatic cotton experience I was interested in getting into hotel management, and so I was successful in getting through with one company, much to the dismay of my family who all thought I wanted to go in and clean toilets for a living, so it was easier to let them think that and off I went to the Institute of Hotel Management in Bombay.
There I was never really interested in the food, and at the time there was a film out with Tom Cruise, called Cocktail and so that was it, I decided I wanted to be a barman to make all of the exotic cocktails and sit wooing the guests. I applied for my training and when I went for my interview, they told me I was too short to stand behind a bar counter, and all they could offer me was work in the kitchen. So I gladly accepted, knowing I wasn’t too short for this task, I walked into the kitchen and I was absolutely amazed, I fell in love with it and said to myself ‘I want to be a cook’, that is how my journey began. From all of the knock backs I found an open door, it was the perfect door for me and it led straight into the kitchen.”
Launching in to discuss his slightly unconventional introduction to his now world famous love of food, Bhatia continues, “there wasn’t a passion ignited at home for cooking, my mother always cooked good food, but never a desire to just learn, I didn’t sit on my grandmothers lap peeling potatoes and peas, I am not the classic story that you hear from other chefs, I never did that. The beauty behind my story comes from me wanting to learn, in very simple terms, I was a reject in life, I couldn’t be a pilot nor a bartender and so I found my home in the kitchen, and what a very beautiful home it turned out to be.”
After finishing his culinary degree in 1988, Bhatia was recruited as a trainee at the The Oberoi hotel group, where he remained for three years covering all aspects of Indian cuisine and it was this time with Oberio that perhaps shaped the path of his culinary career.
After five long and fruitful years with the chain, as Bhatia explains, “I was not allowed to grow in India anymore, I wasn’t allowed to innovate and evolve there and so I realised sitting in India wasn’t helping me express myself as a cook, I realised I had to leave in order to grow. Although I was creating my own concepts and finding my own style, I was being told off for using expensive lobster, expensive ingredients, I was being questioned as to why I was mixing, say for example king prawn in the tandoor, I was being told, ‘Indian food does not need to be expensive’ people didn’t understand my need for growth.”
In 1993 Bhatia wound up in London at the Star of India in Kensington, and as he describes it “I realised, boy this is going to be tough, as everyone was in a mild curry state or extremely spicy curry mentality, it was either a Korma or a Vindaloo. It was in a terrible state, and the first thing I ever cooked was Gaajar Halva, a sweet offering to the Gods, and I sent this out to one of the customers, an old commander Jackson type figure and he sent the dish back to me in the kitchen, so I wondered why he had done this and went out to speak with him. This old English chap said to me ‘you need to learn how to make Gaajar Halva, as it is served into a tube and is served cold, not warm’, so you can imagine I was facing a tough crowd.”
In June 1998 Vineet teamed up with Iqbal Wahhab, to conceptualise the ‘Cinnamon Club’ and head up the kitchen in London, unfortunately planning permission issues led to considerable delays and in January 1999, leaving Bhatia unable to financially sustain the business, with a new house and a young son to care for the venture closed. Bhatia himself describes this experience as “a blessing in disguise, as people bought into my food, so I knew people didn’t have an issue with the food, it was the investors, and people were becoming more cautious.”
It becomes evident that Bhatia’s foundations are firmly set in Rasoi, London where he was awarded a Michelin star for the second time in 2006 and he made history again in 2009 becoming the first Indian chef to hold two Michelin stars when Rasoi by Vineet, Geneva gained this same feat.
Amongst some of his greatest achievements, including a one year consultant to the first fashionable lounge and diner by the internationally acclaimed FTV in the thriving hub of Mumbai F-Mumbai, he is also consulting on the menu for First and Business Class passengers of Qatar Airways, plus producing his own book ‘Rasoi: new Indian kitchen.’ But when asked about these achievements, Bhaita explains, “my greatest accomplishments are not with my stars, restaurants come and go, as do fads and trends, I take great comfort in my heart knowing I have been a good father and husband. It is about the lives we touch that matter. I have left my mark in my food, so be it, a sweet taste in the peoples lives I have touched.”
Bhatia is now overseeing the menu at Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel & Towers, where the restaurant is aptly named ‘Ashiana by Vineet’, Ashiana, translated from Hindi to English means a happy home, emphasisng all of what Bhatia himself represents. Flavours from different regions of India come together on one plate under the masterful direction of Bhatia himself, offering a gastronomic experience that is true, both to Indian food and its origins itself, as well as Bhatia’s interpretation on how it should be in the progressive world. Pan-Indian in nature the dishes have evolved with traditions at the heart of each dish.