Viraf Patel interview: In these uncertain times, diners will seek out restaurants they can trust

If serendipity hadn’t intervened, Viraf Patel could have ended up as a deejay, instead of one of India’s most exciting young chefs.

In the mid-1990s, Patel was happily performing gigs in Mumbai, but his Hyderabadi Parsi family didn’t approve of the profession. “Being out at night, coming home in the early hours of the morning didn’t go down well with everyone at home.” His brother, as it happened, was going off to a hotel management institute, and so Patel was prodded to do the same.

That fortuitous intervention turned out to be the spark for a culinary journey that has taken 42-year-old Patel from an old restaurant in Zurich to some of the finest dining establishments in India, including Olive, Cafe Zoe, Indigo and The Table. Through it all, Scroll Food’s Chef of the Month for July has held on to one credo: the ingredient is always the hero.

“I’ve always believed that the ingredient is the most important element on your plate,” he says. “The only thing we can bring to it is the skill in making it right. Imagine something as simple as pasta. You can easily overcook it and mess it up. Or you can take three ingredients and turn it into a beautiful experience. That is what I wanted to put on a plate.”

His food at Cafe Zoe, where he was the Chef-Partner, attested to this. For the eight years that it ran in Mumbai, there was no pretentiousness or pomposity on the menu, no attempt to dazzle the diner with pyrotechnics on the plate. All Patel did was make “simple things taste good” with “honest techniques”.

To him, honesty and taste are inextricably linked in the kitchen. Compromise on the former and you end up sacrificing the latter. Which could explain why the advice the current Executive Chef of Olive Mumbai gives to inspiring chefs is “be honest to your ingredients”, “be honest to your technique”, and all importantly, “be honest to the people you are cooking for”.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is your earliest conscious memory of food?
I grew up in a food-loving family. One of my earliest and funniest food memories is that of dad taking us to a restaurant called Wayside Inn at Kala Ghoda. We had ordered steaks and when it was almost done, I asked, “Can I have some more chicken?” I had never eaten steak until then.

Do you remember cooking something that made you happy?
I remember my maternal grandmother’s house in Hyderabad had a lovely large kitchen, a space where I spent a lot of time with her as a kid. She was an avid cook. While cooking, she would pass on little things to me in my pretend little kitchen. It was tiny and had knick-knacks that were smaller versions of what she would use. I would play with them, making dough and rotis. I would be given things to whip up. That time spent with my grandmother had a big influence on me.

How did this shape your relationship with food? Did you always want a culinary career?
Not really. My mother worked in the hospitality industry, in the housekeeping division, for over 35 years. As kids, we kind of grew up in hotels. During our breaks, our holidays, we would spend a lot of time in hotels, swimming in the pool, eating there. I remember walking through the enormous hotel kitchens – they seemed bigger then because I was tinier. There was a fascination with what was happening in the massive pots and pans. But that didn’t lead straight to a career in the culinary arts.

For a while, I turned to music as a profession. I became a DJ for a couple of years. At the time – it was 1994-’95 – it wasn’t really seen as a desirable profession. Being out at night, coming home in the wee hours of the morning didn’t really go down too well with everyone at home. As it happened, my brother went off to a hotel management institute because he was interested in the field. So, as a natural progression, I too was asked if I would be interested. I said, no, not really, I’m more interested in the culinary side of things. By then, I had decided that cooking and creating food was more what I wanted to do in the hospitality industry. Over time, my brother convinced me: ‘What if you decide to do this and then change your mind? You are limiting yourself with a culinary-only experience. Why don’t you take on a full hotel management course and then you can decide what to do next. You can further educate yourself or study what you’d like to pursue.’ It made sense, so I went on to a hotel management school in Switzerland. But I basically skipped all my other classes and internships to be in the kitchen.

What did you learn there?
As I said, I went to a hotel management institute, where the focus is not purely on culinary education. At a culinary institute, it is thorough, focusing on the methods, the processes and other important things like technique and hygiene. Nevertheless, at my hotel management institute, I focused on the kitchen. My mentor was the gentleman who ran the restaurant I worked at – Chef Attinger. Apart from my formal education, he played a big role in my understanding of food and technique. He was an older gentleman with a proper Swiss culinary education. He taught me the whys and hows of cooking; he made it possible for me to learn new things every day.

Was this Restaurant zur Rossweid?
Yes, this was Rossweid. I paid a good part of the school fee myself. To achieve this, I would study one semester, then work and earn enough to go back to school. Basically, instead of working for six months, I would sometimes work for a year. I even went to Chef Attinger’s restaurant on weekends, so I could make some money. He was very obliging. He would even pay my fee and recover it later.

You’ve spoken in the past about how that time gave you direction…
The beauty of this restaurant was that it was old. By the time I worked there, it was already closing in on 30 years, and right from the beginning, Chef Attinger had been at its helm. It was an a la carte restaurant but it also did massive banquets. In the six years that I was there, we did an event that started with 1,000 people and grew to 5,000 people. We did all sorts of crazy themes. We once set up an entire ski arena inside a warehouse in summer. We did a medieval-themed event where we served food riding horses. We cooked massive quantities on grills, some of them 50 feet long. It was an interesting experience because you got to look at the other side of creativity. When we were working with these materials, we had to read up, and for me it was that much harder because the text was often in German. I had to put in a lot of effort to understand just one paragraph. It was also an interesting experience because we ran an a la carte operation all through the year and then a few times a year we would have these massive events. At those times, we would work maybe 18-20 hours a day, napping only when we could. I was the scapegoat – I lived just above the restaurant and was called in for everything.

What culinary vision did you bring back with you to India? What did you want to do with food on your return?
I came back around January 2000. I had just finished school and I returned, [knowing] that I had tried to stay in Switzerland but was unsuccessful. The Eurozone was forming. Labour from European countries was cheaper than, say, Swiss labour, and there wasn’t much work for people from outside the European Union. My boss tried a lot [to help me stay], but there was nothing he could do. When I returned, I was terribly interested in working with a standalone restaurant, but the choice was limited. Indigo was among the few standalone restaurants around that had a remarkable reputation. It was in its second year. I really wanted to make a mark by putting out the food I had learnt abroad, so I joined Indigo.

Indigo was a path-breaking restaurant at its time. What did you learn there?
Oh, a lot. Rahul [Akerkar, chef and founder of Indigo] has been another mentor. I’ve always looked up to him for the way he ideates and puts his ideas out there. What he created with Indigo will endure: bringing sophisticated flavours to the plate; instilling a bit of Indian culture, accent and flavour into very European- or American-style food, which was the need at that time. Indigo built such trust among its diners that they knew the food there would always be spot-on and the experience good. That is important even today in times of the coronavirus pandemic. From now on, in fact, eating out will only be trust-based. If I go out less because of restrictions, I would want every meal to be spot-on. I can’t afford to have a bad meal when I’m only going out once a month. Trust is going to be a big factor in the Covid-19 era.

From where you started, how have you evolved?
A major learning for me through the years has been the need to adapt. You need to adapt to your surroundings, your kitchen and the people you work with. You also need to adjust to cities and its likes and dislikes. At the end of the day, we are in this business to please the customer.

I’ve done restaurants in various cities and there has always been a cultural thing: something that works in Mumbai may not work in Delhi, and vice-versa. You have to change with the city’s demands. I’ve done a restaurant in Hyderabad, in Delhi – my wife and I run a consultancy business and a restaurant we set up in Kolkata made it to the Conde Nast list of Top 50 restaurants. We also consulted with The Table [in Mumbai]. Each restaurant has its unique situation: where it is located, what kind of crowd it pulls in, who its target audience is. Based on all these things, you create a menu.

Through the various evolutions, what experience have you wanted to serve?
I’ve always held that the ingredient is the most important element on your plate. The only thing we can bring to it is the skill in making it right. Imagine something as simple as pasta. You can easily overcook it and mess it up. Or you can take three ingredients and turn it into a beautiful experience. That is what I wanted to put on a plate.

Yes, I want to be trendy, cook what is the next happening thing, but at the end of the day, comfort is what people lean on. The strength lies in the ingredients and in the way they are treated – honest techniques making simple things taste good. That’s what we achieved at Cafe Zoe.

This is not to say that I don’t love dabbling in more experimental food. I do, but not necessarily on an everyday commercial basis. During my time at Cafe Zoe, we did high-end dinners at unusual locations and called the experience Wonderland. We did one at Sassoon Docks, another in a rundown mill in Colaba. At each of these dinners, 20 people were served a great menu and quality liquor for a price tag of Rs 20,000 per person. The experience grew in popularity. Companies wanted to host events, people wanted to support us, alcohol companies came on board. Doing that brought back all the excitement. Otherwise, you’re doing the usual stuff day in and day out and it can get a bit mundane. Creativity only flows when you try something out of the box.

Do you like cooking with any specific ingredient or protein?
I love cooking with beef, but we have restrictions in this country. I love cooking with pork too. But I would say seafood is my biggest forte. I’m very comfortable with it and know its nuances. I am well-equipped to cook it. I’ve always had that privilege, and living in a coastal city, you get access to the best.

What is the one thing on your current menu that captures where you are as a chef?
Wow. We recently did a new menu and one of my favourites on it is a roast duck breast with a kimchi broth. I love the idea because it’s completely different. The duck is cooked French-style and I serve it on a kimchi broth, which is not purely Asian. It has nuances, such as the French style of adding butter to it.

You’ve done Parsi food in a modern European avatar. Why do you think fusion food gets a bad rap? And what is the best way to reimagine cuisines?
You have to keep two things in mind: ingredients and technique. If you get the marriage right, you won’t make a mess of the food. Unfortunately, fusion food gets a bad name because often someone tries to combine too many things or the wrong kind of things.

Growing up in a Parsi home, I have eaten and cooked a lot of Parsi food. But the way I cook today is with a European base. Staying true to both, I tried to put them together correctly. For instance, we did a Farcha Pai, for which we turned the Parsi patio – a sweet, sour and tangy gravy – into a barbecue sauce which goes with chicken wings. To me, this is an acceptable route to take. Turning a patio, which is similar to barbecue sauce, into a version of it is something that works. What may not be acceptable to me is, say, spaghetti with a makhani sauce. That kind of fusion I may not want to eat. Remember, there’s a fine line between fusion and confusion.

What is your advice to young chefs looking to make a mark?
Honesty will always be rewarded. Be honest to your ingredients, be honest to your technique, and be honest to the people you are cooking for. This is what I have told the many people who have come to me seeking advice or to work with me. Whoever has followed through has emerged successful. I won’t take names, but one of my mentees started a pizza brand. He stuck to the basics: a damn good dough, damn good sauce and very basic toppings. He does a few things and does them well and he is a success now.

Another piece of advice is to learn the basics first and play around later. There’ll be enough time later to experiment as much as you like. But if you don’t know how to make, say, mayonnaise properly, there’s no point trying to make 17 flavours of mayonnaise. Get the basics right and be honest.

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