‘For Me, Food Is Fun, It Is Like Being A Child’: Chef Vicky Ratnani

 

 

The first thing that comes across when you are talking to Chef Vicky Ratnani is that he has absolutely no airs about him. That does not mean he does not take things seriously. He is dead serious about food, but for him, eating and cooking food should be things that put you at ease, not raise your hackles. On a lazy afternoon, Chef Ratnani took some time out to talk to Creative India about his philosophy of food and his experiences. He tells Abhijit Iyer-Mitra about his food journey in Peru, about the need to avoid fusion simply for the sake of fusion, cooking on TV, and more.

 

saladvicky
The joy of flavours: Beet and Burrata Salad

 

 

What is your earliest and most poignant food memory?

Salivating for my mothers biriyani that she used to cook every Sunday. We knew it will take at least till the afternoon to get ready, but we would still hover around the kitchen looking at the wonders inside, hoping to get some scraps before the biriyani was assembled and finally served. I cannot remember if that is why I wanted to become a chef, but I knew from a very early age that I wanted my career to be in food. I went into that stream as soon as the education system allowed us to start specialising.

Is it fair to say that your food style is eclectic but with quite a heavy “continental” influence?

Very much so. When I started training as a chef, I knew immediately that it was continental food that I was attracted to. I had learnt how to make curries and Indian food at home, so the automatic attraction was to what I did not know, and for me, it is that novelty value of food that titillates the palate. Obviously, novelty is not a substitute for good taste, there is this impression that western food is bland, and very clearly that was not the case. It was this search for novelty — new ingredients, new flavours and new combinations that led me abroad to pursue further studies.

There seem to be two philosophies in the food world today —  one that believes in fusion and the other that thinks it is confusion. Comment. 

It is true to an extent. I can tell you, some of these attempts at fusion are truly ghastly, but then, for every attempt that goes wrong, you have some fantastic attempts at fusion that are just so right. Take our Indian Chinese for example; yes it is not “true” Chinese, but when it tastes so great. Why in the world wouldn’t you want fusion? My latest food journey was Peru. Have you ever heard of “Peruvian food” in India or even abroad? Yet you find Peruvian chefs take such great pride in their own cuisine and techniques, and when you go there, you realise their food is downright fabulous — from pre-Colombian food buried and cooked in the earth to more modern cooking. What really stood out for me is how Peru has taken to soy sauce – (because of the massive Japanese migrations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Soy was introduced and the Peruvians have made it their own – as a flavour-enhancer for meat. I am a huge fan of using soy in meat marinades, since it is such a great umami enhancer.

How do you account for the confusion? Honestly, there are cooking shows and recipes out there that are downright dreadful. How do you ensure that fusion works?

(Chuckles). Well, you really need to avoid fusion simply for the sake of fusion. I think people can tell when a show or a recipe is good or not. Primarily, that depends on whom your cooking is oriented towards. I have a simple barometer, I am not cooking on TV to show people how smart or skilled I am. I am cooking on TV with a clear message – I want you the viewer to experience what I am experiencing with minimal effort. That’s why I keep going after new ingredients as and when they become commonly available in India. I mean, where is the point in me teaching someone how to cook foiegras or present caviar, when it is  out of most people’s price range, may not suit most Indian palates and unavailable in India? I’d rather show you how to use a pomegranate in new ways and in new combinations. But the main thing is, I want to teach people something new. Where is the point if I am going to teach them how to make butter chicken and dum-aloo — everyone already knows, and every other chef is already doing it on television. Where is my product differentiation?

Your pop-corn bhel was quite inspired!… as was your lychee & coconut caramel custard…

Well there you go — it is simple — you can get microwave or pressure cooker popcorn at any kirana store, you can get pudina and coriander at any vegetable seller. Why would I want to give you a recipe for Peruvian blue potato chaat when I can make a great new dish with things already available in the market, that people may not have combined before? I do not know a single person in India who did not make caramel custard at home. I mean, it is a simple dessert, we have totally adopted and made Indian. Why not give it a twist with things you already have and are familiar with? Lychee you can get at any fruit vendor operating a cart, and coconut milk you now get in powder form or in tetra paks. It is a simple variation, but adds so much and brings so much joy to so many people.

There is also the question of technique of course. If you rate techniques on a scale of 1 to 10 I would say I try very hard to keep my recipes between 3 and 6. Why? Well, because I want people to try things. Yeah, if I want, I can be a total prick and tell people “separate the eggs and whisk the whites to stiff peaks and make a ‘sabayon’ with the yolks”. My question is, when you can get 99% of the flavour doing things simply, why complicate things unnecessarily? I want people to try these things, and see how small things can improve their repertoire massively. I do not want to intimidate them and show them what a great chef I am. There is a time and place for complicated stuff – like when I am cooking for an event, but that is a different skill and cooking for the people is a different skill.

That certainly accounts for your popularity today. Everyone appreciates your recipes for how approachable they are.

Well, that is one thing, but there is always a bit of luck and some gift of the gab. Today, you have many good chefs who simply do not have the gift of gab. Thankfully, I was always getting in trouble as a kid for talking too much, so I could transition my cheffing to TV-cheffing very easily. Simplicity does not just lie in the recipe, it also lies in how easily you are able to communicate its simplicity to the general public. The main thing is, never take yourself too seriously. When you take yourself seriously, you stop learning. For me, food is fun, it is like being a child, discovering new wonders and miracles every day, and that is the main thing with cooking at home. It needs to be a journey of discovery – and a very pleasant and rewarding one at that, a journey that’s fun – more like an Easter egg hunt and less like your mathematics board exam preparation.

Your advice to people devouring recipes on YouTube/television and to young chefs:

To eager cooks, I would say, expand your horizons, try new things and do not let a few setbacks dishearten you. To young chefs, I would say, make it about the viewer, not about the chef. The chef’s personality can only shine through when the viewers connect with you and your food.

 

 

vicky
“When you take yourself seriously, you stop learning.”

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