Video Producer: Akanksha Pandey
Video Editor: Prashant Chahuhan
Vineet Bhatia – the first Michelin-starred chef of Indian origin to be awarded the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) – was pleasantly surprised when he heard about his recognition for contribution to the “UK cuisine, to hospitality and International Trade” at the 2023 New Year Honours.
And to be acknowledged, accepted, and honoured by the UK government speaks volumes about the extraordinary journey of an immigrant, who arrived in the UK with seven pounds in 1993.
The celebrated chef has established an exceptional reputation as one of the UK’s most interesting inventive and accomplished Indian Chefs, with menus that highlight a fusion of traditional and modern features.
His cooking is never overly spicy, with creative flavour combinations, and a dash of Bhatia panache.
Bhatia has opened several restaurants across the world: UK, Switzerland, Mauritius, Los Angeles, Russia, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to name a few.
He has appeared on Netflix’s The Final Table, served as a judge on MasterChef India, and is the author of two books: Rasoi: New Indian Kitchen and My Sweet Kitchen.
When he is not cooking in many of his restaurants or filming for television, Bhatia is setting records and creating gourmet experiences. Despite his impeccable reputation, he loves to spend time with his family and eat basic vegetarian meals at home.
Averting Early Life Crisis
Bhatia and his family lived in Santa Cruz – a locality close to the airport. “As a child, I did not have an alarm clock to wake up in the morning. The booming engines of the DC-10 often took off from the airfield near our house, which woke me up at six-thirty every morning,” he tells The Quint.
Furthermore, during his everyday commute to school, he would come across the aerodrome in Juhu.
“My first love and passion continue to be airplanes.” Therefore, as an inquisitive kid, he always wanted to be a pilot.
At the age of 17, he passed his National Defence Academy (NDA) exam but failed the physical, putting his dream of joining the Indian Air Force on hold.
After that, he even tried textile designing for a week but did not work out as planned. He even applied for an internship to be a barman in a hotel. However, his height was against him (Bhatia is 5’4’’).
“They said the only place where you can go where nobody sees you is the kitchen,” he laughingly remarks.
Bhatia, never one to give up, then moved to his next passion: cooking, which he has inherited from his mother. He enrolled himself in a catering college in Bombay in 1985 and decided to pursue a career in hotel management, though continued to study economics upon his parents’ advice.
Soon, he ended up in the kitchen of the famed Oberoi Hotel. Though that was not his favourite job, Bhatia fell in love with it and found it very regimental.
“I was surprised by the discipline everyone had which made me learn how to cook,” he remembers.
From Bombay to London to the Rest of the World
Born in 1967 in Bombay, Bhatia’s childhood was shaped by the city’s myriad visuals, sounds, and textures. And one of the best things, he narrates, growing up in Bombay is the diversified influence the city has on you. “Mumbai is indeed a melting point of culinary delicacies from India’s many distinct areas.”
Bhatia spent the initial five years of his career with the Oberoi Hotel where he learned to master every aspect of Indian cookery.
Where he was eventually appointed as the Chef De Cuisine at the company’s Kandahar Restaurant in Mumbai. However, he began to feel caged as there was no opportunity for any kind of experiment with food.
“As a young chef, I found myself in a very fixed box, whereas I wanted to expand and innovate new dishes. That was the moment of realisation, where I decided to get out of the country,” Bhatia tells The Quint in a candid interview.
“The food was tailored to appeal to Brits and the menus of the hotels had dishes which were not Indian by any understanding. Therefore, as a young chef, you try and change things and offer a fresh – and a little authentic, if not absolute – taste of Indian cuisine.”Vineeth Bhatia
Bhatia then went on to transform London’s Indian food scene and opened Zaika, with an Italian partner. A few years later, he started his first solo endeavour – Rasoi – which received international acclaim and two Michelin stars – one at its London outlet in 2006 and another one in Geneva, Switzerland in 2009.
With two Michelin stars and outlets across the world, he firmly established himself as one of the world’s most influential chefs of Indian cuisine.
He also engaged in revitalising the menu for British Airways and became a consultant for the Qatar Airways First and Business Class menus, living his childhood dream of working with aeroplanes.
The Face of Progressive Indian Modern cuisine
Through his efforts and travels, Bhatia has significantly contributed to bringing Indian food to the forefront of international cuisine.
Bhatia’s melange of technique and creativity has made aware the West of the nuances inherited in truly authentic Indian flavours and broke the perception of Indian food simply associated with curry or tikka masala. His relentless pursuit has enormously put Indian food on a global level.
Recalling his early days, Bhatia says, “Everybody who goes into the kitchen to learn at that stage, everybody wants to learn French cuisine, because that is the fast track to become the executive chef for the hotel, and that is the most glamorous part. It is French cuisine, haute cuisine.”
“I said 'why do you want to learn French cuisine when you’ve got your own Indian cuisine, which is so rich and deep, which comes to you naturally in some shape and form. You should do that.'”
He firmly believes in constantly refining his art and his forward-thinking approach to Indian cuisine. Spice seared foie gras with wild mushroom naan and fennel-mango chutney salad, grilled sea bass with crisp okra fingers, coconut rice, rosemary chicken tikka, chilli pipette, black olive khichdi as well as home-smoked lamb rack with lamb jus are among the delicacies on his menu.
“When you eat our food, it may look very modern and progressive and very Western. But when you eat with your eyes closed, it’s all India on your palate,” Bhatia says.
However, when asked about his signature dish that describes him, he responds quite philosophically, “It is a signature approach in life that defines (Indian) food, rather than the dish itself.
Many dishes are owned by you, but I think it is the approach of thinking outside a box and putting things together – with the right flavour and ingredients.”
Throughout his decades-long experience of being a chef, he has tried fusion dishes by incorporating flavours of India and using the protein of the land he is cooking in.
“As in the early 90s, one could not get good quality fresh fish, especially pore. So, what do I do? I used local fish and added flavours of Indian swag. And that is what made the approach so different: it was not just cooking a regular meal, but you are also respecting the ingredients.”Vineeth Bhatia
“Travel for me is using my #cheftraveller because that is what defines me. I travel in the quest for food. And when I try to connect suppliers and distributors from across the border, it is extremely satisfying to work on both fronts because I represent both the countries,” adds the food diplomat who is acting as a living bridge between India and the UK.
Kalrav Joshi is a multimedia journalist based in London. He writes on politics, democracy, culture, and technology. He tweets @kalravjoshi_.