In the kitchen at Tun Yard Studios, Rohit Ghai laughs as he remembers a recent conversation with a customer. He recalls the customer effusing about Kutir, Ghai’s recently opened contemporary Indian restaurant in Chelsea, putting it up there with the customer’s other favourite Indian restaurants. When Ghai asked him to list them, he did it off the bat: Trishna, Gymkhana, Jamavar and Bombay Bustle. Ghai told the customer with a smile that
he’d headed up the kitchen at all of them.
In the last couple of decades, the authentic flavours of India have found a perfect match with the curiosity and appetite of London's diners. The result is a handful of modern Indian restaurants that have won Michelin stars and acclaim, and in turn made London rethink Indian cooking as a whole: no longer merely comfort food, but a national cuisine that can be truly aspirational.
Atul Kochhar – who hired Ghai as a mere sous chef at Benares, after Ghai had already worked his way up to executive chef level at hotel groups in India – and Vineet Bhatia are key figures, as was the midas touch of JKS restaurants, for whom Ghai worked at the the Michelin-starred Trishna and Gymkhana, and their more casual offshoot Hoppers.
Ghai references all of these when asked who and what has driven Indian cooking to the upper echelons of London dining – but considering he also won Jamavar a Michelin star as head chef and launched Bombay Bustle to boot, he probably downplays his own importance. Nowadays, you can find him behind the pass at Kutir, his first restaurant as an owner, rather than an employee, and he’s also found time to launch an improbable venture: KoolCha, a street food-influenced, approachably priced permanent space in the Boxpark food market at Wembley. "I believe in trying to bring new dishes into the London market, rather than keep doing the same stuff,” Ghai says. "I want to showcase the depth of Indian food." But he references his mother's cooking as much as the chefs he's worked with, and the result of his career is food that can be comforting, aspirational, but never anything less than totally loveable.
Poori bhaji is a very common dish in India. It consists of poori [a puffed, deep-fried flatbread] and aloo bhaji [a potato curry]. Most people in India prefer to eat this dish for breakfast. I can remember eating many versions of poori bhaji – in fact I’d say I tried more than 50 different types – and still whenever I go to India I always try different versions. You can even find lots of different styles of this dish in the same food market. But my mum used to make a very nice one, so this is related to my childhood memories.
Rarah keema pao
A lot of the dishes I created are still on the menu at Jamavar and Bombay Bustle. Rarah keema is something different. People love to have a little more fibre and texture in their mouth when it comes to meat dishes, so some people like keema as it is normally, and some people love to have keema with little chunks of lamb as well as the mince. That's why I tried to invent this one. In India it's a very common dish, but mine is a bit different: there, it's a main dish, but here I decided to serve it as a starter with two bits of pao [white bread roll]. And people loved it
Shami kebab with chur chur paratha
When I started my career, I used to go to dinner at a small but very nice shop. The owner used to make biryani, shami kebab and ulte tawe ka paratha – that's all he used to cook. Normally people serve shami kebab with a mint chutney, but that guy used to serve it with a sauce. He made a proper meat sauce, and he served one piece of shami kebab with a little sauce and one paratha. At that time I used to pay him 25 rupees – that was nothing. So the idea came from that.
I’ve done so many projects, but whenever I do something new I always try to bring some freshness into the London market, so I believed it would work like that.
My mother used to make paratha for me at home – very simple, carob seed inside, lots of butter – she used to make the paratha and crush it with both hands, so it became very flaky. That’s where the name came from: chur chur, meaning flaky or crusty.
Truffle mushroom khichuri
Khichuri is a staple food in India because it’s very good for the stomach, but it’s not very popular in the UK. I really wanted to familiarise the dish to diners here. In India people normally cook khichuri with green lentils, but my mother – again, I always give credit to my mother in my cooking – used to make it with yellow lentils, which is what I've done here. 60% yellow lentils, 40% is rice – that’s the ratio for that particular dish. To make it more interesting, I tried different versions with different vegetables. I decided to go with seasonal wild mushrooms, so we do a stir-fry with mushrooms and a khichuri separately, and when we get the order we assemble it together. There was mushroom already, so I thought "Let’s try it with truffle as well". I kept adding things to increase the flavour, and it really went well with mushrooms, shaved truffle and truffle oil as well. It’s now one of the signature items, and one of the best sellers, at Kutir at the moment.
People love seafood, and masala prawns are another one of my signature dishes. When I went to India recently I had vada pao [a deep-fried potato dumpling in a bread roll] – which is on the menu at KoolCha, too. There’s a lot of street-food preparations at KoolCha. The masala, the magic spice mix, which makes a tremendous change to the dish, has a lot of different spices in the powder: it has sesame, peanut, desiccated coconut and a little bit of tamarind, to make it properly balanced. It\s a standout dish, I would say.