CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with HIMANSHU SAINI
First a confession. Whenever I have heard of molecular gastronomy, I have always assumed that the Chef behind this kind of cuisine would be a middle aged Chef (don’t ask me where I got this assumption from, I haven’t the foggiest idea), so when I was going to meet Chef Himanshu I went to the internet to look him up – thankfully so – because the face I saw staring back at me was of a young man – not at all what I was expecting! Goes to show how much more I need to learn on the food trail.
Himanshu comes across as a simple down to earth chap who is trying to make a mark for himself and Indian cuisine. A cricket fanatic, a Manchester United obsessed youngster whose face lights up when he talks about how he sneakily went and touched Sachin Tendulkar’s cricket bat when he was invited to cook at the cricketer’s home or when he visited Old Trafford for the first time, a youngster who made one of his biggest failures, one of his biggest learnings and who believes that when you truly want something with all your heart, the universe will conspire to make it come true. With a wedding in the offing to Megha in November, a new restaurant opening soon (more on that when it happens) Himanshu has a lot to look forward to. He is carving his own niche – he has spread his wings and now, the sky is the limit.
Name: Himanshu Saini
From: Delhi, India
Culinary School: Banarsidas Chandiwala Institute of Hotel Management & Catering Technology, New Delhi
Knife Hand: Right
Instagram Handle: @sainihimanshu.delhi
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
No. My parents were just like me – spoilt – both my parents love to eat food, and although my mother is a fabulous cook, we used to eat out a lot or order takeaway. When one eats one’s mothers food growing up all the time, you sometimes get fed up eating the same food and look for other options. Everyone in my family loves spicy food and fried food. When I was growing up I used to eat a lot of non-vegetarian food – I was a big fan. I used to live in Old Delhi, near Chandni Chowk (extremely famous for its street food) and I remember visiting the original Moti Mahal (1st Indian restaurant to come out with tandoori chicken and butter chicken) which was very close to home and I used to have naans and butter chicken even as a very young kid, and I also used to take some of the leftovers to school the next day. My father used to take a 100gms of Amul butter from home when he went to a small kiosk called Chicken Changezi which is very famous for their tawa (flat-pan or a saucepan) chicken and he used to give the man there the butter and ask him to make the tawa chicken with the whole lot of butter – so growing up we did not eat very healthy food, although it does not show when you look at me. It’s not that I hated vegetables; it’s just that I found meat tastier. I remember growing up on Maggi noodles.
I am a very superstitious person. So growing up when I was in class 7 or 8 things started not going well for me – I wasn’t performing well in my studies – algebra and trigonometry used to give me nightmares, I wasn’t very popular in school and used to get bullied – so when I got to the 11th grade, I am not sure how this thought came to mind – I decided that the reason why things were not going well for me was due to the fact that I used to eat non-vegetarian food. And so one day, I gave it all up – including eggs. And that is when I started appreciating vegetarian food – although that does not mean I still like vegetables. Call it a co-incidence or firm belief, but my life took a turn for the better – my life felt more sorted.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Growing up I used to fancy cricket a lot. I used to cry when India used to lose a match. I used to play cricket for my school – J. D. Tytler, in fact I still play the game. So growing up I thought I would be a cricketer, but parents have a different mentality that sport does not have a future and studies is the only option you have. When I was in the 10th or 11th that is when I thought I would become a Chef but I still did my 12th in Commerce as there was no other choice at that age.
I used to love making and eating Maggi noodles and I always say that credit needs to go to Nestle because they were the ones who made a Chef out of me. I remember one day I was very bored of eating the noodles the same way, so I started making my noodles with my own recipes using the noodles and the masala sachet – like I used to add kaffir lime or make a vegetable version and adding channa masala to it – it used to be very weird considering that I was making all this without any cooking knowledge – sometimes it used to come out very well and I used to take it to school and impress my friends. I used to then do crazy experiments in the kitchen – I remember using leftover baingan ka bharta (an Indian dish comprising of bhurtha (minced vegetables) made from eggplant (baingan) which is grilled over charcoal or direct fire) at a pizza topping. And I used to enjoy doing this. And that is when I thought why not make a career out of it.
Do you have a turning point in your life, when being a Chef became your definite career choice?
After my 12th, I had time only to give one entrance exam for Hotel Management and luckily I got into culinary school. I joined the hotel management with Kitchen as my specialization but that changed. In my first year I remember they taught us about French cuisine – the mother of all cuisines, in the second year they teach you Indian and in the third year they teach you world cuisine. French cuisine never used to excite me – I found it bland with no chilli in the food and its full of non-vegetarian (and at that time I had given up non-vegetarian food) – so I did not enjoy cooking it. Also when you join a kitchen for the first time it can be quite overwhelming – its ok to cook for oneself for an hour, but when you have to cooking for 4-5 hours and then clean up the kitchen – it can all feel a bit too much. So in the first year, a teacher suggested I try my hand at the front desk – which I thought would be a more glamorous job. But in my second year, when we learned Indian cuisine, my interest in the kitchen came back. But in the second year, we also had to study alcohol and spirits and that I took a fancy to. So in year two, I thought I would become a bartender. I did my six week industrial training at The Eros Intercontinental at Nehru Place, Delhi in the bar itself (in the curriculum you are supposed to work each week in a different area of the hotel).
Going into my final year, I was still a service person. There is a National Level Chef Competition held every year where only third year students can participate and I knew I wanted to be part of the college team. Usually 12 students represent each college in this competition. In order to get on the team you had to take part in the internal competition. So first I participated in the Hot Kitchen – I made a prawn dish using Domino pizza’s oregano seasoning and for dessert a shahi tukda (a dessert made with milk and bread) with chocolate fondue. I was very confident with what I had made, but I got the fourth position. The first two positions went to my best friends. As per the rules, I was then allowed to take part in the pastry competition – where we had to make a cake and icing etc. which I had never done before. On the same day, same time, we had the Shake and Win Bar competition which I was very keen on participating in. I was allowed to go first for the Shake and Win competition and I remember making a cocktail which I called ‘Wild Night Out’. After which I ran to the bakery completion at which time most of the other contestants had already finished making their cake. When it was time to judge, I was still on my second layer struggling to put the cream on it and so I was disqualified. Back at the Shake and Win competition – the results were out – and I did not make the cut. I was shattered. That is when my best friends (who had won the first and second positions in the Hot Cuisine competition) came and told me that I deserved what I got – since I wanted to be everywhere and couldn’t decide what I want to do in life I could not blame anyone but myself. They told me that if I had focused on one thing I would have won it. When they left to represent the college and I was left alone, that for me was the turning point – and that is the moment when I decided being a Chef would be what I wanted to do. By not being able to represent my college that became one of my biggest learnings.
After culinary school, I joined Old World Hospitality in Delhi to do the Management Training Program.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
Old World Hospitality have a number of restaurants, in the Indian Habitat Centre but also restaurants in London and other places in Delhi. They have a restaurant in Friend’s Colony (Delhi) called Indian Accent (best Indian restaurant in the Sell Pellegrino list of 50 Best restaurants in Asia) which is where I worked. As part of the management training, for the 18 months you had to go and work in the different kitchens every month but I think luck favoured me – I did my entire 18 months training in the Indian Accent kitchen – the first modern Indian restaurant in India – under Chef Manish Mehrotra. This restaurant taught me first how to become a good person, and then a good Chef and a good leader. Chef Manish is one of the best Chefs in India and was one of the biggest influences in my life and whatever I am today is because of him – I give him 100% credit. I was with Indian Accent for five years and I remember Chef Manish telling me that his biggest competition were the younger generation of Chefs and how he had to keep innovating and keeping one step ahead of the new, younger Chefs – who have better availability of knowledge, ingredients and equipment – hence the learning never stops. I became very in-sync with this thought process and skills and his way of cooking and you can see this reflected in my dishes even today. In terms of me becoming a better person, I would credit Chef Pradeep Khullar who was the sous chef at Indian Accent and who I told in great regard.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
Biryani rice (no meat) with yogurt at the restaurant.
Place you eat most often on days off?
There is a restaurant close to where I live called the Red Tomato Pizza in Al Barsha and eat there often. They have a pizza with a white sauce with veggies on it – it’s a vegetarian pizza and I ask them to make it spicy. I also like some of their pastas.
I also visit Wagamama at Crowne Plaza Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road. There is a dish called Ebi Katsu – they are batter fried prawns with panko breadcrumbs on it and they serve it with a spicy red chilli and garlic sauce which I absolutely love. I can eat two or three plates of it.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
It’s a secret one, but I think I can tell you – its Oyster sauce. I can’t cook any non-vegetarian dish without this. It brings out the umami flavours – it’s a flavour that is not describable and is considered the fifth flavour. For me I use the oyster sauce instead of salt – I don’t put salt in majority of my non-vegetarian dishes. And it works very well with Indian food.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I think it will be Guangzhou in China because I am a noodle freak. I can have noodles any day and any time. Anything spicy – with noodles – preferably on the street.
Most exotic vacation destination?
Beginning of August, I visited London and Manchester. Watching a Manchester United match live in the stadium has always been up there on my bucket list – so at the start of this season, I went and watched the first Man U match of the season which was against Tottenham and thank god we won! I have been a fan of Manchester United for more than 15 years (I have stopped watching cricket now). I remember the moment when I walked into Old Trafford I started crying – when I saw the stadium and 76,000 people – something you have dreamed of can make anyone emotional.
My next destination would be Spain. They have so many good restaurants there and I would love to try them.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
London. Because of the acceptability of Indian food. The English have an understanding of Indian food and enjoy eating it and they will definitely understand my type of food – modern Indian.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
I was doing a live demonstration at the Great Food Show in Mumbai which takes place every year. I had to cook three vegetarian dishes in 1.5 hours. I was done with my first dish, and the second dish was a baingan mirchi ka korma (eggplant with chilli in a rich curry) – which is a Kashmiri dish. I finished cooking it, and then have to strain my curry because it had some whole spices in it and it has the onions which were not properly cooked due to the time constraint. I would have preferred to cook it for longer in which case the onion would have got dissolved forming a perfect curry which would not have required any straining.
But I had to strain it to give the final finishing touch before it could be served. The strainer which I got was very fine and when I put the curry in the strainer, nothing went through the mesh except for the watery part. But luckily we covered it up, but it was embarrassing for me in term so of how I could make such a mistake of not noticing it was a fine mesh to begin with. Luckily I had a cooked batch with me, which we then served to the guests.
Who is the person you have enjoyed cooking for the most?
I have cooked for Sachin Tendulkar (for those who don’t follow cricket – a snapshot of who Sachin is – he is the former Indian cricketer and captain, widely regarded to be one of the greatest cricketers of all time and by many as the greatest batsman of all time) twice at his home in Mumbai.
The first time, a friend of Sachin came to the restaurant where I was the Head Chef and did a tasking and requested us to cater for a reunion that was being planned by him at Sachin’s house. It was only for six people, so I went myself with one of my other Chefs and we made everything from scratch in his kitchen. We served the dishes exactly how we would serve it in the restaurant, which I don’t think they expected. We made modern Indian food – Sachin’s favourite is lamb chops, laal maans (meat curry made in a sauce of curd and hot spices) and there was one dessert – Jhajariya – corn halwa (Ground corn kernels sauteed in ghee, cooked with sugar and milk to make delicious halwa).
The second time, Sachin called us himself to cater for a family get-together. The food I cooked this time, was similar to what I had made the first time.
In future if I ever had to cook for him, I would make the lamb chops, he loves spicy food so I would cook the laal maans curry which he loves and he like the galoti kabab (kabab made from minced meat which is very flavourful and the meat is very soft – its history is that it used to be made for the toothless Nawabs). For dessert I would make him a cheesecake with rabri (sweet dish made of curd and flour) and a ghevar (Rajasthani sweet made of flour) base.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
Wild Mushroom Chai – it’s a soup. It’s a mushroom consommé. But the way we serve it is like it’s an English breakfast tea. Indians are huge fans of tea, they love their tea. The consommé is made from mushroom and is dark in colour so it looks like black tea and then we have the truffle oil which is made into a powder which looks like your milk powder and then you have the dehydrated mushrooms which look like dried tea leaves – so we serve it in a tea tray with the soup in a teapot. I like this dish because I love mushrooms and love the smell of truffle and it’s like comfort food for me. I like to eat simple food rather than complex – the presentation may be fancy but when you have it, it will be a simple mushroom soup – warm and peppery. I love it.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I can break this down into three aspects. First, to focus on the mixology of ingredients. In fusion its very easy to go wrong – you can’t mix ingredients randomly and call it fusion – it has to be a logical one. Whatever you put on the plate has to marry each other that is the only way you can call it a successful fusion dish which has to have a story behind its creation. Second, I like to do street food concept. I think even with so many restaurants, the street food market is ten times bigger and the reason for this is because it is tastier and value for money. So in my menu you will see a lot of influences from street food – my philosophy is to enhance street food further be it with molecular gastronomy, or with the concept or with the story which I build around it. And finally, we try to evoke nostalgia in dining – I add a couple of things that will bring back memories of your childhood. For example, we have a dish on the menu which is lamb chops with aam papad (Indian snack which is fruit leather made out of mango pulp mixed with concentrated sugar solution and sun dried) – aam papad is not something that you will find easily in dubai – and most Indians will have fond memories of aam papad. We serve candy floss in the end which evokes nostalgia – earlier we used to sever the cappuccino flavour, but currently we are serving the paan flavour.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I have eaten duck tongue in Guangzhou, China. It was in a restaurant where everything was live so you could choose what fish you wanted. Even the duck was alive and my hosts did the ordering as they wanted me to try it. It was cut in strips and stir fried with big chillies, crushed garlic pods, spring onions, sesame and Chinese wine and the texture was very tough. I don’t think I would eat it again – the taste was bland and I did not like the texture.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I think my best meal is yet to happen. But a restaurant I feel has come to serving me my best meal would be at the Smoke House Room in Mehrauli. This was around 4-5 years ago and unfortunately it has now closed down and the reason I think this happened is because Delhi was not ready for that kind of food – it was European food with molecular elements to it. I remember saving my salary for two-three months – I had a Chef tasting menu of Rs. 6000 (approximately AED 460 assuming the rate of exchange at that time was AED 1 = Rs. 13) at that time. I remember eating one of the mushroom dishes which had different textures of mushroom – it was a large platter which had different textures like pickled, fried etc. Delhi wasn’t ready for this kind of cuisine and hence they shut down only after six months.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Noodles – any kind of noodles. I love eating Pad Thai. Recently during Ramadan I made a dish called rice noodle chicken biryani – so instead of the rice I used the flat rice noodles and I think people appreciated it.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Black pepper – I think it has earthy flavours and I believe I am down to earth, its robust, I’m rigid at times but overall I think as a personality I gel well with people.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
I got my best piece of advice from a book – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The message that I got reading this book, was a simple basic one – hard work pays off and also when a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream. There have been a couple of instances in my life where I believe that this has come true for me. Watching the Manchester United match was one such occasion. Another occasion was when I was in Delhi and I left Indian Accent I won a competition where I was given the opportunity to go and work in New York for three years, but within a month I left the job because I did not enjoy working in New York. I strongly believe that had I not gone to New York, I would not have come to Dubai. So after I decided to leave New York, I had the offer from Tresind so I decided to take it up as I knew I did not want to return to Indian just yet. So in October 2014, I flew to Dubai directly from New York and joined Tresind.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I would have been a sportsperson – either a cricketer or a footballer. In between I got an opportunity to become a Man U reporter with one of the sports forums called Total Football.
Most underrated ingredient? Lemon. I believe you have to have a balance in a dish – lemon cuts the saltiness, cuts the spice and it can save a dish. It can make a dish more tasty, it can change the dimension of a dish. I don’t believe you can make a cocktail or mocktail without a squirt of lemon.
Best culinary tool? A siphon machine – it’s a flask in which you can create foams – not a bubble foam, but like shaving foam – so light. It works with two cylinders – one with nitrogen and the other with carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is used mostly in bars to aerate drinks and the nitrogen one is used to make hot and cold foams. I have two or three dishes based on this.
A chef that inspires you? Chef Manish Mehrotra because of his thought process he has behind modern Indian food for example like a dish should be completed – you can’t mix to ingredients and call it a fusion dish. He always said that there is a very fine line between fusion and confusion. There are a lot of restaurants who do fusion but it flops because there is no logic behind the dish. He used to always tell me that you must pamper your guest so much that your guest will want to come back and make your food so tasty that it becomes like an addiction for your guest so that they crave for it and come back.
Favourite cuisine? Oriental. I think it’s very similar to Indian food in terms of the ingredients, the amount of flavours and aromas. Both the cuisines have common aspects – both of them use a lot of chillies, both of them have a lot of aromatic curries and both of them have very rich street food cultures. I love the noodles and dimsums.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Eating butter chicken from the original Moti Mahal in Old Delhi. I remember the buttery-ness in the gravy and it never was that spicy so it tasted nice. I remember going to Moti Mahal to eat it and sometime we used to order it at home. We used to eat it with either roti or naan. And I remember for a long time, I never knew it was called butter chicken because my mom used to tell me it’s cheese – so my first memory of eating chicken is that I thought it was cheese. My mom used to say that just to make sure I ate it.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? Habanero and Tabasco sauce. I eat nearly everything with either of these two sauces.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Boiled eggs for breakfast and a glass of milk
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Fried, flavourful and nostalgia.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or labneh?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!