CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with ASHWANI RANGTA
Asha’s has just opened its door in Manchester (UK) and the person who entrusted with it is Chef Ashawani. I had the pleasure of meeting him while he was in Dubai prior to the opening. A man who started out in a small hill station in India with ambitions of being an armyman, Chef Ashawani is a man who loves to tell his story. And it’s a story worth listening to. It is inspirational with dreams being realised, it’s heart-warming when you hear about how he taught his wife to cook, its humbling when you hear about his journey from Shimla to Manchester and it has its funny moments too.
Chef Ashwani Rangta
Name: Ashwani Rangta
Restaurant: Asha’s, Manchester, UK
From: Shimla, India
Culinary School: Institute of Hotel Management, Shimla
Knife Hand: Right
Twitter Handle: @AshasManchester
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I ate everything that my mom cooked. I don’t remember a single preparation that my mom made that I have not eaten. I remember coming home and asking my mom to make me something and she would take ingredients out of the fridge and cook. Every dish has its own taste and I used to relish that, I was never a fussy kid.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to join the Army. When I was 4 years old, my first school was at the Airforce school in Kasauli. I loved watching men in uniform, the discipline, talking in a very polished way, travelling in their fancy cars and my dad used to be friends with them. I was always fascinated and whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said I would join the army. But after college I went straight into hotel management. That’s one of my only regrets – I never gave the Army a shot.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
This would have been at Peshawari at ITC Mughal in Agra. It was the most challenging in terms of infrastructure. Peshawari as a brand was very popular in India and it was going to be the first in Agra. I was a Commi 2 and did not know anything about this cuisine (North Indian) but I knew I had to learn this cuisine as soon as possible as I was given the opportunity to learn about this popular cuisine and because I loved the food so much. The distance between the kitchen, the prep-kitchen, the grinding place and the store were apart, so there was a lot of running around. But the learning was quick – we had to learn within a month. Chef Jacob from ITC Bukhara came to Agra to train us for 10 days. What I loved about this was that I learned a new cuisine, got the opportunity to work in a very busy kitchen, and learned new skills and techniques from older members on the team. The restaurant opened in 2004 and has been a success since day 1.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
Spanish chicken and seafood paella, crispy chicken wings, chicken and cheese croquettes and garlic prawns at Seville’s at Wafi.
While you have been on your Asha’s training in Dubai, which place did you eat at most often?
At the Cheesecake Factory at either Dubai Mall or Mall of the Emirates. I love their Chicken Bellagio which is a type of crispy coated chicken with basil pasta and parmesan cream sauce. I also have to have the original cheesecake which I have to have at least once a month.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Kashmiri Chillies. It gives good colour to food unlike any other chilli and it has a very subtle flavour to it and optimum spice level – not as spicy as other chillies. It is fantastic for kababs.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
It would be Barrah Kebabs at Kebabs & Kurries at the ITC Gardenia Bengaluru. It is a lamb kebab on the bone which is marinated in yogurt, malt vinegar and spices and cooked in a tandoor.
Most exotic vacation destination?
My most memorable holiday has been at Havloc Islands in Andaman & Nicobar Islands in India. It is an unexplored place with silver beaches, blue water and I got to do all forms of water sports – I love the water. I would love to go to the Seychelles. I have seen photos and heard the experiences from friends who have visited the island. It is not as popular as let’s say Bali so it would be nice to explore.
If given a choice, which country or city would you like to cook in? Where would you go?
London. Because it’s a culinary hub, it has the best restaurants in the world serving the best quality food and I would like to do the same thing. That would be challenging if I could do that.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
I was doing my industrial training in Grand Hyatt and I was behind this live pasta station at an outdoor event. I happened to out sauce in a very hot pan and it splattered all over a guest’s sari. They lady gave me a scary look and her husband yelled at me and I did not know what to do, so I actually ran away and never came back that night. I thought I was definitely going to be fired. But the next day I was back at the pasta cooking station hoping that the same guest would not be there – but this time round I re-positioned the setting.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
My wife Ruchika purely because she always gives me honest opinion of my food and when I cook for her she is always looks forward to what I am going to make and is ready for a surprise.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
Organic salmon tikka. Purely because I was given the task to create an organic dish for the Manchester menu and this is a dish I have created myself. So I took the Scottish salmon and started experimenting with it in terms of spices and how to cook it in the tandoor, how the texture should be – after many trials and failures, finally we came with a product that everyone liked. We serve it with a papaya relish.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I purely believe that cooking food and having food is one of the best ways to express love. I remember if someone from the family cooks for you, it will come out very nice as that is how she shows her love. When I make food, I know I am making it for someone else and so it becomes very important for me to make a dish that my customer enjoys. My customers have come all the way from their home to my restaurant, so its my duty to make sure their experience is one to remember.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Wasabi at Enoki at Grand Hyatt Delhi. I was doing my training in that restaurant and someone decided to play a prank on me. He took a bowl of wasabi and said that this green pea paste does not taste nice, could I try it. And so I took a nice big spoonful of wasabi and put it in my mouth – and the minute it went in I thought that was going to be the end of me. It was later that I learned it was a condiment that accompanied sushi and sashimi and you need to just take a bit.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I remember when I was in Agra, before we opened the restaurant, the Chef made this Dal Bukhara and Barrah Kebab. He told me that both these dishes would be part of the menu and I should try them. He got some steamed rice and poured the dal over it. I have never tasted a dal preparation like it.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
It’s a burger called Tons of Fun Burger which was sold at Ice & Spice Truffles in Bengaluru. I have never had this kind of taste of burger anywhere in India or elsewhere. The patty is perfectly spiced, served with a mayonnaise that is also flavoured with secret spices and there is a nice omelette preparation on the patty, fresh lettuce and ketchup. The portion size is big and it is served with French fries. I eat that because it’s so nice, and taste is for the soul. That is what brings me to that restraurant and to that burger.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
I would be an onion. If someone hurts me, they would have tears in their eyes. And if someone loves me, they will be able to get the best out of me.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
One of my mentor Chefs Gaurav Singh said that as a chef we always get ideas from everywhere, so pen down your ideas as those may not come again and work on that because it’s something that is genuine and original. It is from those ideas that you start your R&D.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I would have been in the Army.
Most underrated ingredient? Star Anise. It is not used in Indian cuisine as much but it gives a subtle flavour and can be used in desserts and main course and the shape lends itself to presentation.
Best culinary tool? Knife because it helps give shape to one’s ideas.
A chef that inspires you? Chef Gaurav Singh. He is so passionate about food and exceptionally creative. His command and control over the kitchen is inspiring. He is one of those people to whom I will always go back and refer to if I had any doubts or ideas. He is a genuine critic and he is very approachable.
Favourite cuisine? Japanese cuisine because it’s the flip side of Indian cuisine. They don’t use too much of spice, the only taste is of the ingredient itself.
One dish you can’t live without? Simple dal, roti and rice because it’s what I have eaten as a child growing up.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? I believe that there are people who serve food but don’t necessarily know anything about that cuisine. The originality and authenticity of the cuisine has to be there – there was to be authenticity of taste and if that is not there then it should stop. For example in the UK, people serve Balti cuisine but there is really no cuisine like that. It’s just an interpretation of something someone has thought of creating
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. My mom’s kheer. We used to have this every Sunday afternoon and it was a feast for the entire family. She always made it in a huge quantity as we all never had just one bowl. Everyone used to love it. Preparation was simple made with love.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? 5-6 different flavours of ice cream including my favourite caramel flavour.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Paneer Mattar ki Sabzi (cottage cheese with peas vegetable) with Chapatti
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Passionate, presentable and tasty.
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?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!