CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with VIVEK KASHIWALE
A man of contradictions (in a nice way) is how I sum up Vivek. By that I mean – he seems an impatient man, but when it comes to his cooking style is patient; he enjoys simple food, yet he serves up dishes that people can describe as upmarket. His family had different aspirations for his career but fate decided otherwise – and today when you see Vivek talk about his journey from Gwalior to Dubai you believe that when destiny comes knocking – there is no turning back. Dubai is home, and with his wife Sarika so in love with the city, it looks like it’s going to be home base for some time to come. After all – like his mother said – you have one life – do what makes you happy!
Name: Vivek Kashiwale
Restaurant: Mint Leaf of London, Dubai (Emirates Financial Towers, DIFC)
From: Gwalior, India
Culinary School: Institute of Hotel Management, Bhopal, India
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
When I was in school, I lived in a hostel in Allahabad (India), so choice was not an option. We got a balanced meal which we had to finish. When I was home during holidays, I was a pampered kid. I enjoyed eating chicken. In Gwalior you get this rohu fish, and every evening my Dad used to fry me some. My mom is a vegetarian so my Dad usually cooks the non-vegetarian food. So when I was home for my holidays, everyday, even today, the day I land in India till the day I fly back to Dubai that is my meal – its mutton in the afternoon and rohu fish in the evening. The rohu fish I like it fried which is marinated in mustard oil, a bit of turmeric, salt, lemon juice and he would fry it till it was very crisp, add a bit of dry mango powder. That is all I would eat. Back to veggies – no, I have no recollection of being forced to eat veggies. My dad was a die-hard non-vegetarian. What my mother cooked for herself used to last her two meals. I do have my favourite veggies – okra is my favourite, bitter gourd is my favourite, I like jackfruit.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
My mum wanted me to be in the army. My entire family is filled with doctors, so my dad wanted me to be a doctor. Every morning when I woke up and stood in line in the hostel, I used to see this man on a motorcycle with milk cans – and I used to think to myself – that is what I wanted to be. He had freedom. I studied to be a doctor until the 12th standard (equivalent to A Levels). Growing up I wanted to be in the army but I failed the SSB (Services Selection Board – it’s the entrance exam for the Indian army), I am not sure why though. I was in IHM (Institute of Hotel Management) when I got the results of the SSB and I continued at IHM. The reason why I joined hotel management in the first place was because a friend of mine was giving the test and he brought this form which I decided to fill in too. Being in hostel for such a long time, I did not want to go back home. In my first year at IHM we had this training in the kitchen and that is where I started liking it and I thought this is where I want to be. I was always drawn towards the advanced maybe because there was so much of plating and creativity going on in that kitchen. So even during my breaks, I used to go to the third year classes, stand in the corner and watch. I was always drawn towards how the end product would look like and then work towards it. Even today, when I am making a menu I would just imagine hwo I want it on the plate and then work backwards.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
The first one because it was the first. It was in a revolving restaurant called Falak at the KC Residency serving Indian food in Jammu (India). There was a small window in the kitchen from where you could see the whole restaurant in a span of 45 minutes. So in a way you knew every table. This was my first job out of Hotel Management and I was a management trainee there. As a Chef, till you are in college there is a safety net all the time – you make a menu, people read it, if you are in the advanced kitchen and orders get delayed, people understood. But from an educational institute’s kitchen you are suddenly thrown into a professional money market where every mistake costs you money – every time you do something wrong as a trainee you are being watched, you are being valued especially when you are a kitchen trainee and people know that in two years time you will be a Chef – you are under a lot of pressure with people. You are working with commis who you might have to control in two years time and learn from them as well. So this restaurant taught me what money is – to cook for money and to cook for an exam are two different things.
The second most memorable job was when I joined Mint Leaf of London, Dubai. I was working in Mint Leaf London till December 24 2013 and on the 25th I flew to Dubai. The day I landed and came to the restaurant it was just a floor. When you are involved at such an early task and involved in each and every aspect it become memorable – it becomes a second home that you have nurtured and brought forward. I was given three months before opening, and I was told all the sourcing would take upto 8-10 weeks to get delivered and we were running on a deadline. Working for a decade in the UK and then coming to a country where there is a large Indian population which has very very tough competition in the Indian restaurant space, you have to be very careful of what’s happening around you – what is the taste of people. This restaurant has been memorable because it feels like I have given birth to it.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
Did I eat yesterday is the question! I think I had a plain naan with some chicken tikka. I just made a roll. When I am busy I make a roll with mint chutney, red onion – depends on which side of the kitchen I am standing in – so I can eat it while still being on the floor.
Place you eat most often on days off?
Depends. If I am by myself, then I would go and have street food like shawarma of go to a Lebanese restaurant and have their barbecue. I am mostly in old Dubai going to the souks and I eat at the stands that are selling food off the road. If I am in Meena Bazaar I will go and have chaat. At the beginning of Meena Bazaar there is a restaurant called Mr. Chaat where I like their alu tikki (potato cutlets), dahi bhalla (Deep fried urad dal dumplings served with chilled yogurt), samosa. Cold chaat never got my attention. Like I said, I used to buy the chaat and keep on walking.
If I am with my wife, and because of my working hours we go out rarely, we go to nice restaurants but we don’t go back – we always chose different restaurants to go to. There are a few restaurants in Pier 7 that we have been to – Atelier M is good, we frequent Cargo as well. My wife is a vegetarian and she absolutely loves going to the restaurants in Karama as well.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Mustard seeds, curry leaves and crushed black pepper. Curry leaves and mustard seeds complement each other a lot and there is a flavour to it that I like. So when you crackle them it brings back memories of those early mornings when you had dhokla. My sister used to temper dhokla with curry leaves and mustard seeds when she used to make them bringing the south Indian taste – she is an experimental cook – so the first think I remember waking up to growing up was the smell of curry leaves and mustard seeds. When I went to Bhopal, the staple breakfast is jalebi and poha which again is tempered with curry leaves and mustard seeds.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would go back to old Bhopal with my wife Sarika because she has never been there. There are turning points in your life, and there are places and people associated with them. Hotel management was a turning point in my life and while studying in Bhopal we used to go to this rustic place where this man sat with a big handi (aluminium pot) by the side of the road serving beef biryani. On the opposite side of the road you would find this small sigdi (a coal fuelled stove used for cooking) – a make-shift barbecue – behind a cycle which an old man used to come on and set up shop. He used to fan the charcoal, put the chunks of beef on the skewers and barbecue them. So I remember we used to spend Rs. 5 for the biryani and Rs. 2 for the beef skewer and Re. 1 for the roomali roti (an Indian bread). It was such a great meal for us boys. So if I had to go back, I would go back there sit on the roadside with my wife.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I would not go back to India. I might go to Lima (Peru, South America) because it does not have a proper Indian restaurant. It has one which serves Indian food but with a Mexican touch. My sole purpose would be to go there to introduce them to authentic Indian food. I would do this gradually to introduce real Indian flavours to the palettes – it will have to be a very slow transitional process. Alternatively I would go back to Mint Leaf of London – this would be a practical choice of going back to London.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
A few! We were experimenting with squid ink at Mint Leaf of London, Dubai and in the new menu we were trying to offer a malai chicken but in black. So we got squid ink and the boys because it was new to them just stood back and stared as I worked my way around making the dish. Once it was ready, they asked me to taste it and then they asked me to take another bite and I kept on eating not realising that every time I ate my mouth was getting black including my tongue. I was a bit liberal as well when I put the squid ink. Because I had taken my gloves off, there was no imprint of squid ink on my hands otherwise I would have known. Since the kitchen at Mint Leaf is open, one of the guests saw my face and hand gestured – very nice – and I turned to the team and said that his food is not even out yet, so what is he appreciating? Then the restaurant manager stepped forward and told me that my whole mouth had turned black. I gave the staff three days of 12 to 12.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
My Dad, Prahlad Singh, still thinks he is a better Chef than me – he is right on many occasions. So I would like to impress him once. I would cook the same thing my Dad has fed me for 37 years – the rohu fish and raw tomatoes on the side.
If I get a chance I would also like to cook for His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He enjoys soups and barbecue items. I would cook him a garlic lobster and a rosemary and mustard salmon. I would also make a grilled sea bass. I would also offer a choice of biryani and different salads. For sweet I would offer him our Mint Pot – looks like a potted mint plant but it has layers of chocolate brownie, raspberry, nougat, caramel, some more brownie – so as you eat, you eat your way through different tastes and layers. It is presented in a small earthen pot and the chocolate brownie resembles the mud with a sprig of mint, so when it comes it looks as if someone has given you a mint plant to take home from a nursery. I would also serve the gulab jamun cheesecake – it’s been there for two menus and everyone loves it.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
Rara Ghosht – its minced lamb with a leg of lamb. When you cook mince and then you cook the whole pieces of lamb along with it, its very heavy – but I like it. The predominant spices are four – coriander, cumin, red chilli and dry ginger. It’s like a fusion between Roghan Josh and kheema (mince) so it comes in a thick sauce and I have it with plain naan.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Keep it simple. Don’t get confused – when you are cooking, when you work backwards from what you have envisioned on a plate, do not lose focus when you are working backwards on what you want your end product to be. Flavours marry each other – you can’t just mix and match. And have patience – patience gives you control – things will get cooked automatically.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
On my anniversary, I went to the Playboy Club in London. Iron Chef, Judy Joo was the Chef. The whole ambiance of a Playboy themed restaurant plus my anniversary plus the food was out of this world. Oh my God! It was unbelievable. It was American fusion and it was the first time I tried ceviche. I also had the lamb chops. I am a very small eater, so when I order, I order all the courses together so I don’t fill myself with just the starters. I absolutely love sweet, so I need to make sure I have space for dessert. This restaurant was part of the same Group where I was the head Chef at The Bird by Vineet – a Michelin starred restaurant in Leeds, so I got the best attentive service. I always remember that day.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Dal Baati which you get in Rajasthan. Its this Rajasthani bread and the way it is cooked is that when it comes out its quite hard so to overcome that it is dipped and soaked in Indian ghee (clarified butter) until it just fuses and soaks everything. It is then served with dal – it’s a full heart attack meal. Or I like Tabak Maaz is fried ribs – its Kashmiri cuisine where you take these ribs along with their fat and then you just deep fry them until the fat is all gooey and you literally strip the fat off with a sprinkle of chaat masala.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
It was from my mom, Shobha when I called my mom and told her that I didn’t want to be a doctor after having not got through SSB and I had just joined hotel management – she simply asked me if I liked it at the hotel management school and she said, if it makes you happy stay there – you have only one life. That phrase ‘one life’ stuck. You have one life, do what makes you happy.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
A milkman on a bike.
Most underrated ingredient? It’s an ingredient used the most in Indian cooking – Coriander – but sadly only as a garnish. If you smell a good coriander it’s got a different smell and texture in its stem which you can put in the food. You have this beautiful herb which you bring home, chop and sprinkle on top and then you cover the dish with a lid and it dies. If you are putting it in the food, if you are making aloo tikki imagine putting chopped coriander stem in it – it will give crunchiness no matter how you cook it and it will impart flavours to it as well. In sauces as well, you can use the same amount of stem as leaves. In a marination use only the leaves as you do not want the fibres of the stem to come when you are biting into a chicken tikka. If you have to use coriander as a garnish, do it right before you serve the dish uncovered. Try chilli and coriander – they complement each other so well.
Best culinary tool? My knife because that is where it starts
A chef that inspires you? Vineet Bhatia because I have worked under him and because he is very down to earth. He isn’t afraid of experimenting – of putting something out on the table and saying ‘that’s me’. But mostly because he is such a genuinely nice person.
Favourite cuisine? I would say North Indian food. When I am hungry, that is the taste I want in my mouth. You do not want an exotic thing. If I woke up in the middle of the night with hunger pangs and I have four bowls in front of me, I would just go to the Indian one because that is what would satiate my hunger.
One dish you can’t live without? A good Lamb Roghan Josh. It needs to be Kashmiri style – the Kashmiri’s when they cook Roghan Josh they use very little onion and a lot of dry ginger and salt. The gravy is watery – like if you are eating with rice it will flow out.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Eggs. Sunny top half fried for breakfast.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Simple, focused and patient.
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!