CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with HARI NAYAK
I had enjoyed Chef Hari Nayak’s food before I even knew he was responsible for it. This was when I visited Bombay Bungalow at The Beach on JBR. When I dined at Masti, I knew I wanted to meet the man behind the food. He may have left India 22 years ago to purse his culinary destiny, but India is never too far from his heart, more specifically Udupi – and that was evident throughout our chat – a sentiment I closely can mirror (except in my case it is Bombay). I met Hari one day before the official opening of Masti and he did not seem rushed or in a hurry, took time to chat – and I expect he is the same in the kitchen – as calm as a cucumber (well he did say he never swears!). He came across as unpretentious, even humble at times and I believe it is his attitude towards what he dishes out which is going to take him to his next destination.
Name: Hari Nayak
From: Udupi, Karnataka, India
Culinary School: Culinary Institute of America, New York, USA
Knife Hand: Right
Instagram: @harinayak and @mastidubai
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I was like any other kid when I was told to eat all my vegetables. My mother is a nurse and has always been into healthy eating. Even though we ate seafood as part of our diet, it was not daily. But vegetables were main part of our meal. Growing up I remember I was a fussy eater when it came to eating spinach, broccoli of course wasn’t available at that time. Anything that was healthy was not that exciting but as I grew up I started enjoying vegetables more.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was growing up I wanted to be an actor. I think it was just an exciting thing just to be watched a be a model. But that soon became not a reality for me. I come from a family where my mother is a nurse, my sister a doctor, my brother is an engineer and my father was in banking, but I always wanted to do something different – so acting was the first thing they shot down. I then wanted to be an architect, a pilot – anything but a doctor. My parents pushed me to take biology in high school to make sure I got into medicine but when I shut that down, they suggested that I at least become a dentist – and I said ‘no way’. Becoming a chef was more
Around the age of 17-18, I used to watch cooking shows on television – whatever was available at that time. Martin Yan used to come on shows and a few other cooking shows got me attracted to the exciting side of cooking and that got me learning about ingredients. My grandfather owned a cafeteria styled restaurant in Udupi – which is known for its vegetarian cuisine. I was not fortunate enough to see the restaurant, but my father used to tell the stories of how he was pushed into helping out at the restaurant when he was young and how he hated it and how he could not wait to not do it. Somehow that got me excited – and I thought it would be a great business to be in. There was no formal guidance when we were growing up in India, but hotel management was the only option to be as close as being in a restaurant – so I went for that. And so, I went to the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Management in Manipal. So when I walked into this hotel school, it was the first time I actually saw a professional hotel kitchen – once I got into that, I was comfortable in the kitchen and I kind of knew that this is what I wanted to do. When I decided I wanted to cook, my parents were very supportive – even of my decision to go to New York – which was unheard of around 1996.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
My first job, right after my cooking school was with this famous New York chef – Daniel Boulud. It was this stint of training that you are supposed to do after your cooking school. Restaurant DANIEL was a 3 starred Michelin restaurant and Daniel was one of the most famous French chefs in New York. I thought I learned a lot in my cooking school but when I walked into DANIEL everything that I learned had to be kept aside and I had to learn on the job. And what I learned in there was the real deal – practical – how to be ‘in’ the kitchen, how to deal with people – it was an eye opener. Chef Daniel was a mentor to me. He kind of holds your hand even though you are just a young intern who happens to be just 1 out of 120 staff that was there – it was the individual care that you got compared to my experiences in India working in a 5-star hotel as a trainee where you are the least important and given the most mundane jobs. In India, the recipes were hidden which does not happen in a Western kitchen. In a Western kitchen they are so open – there are no trade secrets. They will tell you exactly what you need to do, so you get better which makes the Chef’s job easier. They style of training at DANIEL was so different – everyone was equal.
What did you have for dinner last night?
I just landed in Dubai yesterday, so was jet lagged so I wanted simple. So, I ordered a grilled chicken and a salad. I hoped for dal and rice but I didn’t get that.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I try to eat Lebanese, something local with Middle Eastern flavours. Of course, Bombay Bungalow (at The Beach, JBR) is comfort food for me as its Indian and the Chefs always take care of me (NOTE: Bombay Bungalow is a restaurant that Chef Hari Nayak was involved in setting up). But I tend to eat more local, Lebanese mezze style of food. For something more fancy I like Coya and Zuma – they are always on my list.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
I used to work in the pastry kitchen at DANIEL and there was an outdoor event where I was given the responsibility of doing a particular dessert – I remember it was a chocolate dessert with a sauce. During the pre-service meeting everybody gets to taste the food for the event and luckily we got to know I had put salt instead of sugar in one of the sauces. To see the look on the face of Chef Daniel was pretty embarrassing. So, in the end, we had to hustle and get it fixed and do it again.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
I love Indian spices – dry roasting Indian spices. I tend to use it even when I am not cooking Indian food to bring in the Indian flavours. So using fennel or cardamom and aromatic spices – I tend to use these in things that I do everyday which is not necessarily Indian.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
It would definitely not be at a restaurant. It would be with the family at home in Udupi eating something that someone else but me would cook – like my mother. It would be a Mangalorean home meal that I grew up eating like a local fish fry, we have a red rice we make at home and a simple rasam or a dal.
If you could cook anywhere in the world, where would you go?
India. I want to do something in India. I left India 22 years ago which is pretty much half my life. Doing what I have learned in New York as a chef, I would love to take it back. The misconception about South Indian cuisine is that its all about dosas and idlis – even for North Indians (anywhere from Bombay up) are not aware of what Mangalorean or what Kerala cuisine is. In the West, the misconception of Indian food is that its all about samosas, chicken tikka masala and naan – so for me I have been trying for the last 20 years or so to educate the Western palate that there is more to Indian food than these three. But going back to India and showcasing what Southern coastal cuisine is – there are a lot of restaurants who have done this – but to modernize it and making it appealing to the masses. Business wise it would make sense to launch it in Bangalore, Bombay or Delhi.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for and what would you cook them?
I am a big fan of Anthony Bourdain. I know him in a way where I have been watching him travel the world. The reason why is that he has travelled the world and has seen all the cuisines and I would love to see what his reaction to my food will be. I love how he reviews and speaks about food and I am a big fan of that. I would love to cook him an authentic meal from Udupi – Mangalorean cuisine – I am fixated about Mangalorean cuisine. When I left India, I was like ‘I am never going to cook Indian food’ – but as I matured as a Chef I began to appreciate my roots much more.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
I like the butter chicken pizza and that is one dish I eat a lot of. We also have this dish which is the pulled butter chicken with a fried egg and crostini (on the menu it reads as Chicken Bharata & Crostini). The tandoor is the only sort of charcoal cooking that India has but we discovered other methods of charcoal cooking from around the world. We discovered this oven in Spain where food is cooked on the charcoal (a ‘sigdi’ as we would call it in India) but it’s an oven – the combination of cooking styles – it smokes at the same time so anything you cook is juicy and you get the best of barbecue/smoky flavours and oven part helps with retaining the moisture. Both these dishes that I like are made in this.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Staying true to Indian flavours and presenting it with a Western flair. Modernsing is a very loosely used term, what we want to do is without diluting the flavours of India while trying to make Indian food sexier.
How do you cope with failure – when something doesn’t go the way you’ve planned?
It happens a lot… its part of life. But I would think about it, whine about it but at the end of the day I would always reflect on it and see if I can make it better the next day.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
A marshmallow maybe – because it absorbs the flavours of everything around it – it’s like a sponge that takes on flavours from everything that’s around. I am always learning – as a chef I learn every day. And I’m sweet.
Best culinary tool? Spice grinder – it’s the best tool a kitchen could have to bring the freshness of flavours of spices into everything that is cooked.
A chef that inspires you? Thomas Keller whose is not only successful with brands of restaurants as a businessman but is someone who has also managed to keep his cooking up there. His flagship restaurant still has the Michelin stars since its opened. Many other chefs are either great at the craft in the one restaurant or they are great businessmen. There are chefs who have restaurants all over the world but its mediocre everywhere but there are very few people who have done the business side successfully yet maintained the core of what they do – the integrity of what they are cooking – how they all started. So, for Chef Thomas Keller, to maintain a 3 Michelin star for the last 15 odd years and yet multiplied his business is amazing.
Favourite cuisine? Other than Indian is always Mexican or Thai. Both these cuisines are full of flavour – I like cuisines with a lot of flavour. I like well-rounded flavours – the saltiness, the spiciness, the sweetness – everything has to pop in the mouth. You have to hit all the notes and there are very few cuisines in the world that manages to do that.
What’s your favourite comfort food? Mangalorean – fish curry rice.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given? During my cooking training, Chef Daniel Boulud told me to stay true to who I am in everything I do – don’t try to be somebody else or imitate anyone. When you are a young chef you are always trying to imitate somebody else’s cooking – you get excited about what somebody else is doing and you try to imitate that – that was how I was growing up. Now what Chef Daniel told me about being true to oneself and following what you love – that is what I am doing now. I am back to cooking Indian food which I never thought I would be doing
Would you rather be a waiter or a dishwasher? A dishwasher. Because I think that is one of the most important jobs in a busy restaurant because if that fails everything else fails. People don’t realise how important, in a busy restaurant, if a dishwasher does not turn up or the dishwasher breaks – it breaks down the whole game of the restaurant. We can replace a waiter, but you can’t replace a dishwasher.
Worst thing about being a chef is… that you don’t get to spend as much time as you would like to with your family. Trying to find the balance between spending holidays and important events with family versus giving time to your restaurant.
Best thing about being a chef is… to see that what you do is making an impact on people – the immediate reaction that you get when you put something out on the table. The reaction that you find, the good reactions of course, gives you instant gratification which is the best thing for every chef.
What’s your favourite curse word to use in the kitchen? You are asking the wrong chef. I am known to be the mild, the calm chef. I have never cursed in front of people in the kitchen and I may be one of the very few chefs who don’t curse in the kitchen.
What is the one cooking tip you swear by? Using local ingredients – ingredients that are grown locally. In Dubai this might be difficult considering everything you get here. However, in New York I can swear by this – if you take something in season and if you go to a farmer’s market and buy the produce there is no way things can go wrong. Its all about the ingredients, it’s all about keeping the ingredient as your starting point.
THIS OR THAT
Curly fries or regular fries?
Hot sauce or barbecue sauce?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Rice or Mash?
Soup or salad?
Lunch, Breakfast or Dinner?
Fried egg, omelette, or scrambled?
Crème brûlée or molten chocolate cake?
Ketchup or mayonnaise?
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!