CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF JITIN JOSHI
This blog has to start with both a confession and an apology. Confession: I interviewed Chef Jitin a year ago (Yikes!) and as much as I loved him and what he shared, I had a grouse with the PR Agency. Apology: My apology is solely to Chef Jitin. I apologize for taking so long to write the interview up (you just might have forgotten that you did this interview) and I really appreciated the time you took to meet me and share your experiences and also helping me realise that Chef Talk is all about the people I meet.
I first met Chef Jitin at a spice introduction workshop at Bombay Brasserie at the TAJ Dubai. What struck me was how he commanded such respect from the team – and he did not have to try very hard. Chef Jitin has worked with some great chefs, has fed a few of them and has great respect for all of them. What started as a lark, has turned into a profession where you know Chef Jitin has his total heart into.
Name: Jitin Joshi
Hotel: TAJ Dubai
From: Nainital, India
Culinary School: Institute of Hotel Management, Ahmedabad (IHMA)
Knife Hand: Right
Instagram: @chefjitin / @tajdubai
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
It was easier for me as my family is vegetarian. So, vegetables were constantly being made at home – so the line of ‘eat your vegetables’ did not exist. Of course, I had my less favourites like spinach, tinda (like a small pumpkin) and yellow lentils which I thought were very boring. If I did not like something, my Dad would tell my mom to cook it for ‘x’ number of days till I actually start eating it without a fuss – so I basically did not have a choice and nowhere to escape and you would not want to go hungry. But my grand mom was a great cook, and one meal of the day she used to cook. Every meal was prepared at home and we hardly went out to eat.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A doctor – to save lives, to in a noble profession – to be a surgeon since I was four. I remember, when I was nine, there was a book fair and I bought my first first-aid book in Nainital. I was so into medicine when I was young that I used to carry a first aid kit in my pocket always. But I never got through any of the medical entrance exams and so decided that medicine was not meant for me. So, I joined an agriculture college – Pantnagar University (near Nainital) and did two semesters there but I did not like it there and did not find my heart in it. In the meantime, I found out that some of my friends had got into hotel management and they were loving it. I thought that sounded interesting and decided to give it a shot. I appeared for the exams and after the interview and the necessary formalities I got admission to the Ahmedabad IHMA.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
Quite a few of them. The first one was working with a French Chef – Eric Chavot – in a two-star Michelin restaurant at Capital Hotel in London in 2001. I had never worked out of India so all my training was in Indian kitchens so working in the kitchen at the Capital Hotel was completely different and an eye opener for me – professionally. The things I saw in the kitchen I had only seen in books – in terms of ingredients, techniques – and now I am actually cooking them. For example, I knew what a langoustine (Norway lobster) was and had read that it shouldn’t be over cooked, but I had never seen a live langoustine and how to break them when they were still alive and when you are trying to catch them they bite and you have bleeding palms – that’s what a book doesn’t tell you. So everyday at the Capital Hotel kitchen I would get to learn something new. I consider Chef Eric to be my mentor when it comes to cooking and my culinary skills – no one has taught me as much as he has. I was with him for two years.
In 2000, when I was working with the Oberoi Hotel, I got my appraisal and a cash reward with which I booked a flight and went to London to look for a job. That was the year when two Indian chef’s – Atul Kochhar (for Tamarind) and Vineet Bhatia (for Zaika) – restaurant’s had received a Michelin star. I went around and knocked on everyone’s doors and Chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon Club (Eric Chavot consulted with them) suggested that I spend a day in Chef Eric’s kitchen. So I went to his kitchen and was gobsmacked – the level of perfection, the food. I did not apply as I did not think I would get a job there and so I applied to two other Indian chefs as people had told me that if would want to get a job being an Indian Chef, you will only be able to make it in an Indian kitchen and not a French kitchen. But I don’t know how, but in 2001, I got a letter from the HR of Capital Hotel offering me a job of chef de partie. I spoke with some of the other senior Chefs I knew and told them about the offer and their advise was that even if I was offered the job of a porter at a two-star Michelin restaurant I should take it. And that is how I started working at Capital Hotel with Eric Chavot.
The second memorable job was when I worked with Gordon Ramsay. He opened a restaurant called Maze where Jason Atherton was the Executive Chef. So basically, I worked with Jason. It was a high pressure, high volume yet so precise kind of restaurant which gave me a different kind of learning and experience. It easy to deliver quality when you have five plates to do, but to do exactly the same quality when you have 500 plates to do that’s when you discover the strength of being a chef. I was a pastry Chef at Maze for the first six months after which Jason moved me to the hot kitchen as a sous chef.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I had some chicken biryani with raita in Khazana – our staff canteen.
Place you eat most often on days off?
If its Indian food we go to this restaurant called Punjabi by Nature in the Lamcy Plaza area. We eat NKD Pizza at home – my daughter loves it. Ping Pong is also another restaurant I like (it was still open at the time of the interview) – the dim sums and also Din Tai Fung at the Mall of the Emirates. We also love eating at Lime Tree Café. I also love to cook at home, so rather than go out we eat in.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Ginger. I love ginger. It wakes up everything.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would most likely be in Hyderabad eating Hyderabadi biryani. I love the complexity and how scientific it is cooking it. I would have the biryani at a restaurant called Paradise which is known for its biryani.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I would go somewhere in Spain – not sure where. I love the way the Spanish interpret their food and the way they have evolved is amazing. The techniques and creativity is very very logical and they are not afraid to experiment.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
Rather than a cooking moment its more of a kitchen moment – it was when I went for a “stage” (kitchen interview), at Gordan Ramsay’s Maze. Usually you go in with your knife kit and they instruct you on what needs to be done. I was opening my knife kit and I accidentally dropped a knife and I trying to save it from falling, I caught it and actually cut myself. I felt stilly that I here I was applying for a job at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and I could not even manage my knives. Usually I always had a band-aid in my wallet – but that day I did not have any. I had everyone looking to find a band-aid and I knew I would not get the job. However, the only reason I did get it was because they learned that I had worked with Chef Eric.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
I like cooking for people who appreciate food. My brother, Nitin, and my Dad both like to experiment and try new things. So when I go home on holiday there will definitely be at least one meal that I cook at home. I would say, I would most like to cook for my family. They like ‘most’ of what I cook.
I also like to cook for chefs who I have high regard for. Like when Ferran Adrià came to Benares in London where I was Chef or Jean George came to Amal (Armani Hotel, Dubai) – I know that they understand what exactly goes on behind the scenes. It’s a bit nerve-racking but very rewarding when you get a compliment from one of them.
I would love to cook for Chef Grant Achatz as I greatly respect him.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
At Tesoro it would be the tempura lobster and spiced prawns. I love the texture, spiceness and creaminess of the dressing – you can’t just stop.
At the Tree House it would be the short rib sliders. We salt them and leave them for an hour and then cook them overnight and we press them and then sear them off and put them in a bun with some fries, lettuce and caramelized onions. It’s absolutely delicious.
At Eloquent Elephant it would have to be the fish and chips. We do a batter made with Jaipur IPA (India Pale Ale). When the British were ruling India, they loved their beers which used to come for the soldiers from England. Because it came via sea which took about six months to reach an Indian port, they added extra hops to preserve the beer during the journey. This beer with the extra hops was called India Pale Ale which was made for India, which was pale and it was an ale.
At Bombay Brasserie the Martaban ka Meat has to be mentioned. It is a lamb curry which we cook in a pickling spice jar.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I usually think of three things. Firstly, you should know your ingredients – its seasonality, its flavour and texture. But you then need to know what to do with it which would be your technique. The finally if you want to add your spices, and I say this as an Indian who has spices running in his veins, it needs to be appropriately added. Each of these three steps have their own place.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
By far it has to be The French Laundry by Tomas Keller. Everything was so perfect. It wasn’t pretentious. I had spent the day in the kitchen watching the food being made and then I sat down and had an 18-course meal. I was working at Maze at the time and I think that helped me get the ‘stage’ at The French Laundry where I could observe the work being done in the kitchen.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Krispy Kreme custard filled donut.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
I think I would be salt as I enhance everything.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
Most underrated ingredient? Sweetbreads. There are two kinds of sweetbreads – the pancreatic and the thymus glands – which are usually from lamb or beef. They cook really well, have nice textures and they are not very obnoxious like the other internal organs.
Best culinary tool? Knife. To make your ingredient into the form you want it to be the knife is the first and foremost thing you would rely on after which everything else follows.
Favourite cuisine? Chinese. Because of the diversity, the techniques, flavours and freshness.
One dish you can’t live without? Maggi Noodles which is something I love. I love the masala flavour one and I have eaten these noodles since I was a child.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Liquid Nitrogen. The trend of dipping everything into liquid nitrogen has gone too far. It has a place for certain things, but not everything.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. As children, at home we were vegetarians. But my brother, my mom and me – used to go shopping nearly every month to Sarojini Nagar in Delhi and there used to be this man who used to sit on the side of the street with a tiny barbecue kind of grill and he used to make chicken kebabs. I am not sure how we got to try the chicken, but perhaps my mom asked us if we wanted to try it and we said yes. So, on every trip to the market, she would buy us a plate to share.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Ingredient, technique 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!