A passage from India

With three restaurants already open across the Gulf and more in the pipeline, celebrity chef Vineet Bhatia has a taste for success
A passage from India
Vineet Bhatia was in Dubai for the Taste of Dubai festival in March in Media City
By Tabitha Barda
Fri 29 Apr 2011 12:00 AM

As the only Indian chef with two Michelin Stars, and the second UK-based chef to hold a star outside of the UK, Vineet Bhatia has raised the bar and the profile of high-end Indian food across the globe.

But, although his only peer to share the latter honour is arguably that most ‘celebrity’ of all chefs, Gordon Ramsay, Bhatia says that he has no aspirations to play a similar fame game.

“I don’t want to be known as a celebrity chef,” he says. “A chef is a chef and that’s what he should do.”

Yet the media has been a friend to Bhatia: in 1999 a positive review written by the notoriously acerbic London Times food critic, A.A. Gill, propelled the waiting list of his budding West London restaurant to heights that most restaurateurs can only dream of.

And today, as the owner of Rasoi restaurant in London and consultant to eight more restaurants across the globe – many of which proudly boast the accolade “by Vineet” – could his apparent distaste for becoming a renowned personality be a trifle disingenuous?

But Bhatia remains adamant that his priority is haute cuisine, not headlines: “My focus is on opening new restaurants around the world. If the media like what we offer then they cover it, but we don’t chase it and I have no desire to go on TV. There is nothing wrong with a chef wanting to generate publicity, but if I started doing TV work then I don’t think I could concentrate on what I am best at – opening restaurants.”

Crossing the Gulf

Bhatia was dismayed by the crude interpretation of Indian food when he first arrived in the UK from his native India in 1993. He has since whittled away at the loutish lager-and-a-curry association and became the first Indian chef ever to receive a Michelin star for his London restaurant Zhatia in 2001.

“For many Western countries ‘spicy’ just means ‘chilli hot’, but there are so many more flavours to Indian food,” says Bhatia.

Thanks in part to Bhatia’s efforts, Indian food has greatly improved its standing and quality in the bigger European cities and, in 2009, he decided that it was time to bring his refined style of cuisine to the Gulf.

“Arabic and Indian cuisine are very overlapping,” he says. “Both are derived from Persian cuisine but over the years have evolved and been modified with spices particular to each region. The food here in the UAE can be much stronger in flavour and more intense than the Indian food served in Europe.”

Bhatia says that the longstanding links between the GCC countries and India, combined with the high number of Indian ex-pats in the Middle East, means that the region is an ideal target for his style of cuisine. “The currency in Dubai and Abu Dhabi used to be rupees 30 years ago and a lot of the Arab sheikhs also speak Hindi, because they have been trading and working with India for so long now,” he explains. Bhatia plans to extend his own relationship with the GCC via a new restaurant opening in Abu Dhabi planned for the end of this year. “The Middle East has become quite modern in its approach to food, and very quality-focused. There is so much competition now and everybody wants to offer something better.”

Quality street

Maintaining these high standards is a challenge in a region that relies so heavily upon imported food, although it is one that is getting easier, according to Bhatia.

“Originally when we first came to the area about six years ago there was a very poor supply chain, but we spent a lot of time trying to source products and to try to put things together which really worked.”

“Fortunately we are only two and a half hours away from India and there are a lot of Indian ex-pats. So in the last five to six years a major demand has risen for Indian products and it’s much easier for us to get it now.”

But even with the improved supplier circumstances, Bhatia still has to resort to a bit of DIY importing on occasion:

“Having said that, when I travel to Dubai I do try to bring some things with me in my suitcase because some things you really can’t get. I’ll bring a supply of certain spices and flavours that aren’t available over here and then my restaurants in the region can manage on that.”

Keep them wanting more

At the heart of Bhatia’s success is his firm belief in providing a well-rounded experience for his customers – or “guests” as he prefers to call them.

“It’s not just the food it’s also the service, the ambience around you and the way you look after your clientele. Although they pay money we treat them as a guest, not just a customer. Customers are for supermarkets not restaurants.”

This philosophy of looking after people extends to the restaurant staff as well, and Bhatia says he ensures all employees are thoroughly trained and familiarised with his service ethos.

“It’s very important that the people around you are happy. For me restaurants are a form of escapism. So we tell all our staff that you treat people the way you want to be treated when you go out.”

The small details make the biggest difference, believes Bhatia, from a guest’s birthday or anniversary to their preferred dish.

“The delicate touches are very important yet sometimes people forget to do them. But what does it cost you to do this little thing for your guest? A small gesture can go a long way.”

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