Vicky Ratnani Curated
Celebrity Chef and Presenter
CURATED BY :
You were one of the first to introduce molecular gastronomy to Indian diners. What were the challenges involved in the concept?
People think molecular gastronomy is all about foam and caviar, but really it’s about applying the scientific principles of physics and chemistry to food. The ingredients are not cheap, a certain skill-set is needed, and it has quite a niche appeal. It’s also a high maintenance cuisine that needs high-tech equipment – rotary evaporators and other tools are often very expensive. Today, my cooking is still progressive; it’s technique and produce-driven. You will find elements of foam and liquids, and we use tools like dehydrators in our kit. It’s modern food with ethical values towards seasons and produce.
Your show, ‘Vicky Goes Veg’, and its book adaptation both seem to promote yet another side of modern Indian cooking – would you say that’s the case?
Yes – in Mumbai, the paradigm is definitely shifting towards healthy food. But sometimes we have diners who can take it a bit far. Once, a customer said that she was avoiding gluten and eating healthfully, and then proceeded to pour three and a half tablespoons of olive oil over her sweet potato and showered it with Parmesan. That upsets me. I don’t think we should compromise on taste. Food needs to have oomph and taste, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be rich in fat or grease. Instead of using butter or cream, I like to experiment with different spices, seasonings and flavourings.
What else is currently on-trend in the Mumbai dining scene?
Modern Indian and quirky regional food. A lot of people are trying to bring forgotten Indian dishes back to the table. They’re also getting a bit quirky and relaxed in the way food is served. I see the growth of casual chic dining.
At what age did you start cooking?
I always was a champ at making tea, I started with that. Perhaps when I was 9 years old. But I wasn't really into cooking as such, I was more into eating. My mom was a fantastic cook, which is where my interest stemmed from. My mom came from a completely vegetarian Sindhi community and my father loves non-vegetarian food. The food in my house was both vegetarian and non-vegetarian as mom had to learn how to cook the latter.
How did hotel management happen to you?
I had a commerce background so the obvious progression was to get into marketing or something similar. But I did not want to join my father's textile business. My best friend's mother was the General Manager of Holiday Hotel in Mumbai and we used to go there a lot. I loved the concept of taking care of people and from there stemmed my desire to join the hospitality industry. I got into IHM Mumbai but it was only in the second year that I discovered my love for cooking and I haven't looked back since.
What was the first dish you wowed people with?
The first time someone ate my food and said wow was in college when I made an outstanding Meat Lasagna. When chef tasted that, he asked me why don't you pursue cooking, you're fabulous at it.
What gives you greater contentment – running restaurants and cooking behind the scenes or hosting shows and cooking in front of the camera?
My most memorable show was my first one, Do it Sweet, with Maria Goretti. A show which is very close to my heart is Vicky Goes Veg, it was a life changing experience for me because for a chef to do a show which is only vegetarian is very challenging. But the part of my professional life that gave me an immense sense of satisfaction was being the Executive Chef on Queen Mary 2 (the largest ocean liner in the world), the epitome of luxury cruises. I was with the fleet for 16 years and made some incredible global fare. The best part of my profession is that there is so much happening that it's impossible to get bored. There's an array of things you can do in this field. I came back to India 9 years back and it's been a roller coaster ride since. India's food scene is super exciting now and there is so much happening here.
Vicky Ratnani the persona or Vicky Ratnani the person, how are they both different?
They aren't. I am exactly the same person at home or with my friends as I am on camera. I am jovial, sociable and love a good laugh. But I also have a side which is very serious, especially when it comes to my work and my food. I never have a script, even while I'm cooking on a show. I talk to the camera as I'm talking to you right now, there is no difference. It's just who I am.
The one food trend you wish would go away?
Molecular Gastronomy. I think it's done to death. It's around 6 years old and people need to stop with the drama around food. People have forgotten 'real' and good food, minus the frills. They need to focus more on the produce and the incredible variety of ingredients you get in India and make them the hero of the dish.
How did you first get interested in cooking?
I joined the hotel industry not thinking that I was going to be a chef. I wanted to work in the business side of things. It was only when I started at The Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition [I.H.M.] in Mumbai, and my teachers asked if I had considered becoming a chef as a career. I enjoyed cooking and got deep into it and, after that, there was no looking back. That was about 22 years ago. Through I.H.M. I did some industry training at The Leela and Oberoi, but my heart was in travel. I wanted to see, experience, and taste the things I saw in my college books. I decided I had to go abroad and I got a job with Costa Cruises.
How did your experience on cruise ships shape your cooking today?
I have a lot of memories from that time of travel, good food, and encounters with celebrities and dignitaries. It was also a lot of hard work. You have to work long hours and are under a lot of pressure. The experience makes a man out of a boy. Each year we would have two months off where we could go home. I would go back to India for three weeks, and spend the other five weeks working in small, family-run kitchens in Genoa and Venice. I learned family-style Italian cooking there—the kind of stuff you didn’t see on menus. I also had the opportunity to train with Todd English. Todd used to have his namesake restaurant on the Queen Mary 2 and I was the executive sous chef of the ship. I visited Todd’s restaurants in New York City and Boston and had the opportunity to observe and learn new things.
What did you learn from Todd English and how has it shaped you as a chef?
I love his food philosophy of using fresh produce with different international flavors. Take for example his signature restaurant Olives. It’s Mediterranean but there is a little Middle Eastern in there too, as well as some dishes with a Latin influence. He’s been a good influence in my life. I have seen what he does and thought that you can get some old school, slow-cooked dishes and at the same time get some hip food in the same place. That’s the kind of mantra I follow in my cuisine. Like with Nido’s menu. For example, you could order a modern dish like Cajun-spiced watermelon with goat cheese toffee and liquid olives, or a classic roast chicken meal.
Tell us about the life and journey of a chef.
What are the skills that one needs to adopt to become successful in the restaurant business?
What are your favourite cuisines? Which Indian regional cuisines do you like? What are your views on cuisines that don’t get the recognition they deserve?
As a chef, what do you think will be the upcoming market for food in India like?
The market is slowly growing. I think we being a foodie nation, we are a very demanding population and we always like to see and feel new things. We are in a generation that loves technology, we love travelling a lot, people know a lot about foreign food now. Also, Indian Regional food is also getting familiarized and popular in different corners of the country now. So the market is changing and we will have to accept this change.
What is your thought on Fusion Food? What is your favourite fusion food?
Fusion Food is good as long as it is not confused. For me Fusion Food is mixing local ingredients with global flavours. So I have named my Fusion food style ‘GLOCAL’ (Global + Local), by mixing the best of the two worlds.
Any message you would like to give to anyone aspiring to be a chef?
To become a chef, it is very important to learn the basics. Don’t just become a chef because you want to appear on television or you want to be famous. Search for that passion in you that really urges you to become a chef. This is really very important, which most of us tend to neglect.
You are also into cookery books and TV shows?
Television is another medium where I share my recipes and belief that people can cook & eat at home very well. My vegetarian cook book Vicky Goes Veg is a cutting edge veg cook book where world flavors meet local markets in your homes. The book won the prestigious Gourmand Award for Best Vegetarian Cook 2015 this year. My newest show VICKYPEDIA which starts in February on Zee is a fun filled show with amazing recipes from all over the world.
What do you feel is the reason for resurgence of chef as a career?
Fifteen years back, there were few opportunities but now the market has opened up and there is a great demand for trained Chefs with many international hotels coming to India and even abroad, and there is a great demand for Indian cooks and Chefs and dishes. There are Chefs who can style dishes and be innovators too.
What are the qualities required to be a good Chef?
First of all, he should have a passion for cooking and should be ready to work hard and learn all the time and be patient and focused and should be a team player and always be ready to learn new dishes and travel.
Your brother Dabboo Ratnani is a famous photographer. Is he a foodie too?
Yes. Very much so. And I am a great photographer too. We enjoy exchanging notes when we meet and share a great bonhomie. He is a good cook too.
You have been very experimental in your culinary career. From IHM to Cruise ships, Italian kitchens, Entrepreneur, Author and a highly revered Celebrity Chef. Which experience is closest to your heart?
My culinary journey started from Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, Mumbai and then I traveled around the world. So my early days of cooking and my experience on the ships has been one of the closest and best part of my life. Cooking my first Italian Lasagne way back in 1989-90 which made me realize that I am good in what I am doing. My ship life is about the hard work, travel, and learning so much about different kinds of culture. Going to the best seafood markets, fishing in Norway and shopping in Spain or being on Caribbean islands, it has been a memorable kind of journey which now can be seen in the progressive style of my own cooking. This has infused and influenced a lot my style of cooking.
You have been one of the pioneers in experimenting with Molecular Gastronomy in India. Can interested home chefs start exploring Molecular Gastronomy on a budget?
There are certain things which you can do to begin without professional equipment. Eg if you can get a Vacuum sealer like Home Food sealing Machine or If you want to practice cooking “Sous vide” at a controlled temperature you can get some chemicals like sodium benzoate which are available online, to begin with, so to a certain extent yes, you can do it at home. Smoking, griddling, dehydration can be done with the mix of equipment.
How was ‘Korner House’ conceptualized and what is the inspiration behind it?
Korner House, Mumbai is a market driven and technique driven place, We have lots of small plates, signature flat-breads and then you have the food coming off the grill and there is a fair amount of modern vegetarian dishes and it’s about world flavor. It started with molecular gastronomy at my first restaurant 10 years ago but slowly I grew out of it and was looking for better and clean flavors. It is a place where you could share a lot of starters and main course. It is about the community eating where you eat at the table together.
There are a lot of forgotten and ignored Indian dishes. How would you bring some of these back on the plate?
Well in my show “Vicky goes desi” I have done a lot of dishes which are inspired by the states of India. The idea is that more and more chefs should concentrate on the old lost Indian recipes and bring in some regional and Homestyle food into the restaurants but with a different presentation.
What is your favourite recipe from your book “Vicky Goes Veg” and why?
Well it’s very hard to pick and choose but I love cauliflower salad with plums, saffron, and olives. There is a very nice and simple recipe from Egypt called as Kushari (also Koshari). This is a national dish from Egypt, simple and yet flavourful. Then there is also the Carpaccio with tendli (small cucumber-like veggie which you eat in Maharashtra, also known as Ivy gourd). These recipes are very different because this is what you will not do with a tendli or cauliflower normally. It is a very simple yet flavourful dish. Kushari is a very tasty dish which is made with Rice, Masoor dal, Macaroni and spicy tomato sauce and fried onion from the top.
Do you see something on the (Indian) food scene today that you would never have imagined 10 years ago?
Street food coming to fine dining restaurants. The popularity of Indian Food abroad which has been accepted. The usage of Asian spices even in Europe and America. I would not have imagined 10 years ago. Indian restaurants getting Michelin stars is something which I would not have expected 10 years back.
How does Mumbai’s culinary scene differ from Delhi’s? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?
Bombay is typically the trendsetter when it comes to what happens in the country. People here are a bit more cosmopolitan, more adventurous and experimental when it comes to food. In Delhi, people still often eat at five-star hotels when they go out for dinner. In Mumbai, there is more progress in the restaurant scene and more hip places to eat. Also here, the standard of European food is much higher than in Delhi. On the other hand, Delhi has the best northern Indian cuisine in the country. In Delhi, there are a lot of big spenders and a lot of extravagance. In terms of real estate, you can get a better location in the capital. There is more space. In Mumbai, that’s not the case. The prices here have skyrocketed, and we’re used to working out of much smaller spaces.
How did you enter the world of the food industry?
While I’ve always enjoyed eating good food and doing some basic cooking, pursuing a culinary career was never a thought growing up. Eventually, I decided to pursue my interest in entertaining people as opposed to joining my dad’s business, and given my love for cooking, I decided to become a chef.
Tell us about your journey on ocean liners and cruise ships to other countries.
It’s been phenomenal. I’ve been fortunate to circumnavigate the world seven times! Early in my career, I worked with a very prestigious shipping company Cunard that gave me ample opportunity to travel. In my 11 years with them, I’ve collaborated and learnt from chefs of over 37 nationalities and quickly risen up the ranks to be their first and only Indian Executive Chef.
What do you think is the secret to good cooking? What are some of the mistakes you have seen home chefs make?
The secret ingredient is getting the basics right. It’s understandable, for food enthusiasts to explore various cuisines and innovate right at the beginning of their kitchen journeys, however, that has to be preceded by a foundational understanding of cooking techniques. Once chefs grasp the essential basic techniques, knife skills, tastes and flavours, they become more equipped to innovate. Even after this stage, it is imperative to keep an open mind and continue learning by reading and observing great chefs at work.
Can you tell us about your web series The Gastronaut and The Doers Club?
‘Vicky The Gastronaut’ is a complete labour of love for me, and to this day, I’m surprised by the way it all came together. It was still a dream when I approached Peru Tourism, but they took me in, banked on me and since then the series has taken me to places like Australia and Thailand. Recently, it’s made it to my Instagram and the next stop is Oman. The Doers Club by Dewar's is a platform that takes a quirky spin on the pairing of gourmet food with cocktails. At the on-ground edition in Mumbai, I had a great time curating the menu with their brand ambassador, Greg Benson, to find the perfect food and Highball combinations.
How can a home cook simplify his or her life?
The biggest tip I could give is to make sure they’re organised. Besides, home chefs should also document their recipes. There’s a great deal of innovation and unique styles in home cooking, and these are dishes that never make it to restaurant menus. Their food can be so remarkable and distinct, that I prefer referring to them as home chefs instead of home cooks.
What are some of the bases that people can make, freeze and use over and over to make cooking a bit easier?
There are a few things you can do to save on cooking time. If you’re cooking Indian food, then you can freeze a standard Indian tomato masala/puree. Vegetable stock, another essential, can be made and stored as ice cubes, for use in a variety of different dishes. Certain seasonal fruits and vegetables can be pureed or just cut into pieces and stored in the freezer.
Since healthy eating is a way of life for people now, how can we plan healthy meals?
Start with planning a balanced menu, by researching and incorporating the right amount of carbohydrates and proteins in your diet. I endorse a balanced paleo diet with clean, seasonal foods and minimal processed foods. It’s necessary to ensure a proportionate intake of carbohydrates, proteins, good fats and fibre while limiting processed foods like maida.
What is your favourite world cuisine and why?
I’ve spent a lot of time in the Mediterranean, so I love the food from this region. I’m biased toward Italian, Greek and Spanish food.
What are some of the top food trends today?
Communities and people are far more conscious about what they eat today. Supporting local farmers by eating local produce and ‘farm-to-table’ meals are becoming a popular choice. People are opting to consume less meat and more vegetables in their diet. Even food trends like micro-regional food like artisanal tea and coffee, are gaining popularity.
What are some of the simplest dishes that have you been cooking during the pandemic lockdown?
I’ve relished some good old comfort home food like Rajma Chawal, Rajma Hummus, Biryani, some Sindhi food like Double Roti, a host of khichdis and one-pot meals. I’ve also been experimenting with different dals and millets.
What are your plans post the lockdown, food-wise? How do you think the world will perceive food in the days ahead?
There’s a mind-set shift underway. People are certainly becoming more conscious toward creating less wastage and creatively using available resources, optimally. With this newfound balance in food and its consumption, we’ll continue to eat well.