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'Glam? The kitchen is a brutal space'
What turned a trained economist into a successful Indo-Latin restaurateur? McKinsey and World Bank alumnus Rohini Dey speaks on quitting a cool bank job to delve into the world of two bold cuisines.
You can only describe Rohini Dey as a super-achiever. She is an economist, holds a doctorate in management science, is a restaurateur and a columnist, and loves to climb mountains in her spare time. She is the owner of Vermilion - two highly acclaimed restaurants in New York and Chicago, and was recently in India to judge an Indo-Latin cook-off held in Delhi and Mumbai. She spoke with TOI-Crest minutes before the contest sparked off.
From working at McKinsey to opening your own restaurant, that's quite a leap. . .
While eating out during my four years with McKinsey and Co, I came to realise that there was nothing out there doing justice to real Indian cuisine. Ninety percent of the food served at Indian restaurants in America was stereotypical. You could predict the menu almost with certainty. It would be a buffet format, coated in oil and all you could see was brown mush. Thankfully, I have travelled to various parts of India and I know that Indian food is beyond that. The seafood from Kerala, the flavourful cuisine of Rajasthan and Srinagar - as Indians, we really know our food. But it wasn't showing on menus here. So a combination of wanting to go entrepreneurial, a little bit of rage and my passion for food is what led to the opening of Vermillion.
What does your food philosophy revolve around?
It spins around the merger of Indian and Latin cuisines. I wanted to create something where the flavours were not timid or washed out, but bold. If you look at Latin food, it is as rich and flamboyant as ours. The main goal was to celebrate this warmth and boldness of flavours and serve Indian food in a creative way.
But why just Latin? Why not French?
If I did Indian and French, no one would bat an eyelid because French food has merged with everything these days. I think French is immensely overrated. If you want just the finesse, absolutely, but in terms of flavours - it does very little for our palates. On the other hand, Latin flavours are rich and bold and they bear a striking resemblance with Indian food.
What makes them so similar?
If you walk into a Mexican market, it is a spitting image of a Bombay bazaar. Both are equatorial cuisines and that's why they share a lot of common ingredients such as tamarind, guava, plantain, cilantro, saffron, cumin, mango, litchi, chillies, etc. A big reason why they work in cohesion is because of natural, historical cross influences. The entire Malabar coast - from Goa to Cochin, was occupied by the Portuguese for over 400 years. Then, there was the Arab and Persian influence on North Indian food. Similarly, Spanish food has Moorish-Arab influences.
You wanted American diners to experience real Indian food, but doesn't fusion dilute the purpose?
My food appeals to a much broader base as America has a heavy Latino segment. Though the concept is Indo-Latin, half the menu has untouched, un-tempered, hardcore Indian food. But it is eclectic at the same time. We serve authentic kebabs, Manglorean lamb shank, South Indian goat and Keralite fish curry under a section titled 'heat'.
Many famous chefs and restaurateurs look down on the word 'fusion'. Doesn't that bother you?
Show me one cuisine in the world today that is untouched. What you call authentic Indian today is an amalgamation of influences from everywhere. Availability of ingredients, historical cross flows and colonialism have affected every cuisine in the world. What our mothers cook today is different from how it was 50 years ago. But does that mean we are not authentic? No, we are. Food changes with time.
What ingredients do you like working with?
I love the classic South Indian tadka. We use it to temper a lot of dishes. From the coconut-chilli mussels to the Lobster Portuguesa to flattened rice paella. I use paanch poran fluently too;my personal mustard fish is mean. I also like hing and curry patta. As a child, I remember travelling through Jim Corbett's curry patta forests on an elephant back. Sitting up there, all you want to do is eat dosa with sambhar.
What are your early food memories?
As a child, food was a rollercoaster for many reasons. I lived in 12 different cities. We were compulsive travellers, got into our beat up Standard Herald and travelled all over. I got to try many cuisines. Second, my mom was incredibly experimental. She can make as good a traditional Bengali fish curry or Hyderabadi biryani as spaghetti or scones. I think that aroused my love for food. Today, my husband and I need at least one Indian meal a day.
Restaurateurs and chefs are the new celebs. Is it glamorous in the kitchen?
When people think of chefs, they have visions of television chefs - dressed in whites with impeccable makeup, using exotic ingredients. That is not the reality, it is brutal. You are on your feet 14 hours a day, it's steaming hot and you are sweating. As a work environment, kitchen is close to jail!
Are you a task master like Gordon Ramsay or gentle diva like Nigella Lawson?
It's a myth that all women are maternal in the working environment. That's really nonsense. You can't be effective. You are not here to be a mother to all. At work, I'm very focussed and driven, to the point of being aggressive. The tricky part is that such women are labelled. Men are called decisive, but women are called. . . (thinks)
I didn't say it, you did!
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