Public get a taste for fine Indian dining
The Irish are beginning to appreciate true Indian cuisine, Sunil Ghai tells Lucinda O'Sullivan
DOWN through the years, when it came to food awards and general culinary recognition, Indian, Chinese, South-East Asian food, and other world cuisines, have stood in their own 'Best Ethnic' category -- almost as a bit of an afterthought.
People would say "I'm dying for a curry" or "a Chinese", but not ever think of them as fine dining. This was in part due to the Indian and Chinese restaurants giving European customers what they thought was wanted: dumbed-down versions of their cuisines for the masses. They didn't stretch the customer's palate -- nothing too hot, spicy, or different; safe dishes like chicken korma or sweet and sour chicken. If you wanted to experience really good authentic Indian or Chinese food you had to go with Indian or Chinese friends, and you would find yourself eating beautiful food 'off menu'.
Happily this has changed in the past few years and ethnic cuisine has deservedly been winning mainstream awards. It has been the same pattern in London, too, with Atul Kochhar being the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star in 2001 when working at Tamarind restaurant. Kochhar went on to win a second Michelin star at his own Benares restaurant.
In 2009, Sunil Ghai of Ananda restaurant in Dundrum won Best Chef in Ireland at the Food & Wine Awards, really making a name for himself. You may have seen him recently as a guest judge on Masterchef Ireland.
Ananda is owned by Asheesh Dewan, of the Jaipur Restaurant Group, who is also involved in Benares. Likewise, Atul Kochhar is involved in Ananda.
Ghai's 2009 award was recognition that he was in the same league as Irish Michelin- starred chefs Ross Lewis, Kevin Thornton, Derry Clarke and Dylan McGrath. Indeed, many would tip Ghai as a future Michelin candidate.
Ghai was born in Gwalior in North West India. It is known as the City of Music and also famous for its royal cuisine, being home of the Scindia royal family. Ghai's family was originally from the Punjab, but his father worked with the government in Gwalior.
"I have five brothers and a sister. As a teenager I was studying economics in Gwalior, but I was hanging around with what the family considered rough boys. I was the second youngest, and in India you always have great respect for the eldest brother, and one day he took me aside and said he wanted me to sign up for a hotel management course. You would never say no to your older brother."
Being the second youngest, and a bit of a mother's pet, Ghai used to help her prepare the food for the family from the age of 10.
"My mother was always cooking for at least 20 people. My father was the eldest son of his mother, so we lived in the family home, a big house, with my father's two brothers and their families.
"We have a ritual in India where only the eldest woman of the house will go to the kitchen and prepare the food. The kitchen is like the temple of the house, you cannot wear shoes and just walk in. It is also about hygiene and ritual.
"I used to help, and watch her cook, originally on a choola, a barbecue and oven. She used to make lovely mint chutney. Now we have grinders, but she would just take the mint with the stems and chop it all up. The stems weren't wasted because of the cost factor and also the flavour.
"She used to have a small spice box, five or six spices, and cooked food that I cannot compare with. She will cook potatoes and chickpeas, all that type of food, better than me. You have to cook with love, it is in your hands, in your mind, in your body, not just the spices."
Sunil's first posting from training college was to the Sheraton Hotel at Agra and then the Shree Ram Hotel. After his training he went back to Gwalior to one of the famous Taj Group hotels, the Usha Kiran Palace -- a heritage hotel -- which did a lot of large banquets. He then moved on to the superb Oberoi Group hotels at Shimla.
"This was in 1997, and I was very excited as I wanted to join Oberoi and get a full training and see the world. What I learned in some places was dealing with big numbers and mixing the spices, but Oberoi gave me the class. I was working in the French restaurant to learn the basic cooking style -- I love the French cuisine -- and I worked with the French chefs for three years."
In 2000 Asheesh Dewan, who was also originally a chef with the Oberoi Group, asked his friend Rajiv Singh Gulshan to find him a chef for his Jaipur restaurants in Dublin.
"Rajiv Singh Gulshan is like my godfather in the industry. He is the one who will teach you everything, how to manage people, how to cook the food, how to plate it. He is one man I always admired."
Asheesh Dewan, too, is a man of great vision, with an open mind, always willing to listen to new ideas.
"He said he wanted me to give up my job in India six months before I left and to travel around the country to different villages to learn different styles of regional cooking."
Sunil was by now married, having met his wife Leena when she was training for hotel management. They have a son, Ishan, who is eight.
"I came first to Jaipur Dalkey, and then Asheesh decided to open Jaipur Malahide and subsequently Chakra in Greystones, Jaipur at Ongar, and Ananda.
"When I came to Ireland first, full of enthusiasm, I could not understand why only chicken breast was served, no chicken on the bone. People only wanted four things -- korma, Madras, rogan josh and vindaloo. In India, rogan josh is strictly with lamb only. There is no such dish as prawn or chicken rogan josh. Same with 'moilee' -- this is a very simple sauce from Kerala served with fish or shellfish only.
"I decided one night in Dalkey to use chicken thigh meat in chicken tikka masala. Asheesh said to me don't do it, and then said go ahead try it but the people won't like it. He was right.
"Jayraj Poojari, the manager, was very cross with me. We had 11 complaints! I went around all of the tables explaining it was the best part of the chicken but they said, no, we had gone cheap. So we gave them complimentary meals.
"When we opened in Malahide, we started serving lamb shanks as a special and everybody loved it, and it is still on the menu, so that was the turning point for Indian food. In 2006 I got the Best Chef in Leinster Award, and again in 2008."
It was then decided to open Ananda in Dundrum Town Centre in September 2008, with the involvement of Atul Kochhar. "I went to Benares in London and spent time working with Atul Kochhar. It was a great learning curve, and that is what you see in Ananda now, with our own touches. We knew what people wanted here."
Then, in 2009, Sunil Ghai won not only Best Chef in Dublin, but Chef of the Year. This was a huge honour.
"We are very focused on local food and at single flavour dishes at Ananda. If I use one spice such as star anise it will only be star anise. If the food is single flavour you can still taste the meat or the fish, if we put a whole lot of spices in you will only taste the spices. I will do a vindaloo but it will be my style, a contemporary take on vindaloo."
There are always a number of different elements on Ghai's plates. If it is monkfish, for instance, the monkfish cheek will also be used as a 'kofta', and superb chutneys and vegetables will adorn the plate.
Ghai has the best of both worlds, using his French fine dining training in a contemporary Indian style. His food is always elegant.
Sunil feels that people are coming out from the recession. "It's not the same as 2007 or 2008, but people are spending. Lunch is very busy; we do a two-course lunch at €15, and early bird at €20. I have seen an awful lot of changes between 2001 and 2011. In 2001 people only wanted korma, but now people have changed and learned a lot."
Sunil Ghai is holding cookery demos and classes at Dublin Cookery School in Blackrock, and at Pink Ginger Cookery School in Sandymount, and at Ananda.
"I want people not only to be present at the classes for tastings but to actually learn something," he says.
Sunil Ghai is a man on a mission, and hopefully it will be a shining star.
www.benaresrestaurant.com, www.dublincookeryschool.ie, www.pinkginger.ie