An Indian chef in Paris. A French chef in Bengaluru. Both discovered food as their real love after each went through a break-up. Soon enough, the realisation dawned that the only relationship they could nurture was in their hands. And that the world could be bigger than their salad bowls. So they moved continents and went on to create wonders, blending the culture of their origin with locally available products, garnishing it with a generous dose of cooking techniques that each had learnt along the way. Both have finally crossed paths and decided to share their love with their signature creations as a delectable experiment in Indo-French cuisine. If technique has so far ruled the day, these two are now relying on history and attempting a “food restoration” of sorts.
Chef Priyam Chatterjee, counted among the next culinary whiz and whom many Delhiites would remember from his stints at Rooh and Qla, will soon be opening a brasserie at Ambawatta Complex as a tribute to his days in Paris. Chef Amiel Guerin, who came to Bangalore in 2010 with the hope of testing his gastronomic finesse in the open-hearted IT community, now runs five restaurants and is looking to expand. Chatterjee, who has trained with eminent French chefs, draws heavily on traditional Bengali cuisine and applies his acquired skills to his inspirations. Guerin, who has now found love in India, has taken to the country’s spices and seasonal vegetables, adding their accents to his clean flavours. Both have been schooled by the pandemic and have reinvented some ideas to keep the F&B sector smart and sustainable.
For Chatterjee, working in a city where people like to walk to the place they want to eat from, have their meals fresh and where dining out is not a casual decision, the pandemic was an eye-opener. “The lockdown was almost overnight in Paris. We barely had two days of notice and could hardly prepare a backup plan. But I was surprised by the way a city, which is considered one of the temples of gastronomic culture, took to takeaways and food deliveries. It was such an inspiration to see Michelin chefs delivering food to their customers in their cars. Some of them took out loans and drew on their savings to ensure their teams were not fired or they didn’t go out of business. Gods of their kitchens and celebrated for their craft, this was as human as they could be. Parisians, who even like their frozen food of a particular kind and standard, reconciled to Uber Eats,” says Chatterjee.
The quick Parisian response to a crisis has emboldened Chatterjee. He says, “Yes, the genres of cuisine will remain the same in a post-pandemic world but our survival tactics and logistics management have changed. We came up with cloud kitchens with four or six specialist kitchens under the same roof. Put simply, we cut up omnibus menus into different restaurants. So now there are separate outlets, like just salad or dessert bars, main course-only restaurants and so on. Basically, we have deconstructed menus and reconstructed them.”
Guerin, who mostly catered to a corporate clientele before the lockdown, aggressively pushed home deliveries, too. But he also popularised at-home catering, where he served boutique meals, plated dinners and even five course dinners for small groups, usually of families and friends. “This is high-end eating at home. Even cooking for 15 people with the best ingredients works because we can become a bit experimental, create platter options and level out costs,” he says.
With a new eco-consciousness and people asking legitimate questions about where their food is coming from, both chefs are working on sustainable supply chains. Chatterjee’s favourite haunt is the local herb market, which, he says, “smells like a perfume garden.” His picks are bergamot powder, lavender and vanilla. For Guerin, it’s pepper from Nagaland, his wife’s home State. He has adapted techniques in his use of Indian spices, lentils and is intrigued by the sweetness in our red onions, mangoes and pineapples. And though he imports specialised ingredients like truffle, he has managed to track down one adaptable species in the Himalayas.
Chatterjee, whose grandmother’s family descended from the royals of Krishnanagar, is as familiar with traditional Bengali food cooked in mustard oil as he is with the Anglo-Indian legacy of puddings, stews, kitsches and puffs. This grounding gave him the nose to scent out the synergies between Indian and French cuisine, the ones he is now popularising. “I had my legit French onion soup at 13 in Kolkata. This city, like Paris, still keeps old traditions alive. Restaurants and eateries here have had a 100-year-old history and families still preserve the old ways of cooking,” he says. So marrying historicity of origin and technique came easy to him. “Slow-cooking is common to both India and France. Just recall our ishtew, rogan josh or nihari. We have a tradition of simmering food while being served,” he adds. His own twist to fusion has been using French leek with Indian lobster. “I choose ingredients that are good complementary staples. You can finish with truffle and mustard, a spin on our kasundi and posto, mustard being the connecting ingredient between France and India.”
Guerin finds commonalities in the meat preferences of Bangalore and Paris. Just as the British took back the blood sausage and black pudding from Nagaland, Guerin is experimenting with a repository of herbs from the Northeast. Both have imbibed the ethos of their adoptive country and used it to shape their identity. For Chatterjee, Paris hasn’t just been about understanding culture; it’s also about rootedness. He says, “Jean Claude Fugier not only taught me cooking, he introduced France to me. He helped me see how no city in the world has restored itself the way Paris has. You may just have one euro in your pocket but become richer with your experience. He told me of this 60-year-old man in Brittany who wakes up at 4 am everyday to collect sea water and shakes it for two hours to make bread. That story changed me forever. I may have become a saucier and cooked French food for the last 11 years with passion but it also threw me back to the traditions in my home country which are dying and need to be rescued. We need to own and promote regional food, not keep it in the closet.”
Guerin, who has travelled extensively in the US, Spain and Europe, came to India on a tourist visa and stayed back to be a chef at a French restaurant in the middle of an unknown city without much expectation. “At that point my only temptation was to run my own kitchen. But the friendly people of India held me and encouraged me to open one restaurant after another. They are the reason that I decided to take a six-month break and discover home-cooking traditions here. During my tour, I even worked with Indian chefs at hotels and covered Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Goa, Nagaland, Sikkim and Punjab, rounding them off with two stints in Kolkata and Delhi,” he says.
With a keen eye for technique, Guerin was quickly drawn to the fermentation, curing and pickling traditions of the Northeast. “The technique varies from place to place. I was particularly amazed by how steamed fish in bamboo packs has tonnes of flavour. I learned how old conservation methods keep the food healthier for a longer time. There’s such an explosion of flavours as well as subtlety in the thukpa I had in Sikkim,” he says. Like Chatterjee, he, too, feels that we need to go deeper into our food traditions. “India’s Northeast has a 3,000-year-old pickling heritage while the world talks about Japanese and Korean pickles. Just like in France, we need protected denominations, geographical appellations, rules and benchmarks to preserve our bio heritage,” he says.
Chatterjee has a recommendation for turning Indian food into a global must-have. “Our food is a lot about heat. If we can turn that into herbs and aroma, then the flavours can evolve and we would be as wanted as Japanese, Korean, Italian or French food.”
Of course, both have a secret ingredient. “Love,” they scream in unison. And some advice. “Everything has kinetic energy, so don’t pass your stress to your food. Focus and put yourself into the cooking. You will get your signature dish,” says Chatterjee.