We met Chef Ranveer Brar during the launch of his food application ‘Chef Ranveer Brar,’ and spoke about his life, journey, favourite food and so much more. By Kumar Shree
1. Take us through your journey in the hospitality and food industry so far.
Food to me has always been this institution where learning never ceases. From cooking at the langar at a young age, to exploring food on the streets of Lucknow, food has touched me in different ways. After IHM Lucknow, I started off as Hotel Operations Management trainee with the Taj group. I moved on to Taj Goa, opened three restaurants in one hotel in Goa. Then, I joined The Oberoi group, the Radisson, became an executive chef at the age of 25 with Radisson Noida, and opened an entire hotel. After that I moved to the Claridges, and renovated the hotel. I had a serendipitous opportunity to try something new in the US, opened quite a few restaurants there. I came back to India after a couple years and joined the Accor group and started working on restaurants for myself, eventually. Additionally, I was also showcasing and documenting food on television and continue doing the same even now. From hotel restaurants to a heritage hotel, and to cruise kitchens, my career path in the hospitality industry thus far has been very happily memorable.
2. What is your signature dish, and how is it prepared?
I wouldn’t call it my signature dish, but it is always on my personal favourite list, the Dorra. It’s a delicate kebab from Rampur with nearly a 200-year old recipe. Its flavours stand out from the use of smoked meat, rare and exquisite spices and being cooked on a silken thread dabbed with sandalwood oil. The trick here is to cook without burning the silk and gently pull it off with a single tug before serving.
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One can cook anywhere, you just need a fire, a knife and a cutting board…Agree? And yes, local ingredients. Rediscovering India via our railway lines for #StationMastersTiffin, I came across 2 locations where I just had to stop and cook. The first was by the Sambhar Salt Lake, Rajasthan, India's biggest inland salt lake and home to not just salt, but winged visitors too. When I was a kid, my grandfather would tell me – "Be like salt". It was only after becoming a chef that I understood the significance. Salt enhances the true flavours of all other ingredients in a dish, be it sweet or savoury, without standing out on its own. It's only noticed when it's less or more. Likewise for being a good human being, na kam na zyaada. That day, shoveling through the water, picking up those salt crystals at source, I felt a connect with Salt and food like I had never felt before. I just couldn't let this opportunity pass and not cook at that location! It was…perfect. Another place where I set up shop was this cliff overlooking the Dudhsagar falls. It was just around monsoon, there were unexpected showers, but that's when these falls are at their exotic best. The four-tiered falls are undoubtedly the major point of attraction in the Konkan Railway stretch. Looking at the Western ghats up close, cloaked in the after-shower greenery, anyone can feel inspired to cook and that's just what I did. Prawns and coconut picked up on the way, potatoes washed in the mist that rose from the falls and kokum + other spices from my "Chef's special Potli", I made a no-oil Kokum-Prawn Pulao. Trust me, having that pulao in that setting, was an ethereal experience that words cannot justify. And yes, we left a major share for the monkeys too! Having cooked at kitchens across the world, from Munir Ustad's Kebab shop to my restaurants & even cruise kitchens, cooking at places this close to nature, was an unparalleled experience for me. Have you come across such inspirational locations? #WorldStoryTellingDay @livingfoodz . . . . #travel #IndianRailways #incredibleindia #dudhsagarfalls #ranveerbrar #tvshow
3. Who are your favorite Indian and international chefs?
Ah, tough one, because there are many I look up to. Padma Shri Imitiaz Qureshi for being the torchbearer for Lucknow, Chef Manjit Gill for bringing Indian food to the fore right back in the 90s, Sanjeev Kapoor for his simplicity, Vikas for his persistence, Kunal for his understanding of Indian food… I could keep adding to the list.
In the international arena, the late Charlie Trotter, a rare combination of creativity and entrepreneurship, and Heston Blumenthal is another great inspiration, too. Ben Shewry is yet another — his creations are a great example of science-meeting-art meeting philosophy.
4. Your favorite food destination in the world?
5. Ingredients that you cannot cook without?
My favourite ingredient, that I commonly prefer and use in most of my Indian dishes is coriander. Coriander is an amazing balance of a nutty and floral flavours that makes it very interesting. Then there’s the heart-warming ghee, be it savoury dishes or desserts.
6. You have been doing so many things simultaneously — an executive chef, a TV personality, a blogger & writer… how do you find time for all of it? And how do you not crack under pressure?
It really doesn’t hurt doing so many things because eventually they all revolve around food and food is what fuels me. All I try to do is express my relationship with food in different ways, forms and mediums. That’s essentially who I am. So, it’s like being yourself, doing what you do, but a bit loudly!
7. What is the motivation behind launching your own food application ‘Chef Ranveer Brar’?
I’ve always shared my experiences and the knowledge I gain about food with my fans and the world at large, through publications, blogs, articles, and my social media channels. Digital space is the best way to reach out to a mass. So many aspects of our lives have been condensed into apps and we make things happen with a touch. So, with the world revolving more and more in the digital space, an application for sharing my love for food was imminent.
8. What all would be there in the application?
The plan has been to make it not just a recipe app but a holistic food app. There are as many as 1100 recipes and 300 recipe videos. Along with that, what I really feel is the USP here, is the RB Diet Plan©. It’s a pretty simple plan that shares guidelines on food portions, putting together a balanced meal, sources of healthy nutrition and above all, eating local and seasonal. There’s something for everyone here.
9. What has been your greatest milestone in the food industry?
The greatest milestone I’d say are people..the chefs who’ve worked with me in hotels, for instance. When I see them having followed their individual paths and doing well, handling hotels across India, it makes me feel proud. It’s the kind of legacy I want to leave.
10. When did you know that being a chef was your true calling?
It was at the age of fifteen when I decided that food was my true calling and I wanted to pursue it professionally. Up until then, I spent my initial years exploring food in my hometown Lucknow, be it cooking at the langar, enjoying different cuisines at my neighbours’ homes, exploring the street foods of Lucknow or having conversations with the local grocer. What started as culinary explorations, gradually grew into a passion. But it was when I made Rajma for my mother the first time that earned praise from my father too — everything fell into perspective. At that moment, I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
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I was reflecting on how now, everyday is some "day". It's a great concept, as it brings to light aspects touching our lives that we would normally not take notice of in these busy times. However, the day still missing from this repertoire is the "Joy of cooking together day". Having grown up seeing village women gather around the Sanjha-chulha in the evenings & create deft magic over folk songs, I firmly believe that those feelings of celebration & joy (some of it from gossip) got transferred to the rotis made. Or temple cooking… Prasad or langar gets made when multitudes of people get together in good faith & celebration, most of them haven't much clue about cooking in volumes yet together, they create that magic. Even royalty understood the simple pleasures of collaborative cooking. Days of shikaar in Rajasthan used to end with conversations over a bonfire with the game skewered on their swords. The refined Nawabs of Lucknow after fishing out a large Angler from their royal reservoir,referred to as "Mahaseer Shikaar"),jacketed the Mahaseer with Multani Mitti & buried it in a hole with only the head jutting out. The fish was surrounded by lit coal & the nawabs sat around the fish with "Durust" or purified ghee. As the fish cooked, the moisture escaped through the mouth, causing the mouth to open. The Nawabs would then pour a spoon of the ghee & the fish would close its mouth, quite interesting right? This technique of "Gil e Hiqmat" I thought, was a legend till I observed and participated in it with Nawab Masood Mir Abdullah and Nawab Zafar Mir Abdullah, last of the Nawabi lineage of Awadh. The conversations were memorable; the bliss of eating that fish is a food memory forever. Such conversations, joy & extreme emotion can only come when the objective is none other than cooking together selflessly. Here's where the food Sufi in me comes out & appeals… In this world of competitions & cook-offs, lets put our agendas & busy lives on the side for a day & let the objective just be cooking & conversations Let's (re)discover the joy of cooking together. #FoodFables . . #Indiancuisine #cooking #foodstories #RBTraveldiaries #ranveerbrar #daysoftheyear
11. What is your favorite Indian food? What is your favorite international cuisine and why?
My favourite Indian food is from the cuisine of Bengal. It’s more of a sociological connect for me, as the state has seen so much evolution and turmoil and the food reflects that journey. Also, the whole difference in nuances between Bangal and Ghoti food, plus the various small sub-regions that all have a distinct cuisine, is very fascinating. Kerala comes a close second, though Bengali cuisine would definitely remain a favourite.
On the international spectrum, it would be Turkish. I have a great fascination for studying the Silk route and my trip to Turkey opened the door to a lot of answers on how the cuisine evolved around that route, the dishes and ingredients that sailed between civilisations– simply priceless.
12. What is your comfort food?
Khichdi! It’s one dish I can have at any point of time. It’s a wholesome, one-pot meal, that’s also traditionally rooted. You just can’t go wrong with Khichdi.
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When one thinks of Khichdi, grains and millets invariably come to mind. India has always had an amazing array of grains; thanks to the varied climatic conditions and soil types. Khichdi, hailed as a perfect one-pot meal and comfort food (definitely for me!) is popular across the continent with several regional variations. Grain, porridge was made all across India right from the Vedic times. Khichdi derives from the Sanskrit Khiccā, referring to a dish made of rice and legumes. The term is used throughout Ayurveda, especially in Susruta Samhita and Charaka Samhita. There are mentions of Khichdi in Mughal literature too, especially during Akbar's times. Ain-i-Akbari mentions as many as 7 variations to the recipe. The humble staple finds mention in many a travelogue. Ibn Battuta writes about 'Kishri', a dish made with rice and moong beans around his time here in mid-14th century. Greek Ambassador Seleucus and Russian Afanasiy Nikitin have mentioned the dish in their writings as well. The oldest evidence of Khichdi preparation in India can be traced as far back as 2000 years ago. In the Mughal era, Khichdi found more gourmet appeal. Food historian Pushpesh Pant states that emperor Akbar had this dish prepared in honour of Prince Salim's victorious return from a campaign and served it under a more fanciful nomenclature of Lazizaan or Delicious. A 19th century Nawab of Awadh's rakabdaar was famous for creating a Khichdi using meticulously sliced Almonds and pistachios for rice and lentils! How's that for innovation?! Ayurveda hails Khichdi as the perfect dish for restoring balance to mind and body. It's easy on the stomach and is recommended during change of seasons for this very reason. Apparently, Khichdi is the first dish taught to international students in an Ayurveda class! On #NationalAyurvedaDay, now that we are enlightened even more on the benefits let's enjoy the humble Khichdi with its chaar yaar (Ghee, yogurt, papad and pickle) for all its goodness. #FoodFables . . . . #Dhanteras #instafood #khichdi #food #instagram #indiancuisine #indianfood #ayurveda #healthy #Dhanvantari #dhantrayodashi #Diwali #goodfood #eatinghealthy
13. Define your cooking style to our readers.
For me food is feelings transferred on to a plate. I would call my cooking style experiential and progressive. All that I sample during my travels, see, hear, read about — I visualise that in the dishes I cook. Basically, my dishes should be conversation starters and tell a story.
14. What was the last meal you had?
Sheera, mom-made. It’s another comfort food for me ????
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As a chef and being from a farming family, I always stress on eating seasonal. Growing up around farms, winters for us were basically two things – Hara chana or what we know as choliya and Sarson (and its saag). One cannot talk about "Punjabi" food and not bring Sarson da saag into the conversation! The aroma of the saag slow-cooking in mustard oil with other fresh produce on the side and makke di roti with a generous dollop of home made makhan… Divine! It's interesting how this dish became a part of the farmer's diet. The tips of the sarson plants were broken off and those tips or gandals were typically used in the dish. Originally the saag isn't made with the leaves of the plant. The technical reason behind this trimming of the terminal buds was to stop the plant from growing vertically and grow broader instead. Lateral growth would mean more flowers and hence more mustard pods. And since nothing goes waste in a farm, these plucked tender tips were then used in a saag that turned out to be super tasty. The tips would be coarsely mashed using a 'Ghotna' that would leave a bite to it. Even now, it's best to not grind the mustard leaves to a paste but keep them chunky. In the winters, along side the canals that used to ferry water to the farms, Shalgam and mooli (radish) were sown. The fresh produce would then be brought home, the leaves would be cooked separately as saag and we would eat the radishes. So the typical (and ultimate) combo was – sarson da saag with fresh mooli and added to that, choliya slow roasted on fire. The greens of radishes and carrots are super healthy. While the radish greens can be used in a saag or dry cooked with lentils, carrot tops can make for great salad toppings or in stir fried vegetables.
So let's dig into those greens for all they are worth and celebrate good health this season. #FoodFables . . . . #instafood #foodpics #foodporn #ranveerbrar #foodstories #instablog #food #instagram #sarsondasaag #indiancuisine #indianfood #winter
15. Care to share a few effective tips for home cooks?
Plan ahead, prepare ahead. Keep it simple, use recipes as guidelines and try to infuse your own touch to a dish. As you keep cooking and experimenting you start discovering your own style.
16. Has traveling influenced your cooking style? Please share an anecdote with us.
I strongly believe that travel is a great way to experience new cultures and cuisines. And I try to convert those experiences into my dishes along with my interpretation of the same. There are many snippets that I could quote. One was visiting a Syrian Catholic family in Kerala, where I had (and also cooked along) an amazing Kappa Meen Curry. It made me look at Kappa or Tapioca with a lot more respect.
Another time, I visited this village called Khejarli in Rajasthan, inhabited by the nature-loving Bishnoi tribe. I met a lady called Shanti Devi who had discovered her life sustenance and raison d’etre through food. The dishes she served used barely three to four ingredients and she laid out a feast! Yet another re-countable memory is of Chef Benz in Koh Kood, Thailand. She’s been cooking for 30+ years now. She’s called Mama Benz by many and not without reason, because she serves food at the restaurant, just the way you’d serve it to guests at home. Conversations and the lunch we shared were life-changing for me. There are many many more that have inspired me in their own ways and I could go on forever.