Recently Travel + Leisure India & South Asia enjoyed a revolutionary conversation paired with an exquisite European wine and a six-course tapas dinner. The crusader for Spanish food and culture, Chef Omar Allibhoy, spilled the tea on what led him to bring the subtle flavours of Spanish cuisine to India. By Srushti Kulkarni
On a mission to put Tapas on the map, Spanish chef Omar Allibhoy began creating a buzz within the UK food scene. The Spaniard is not only the owner of the critically acclaimed restaurant chain Tapas Revolution but also the author of the fastest selling Spanish cookbook Tapas Revolution. His illustrious culinary career has been accompanied by several accolades and appearances on popular culinary shows.
Born in Madrid, Omar is considered the ‘crusader for Spanish food and culture’. And to promote the same, the chef arrived in India to craft six Tapas-style course sit-down dinners at Sette Mara in Mumbai’s St Regis and The Leela Palace Bengaluru. The dinners were paired with exquisite Spanish, French, and Italian wines selected by his friend Nikhil Agarwal, CEO of the wine consultancy, All Things Nice.
Excerpts from the interview with Chef Omar Allibhoy
T+L India: You joined a restaurant at the tender of 14. Tell us a bit about your culinary journey.
Chef Omar Allibhoy: Cooking has always been attached to a memory of me playing football with my friends and then going back home and cooking with my mum. That is how it continued and at no point, I didn’t feel like doing anything different and neither did my parents push me to enrol at a university. I have always wanted to be a chef and was fortunate enough to be trained by the legendary Ferran Adria of El Bulli–a restaurant that was crowned the world’s best restaurant six times in a row. Later, I went to England to master English because I wanted to travel the world and learn the cuisines of all the regions. Unfortunately, I fell in love in London and we all know the rest of the story (chuckles).
T+L India: Your idea behind bringing the subtle flavours of Spanish cuisine to India?
Chef Omar Allibhoy: My good friend Nikhil proposed the idea of me bringing the subtle flavours of Spanish cuisine to India. I jumped at the opportunity because I love travelling and having a good experience. Since my origins lead back to India, I was excited at the prospect of visiting the country.
T+L India: What led you to choose Mumbai and Bengaluru for your multi-course dinner? Did your paternal heritage play a role in it?
Chef Omar Allibhoy: I literally jumped at the opportunity since India is very far from Spain and England. I don’t get to come to this side of the world very often. And having the heritage made it even more appealing. So much, so that I would like to visit as often as possible. Or even if someone would be interested to open up a Spanish restaurant in India, as there are not many, I would consider that a good opportunity to help them do so.
We were planning the event through the pandemic and as soon as the pandemic halted, we successfully hosted the Tapas dinner. Nikhil hails from Mumbai and therefore he chose Mumbai and Bengaluru for the event.
T+L India: We heard that all the tables for your six-course gourmet dinner were booked within minutes. Tell us a little about the tapas menu curated for the evening.
Chef Omar Allibhoy: I wanted to bring distinctive flavours from all regions of Spain. I wanted the menu to represent those distinctive flavours as much as possible. Given that it was only a six-course menu, we were not able to prepare Tapas in its purest and truest state because we had to make multiple samples of the same taste for everybody on the table. I had no experience in the Indian market and there were a lot of learnings for me too. We made refined individual small Tapas courses with some vegetarian options since the two locations chosen were five-star hotels. We feared that the wine pairing with the dinner could crowd the table. Many of them at the table have never been to Spain and this cuisine could have been quite alien but in reality, everybody was incredibly happy and satisfied by the end of the meal.
T+L India: In another interview, you said that the Indian palate is an adventure, especially when cooked with local ingredients. What Indian ingredients would you love to take back home?
Chef Omar Allibhoy: I have already shopped quite a bit in Mumbai and am yet to explore the local markets of Bengaluru. I am taking back several spices that are unknown to Europeans because they are not produced in those regions. The aroma, flavours and freshness of these local spices are on another level. I just learned that these spices have an extra layer of aroma. To be frank, I purchased an entire suitcase of spices, haha.
T+L India: Name an Indian dish that instantly made its way to your heart.
Chef Omar Allibhoy: Yesterday, I had the privilege of having dinner at Jamavar at the Leela, and as a chef, I obviously got to try many foods. The food was distinctive and super traditional. There were two dishes, especially their most iconic dish, the rack of lamb was just sensational. The other one was roomali roti, they described it to me as the handkerchief bread. It was silky and featured a fine layer of bread. I have never seen anything like it. I was lucky enough to be shown how it’s made.
T+L India: How would you distinguish Spanish cuisine from Indian?
Chef Omar Allibhoy: India and Spain share several common cultural aspects such as socialising and food sharing. I believe food has developed through history to suit our needs of socialising in both countries. In Spain, we sort of create tapas that can now be seen all around the world. Everybody seems to be wanting a bite of tapas. And here in India, people opt for large dishes that are meant to be shared. More than the aspect of feeding our physic, it’s super important for me to feed our souls our mental health and our lifestyle.
In terms of opposites, without a doubt, it’s the love for flavours. All the chefs in both Mumbai and Bengaluru asked me, ‘How do we marinate the fish?’ I said, no, please do not touch it. I asked them to butcher it and add a bit of salt and olive oil while cooking it. In Spain, we rely on super high-quality ingredients that we don’t like to obscure. We like to let those ingredients shine. We do not cover up such a subtle and beautiful fish flavour. But, in Indian cuisine, I came to learn that that is very much the other side of the spectrum.
T+L India: You mentioned that your dad is accompanying you on this tour. What are the destinations on your bucket list for this trip?
Chef Omar Allibhoy: Yes, I am here with my dad, and he hails from Mumbai. He hadn’t visited India for 41 years and we needed to remedy that. We made this trip a special one by travelling to both Mumbai and Bengaluru. We visited some of the Iranian cafes in Mumbai. We just wanted a journey and discover the parts of Mumbai where my grandmother, who is 95 and alive with the most brilliant mind, used to live. To imagine their lives 75 years ago was sensational. We went to see my dad’s first school, the hospital where he was born and plenty of other locations too. We also visited some famous monuments in Bengaluru. We really wanted to be this trip to be low-key and it has been wonderful!