Executive Chef Rajesh Radhakrishnan on the challenge of cooking up an inventive menu while keeping traditional flavours intact
Think being consistently dependable is tough? Try being consistently surprising. Fortunately, Chef Rajesh Radhakrishnan seems to thrive on pressure.
The man behind the menus at Chennai's most determinedly trendy hotel, The Park, Chef Rajesh has been quietly, but steadily expanding his repertoire over the last four years. At 35, he's among the country's youngest Executive Chefs. Besides overseeing the hotel's restaurants, he handles menus at Madras Club's poolside cafe and Latitude — refuge of salad-and-six-pack obsessed businessmen, ladies-who-brunch and lanky girls toting It-bags. This is a cross-section of his guests: hip, health-obsessed and ceaselessly demanding.
When Absolute, which revelled in edginess, floundered, The Park was called in, and Chef Rajesh stepped behind the grills. Today, it's Italia. More recently, he's designed menus for the hotel's cruiser on Vembanad Lake in Kerala, drawing from local organic produce and cooking styles inspired by Cherthala, Muhamma and Alleppey.
“Every year, we try to get better,” he says, juggling a steaming pizza, bright with tomato and chunky broccoli florets, as we walk through The Park's popular coffee shop, 601. He adds: “Sixty per cent of our guests are repeat clients — and they eat here two to three times a week… They are all well-travelled, and expectations are high. Very, very high. We need to keep them challenged.”
We hop into the hotel lift, equipped with mini screens showing “Shrek”, and emerge on the top floor at Aqua, Mediterranean with a semi-kitschy twist. Between obligingly striking pose after pose for our photo shoot, Chef Rajesh points out their Aqua wellness menu, replete with food for the new-age fitness junkie — carrot spritzers zinging with spirulina, pesto-marinated cottage cheese, braised bekti with wild mushroom tom yum broth.
This is his signature: food that is intuitive, enthusiastic and bold. “Even when it comes to catering events, no one wants a menu that's been done before,” says Chef Rajesh discussing how every menu must be innovative every single time. His solution? “Progressive cuisine: Italian Thai, European Thai, Modern Chinese…” All, while maintaining a reverence for traditional recipes and flavours. “We don't want to lose the original taste — a rogan josh should taste like a rogan josh.” So, he deconstructs every dish, and then builds it up in a more contemporary way, using new techniques, international ingredients and artistic flair.
“It's not fusion. The flavours remain the same. So, you can relate to a dish — but it looks spectacular… a zucchini and paneer roll, for example.” Or a baked jamun tart at Latitude served with a five-spice gelato. Or, his experiments with molecular gastronomy, such as rose petal caviar, which attempt to make food interesting without crossing over into bizarre.
Dishes such as these convey that Chef Rajesh is as animated about desi ingredients as he is about suitably obscure Italian cheeses. He holds up a bowl of intensely-smoky Pippali pepper, inhaling delightedly before describing a recipe for fish crusted with it. “I keep hunting for ingredients that are uncommon,” he says, adding they also work on regularly reinventing old favourites.
Fish and chips, for instance. “We've done beer-battered fish. We've made it with yeast, olive oil and baking powder, for lightness. This year, it's vodka-battered.” This isn't just for attention. (Though, of course, that's a desirable side-effect.) “There's a science to it. With a batter that's 40 per cent vodka, the alcohol evaporates, and the fish cooks faster.”
Constant change requires constant information. Chef Rajesh draws from a base of multiple sources, including his former mentor New Zealander Willi, who specialised in contemporary cooking.
He's also learnt from Italian cuisine's big guns — Antonio Carluccio and Andrea Sposini of Cordon Bleu; and Jeffrey Lord of Betelnut in Koh Samui, famous for his vibrant global food. Before that came, the chefs he worked with in Kuwait, at the Crowne Plaza — Marc Boje for French cooking, and Simon Slim for Lebanese.
His definite Italian slant, which translates into many of his menus, comes from a course in Italian cooking in Calabria followed by a trip across Italy, revelling in Gorgonzola, artisan pasta and delectable trattoria meals.
“The base comes from travel and learning,” he says. “I enhance that with lots of reading: Michael Roux, Jamie Oliver and — of course — Carluccio. For ideas I go everywhere. Chefs around the world. Menus of restaurants — El Bulli and French Laundry…”
Hence dishes such as Spanakopita: spinach and feta phyllo parcels with corn coulis. It is worlds away from his grandmother's Kerala kitchen where he would help with rolling the chappatisas a little boy. Or, maybe not. After all, Chef Rajesh's cooking is still rooted in tradition.