Chef Vikramjit Roy of the city’s first contemporary Oriental restaurant Pan Asian, talks to Shonali Muthalaly on his years in Japan mastering the cuisine and reinventing it for an Indian palate
There’s a rhythm in the kitchen. The soft sound of a heavy knife slicing through zucchini. Thumps from pots being lined up on searing stoves. The steady sizzle of saucepans. All veiled in a cloud of warm, wet steam. Quietly padding through all this, in chocolate brown Crocs, is Chef Vikramjit Roy. With a resume, that lists stints in Tokyo and Delhi’s feted ‘Wasabi’, Chef Roy is working on simultaneously strengthening and re-inventing Japanese food in India. His latest move, ‘Pan Asian,’ is possibly his most significant contribution so far. Set in the gargantuan ITC Grand Chola, this is Chennai’s first contemporary Oriental restaurant and the ITC’s first step towards creating a national ‘Pan Asian’ brand.
It’s 11 a.m., and his team is already busy in the open kitchens, designed like a chain of islands in the massive restaurant. As Chef Roy leads us to his ‘studio’ he points out the empty picture frames hung along the exposed brick walls. “The idea is to imagine whatever you want in there,” he says, with a dramatic wave. Poet-artist-chef? This gets more surreal every minute. We climb a flight of stairs to the chef’s studio, from where people can “look down at the restaurant, and feel special”. How special? “We charge anything between Rs. 6,500 to Rs. 50,000 a plate.” Rs. 50,000? “That’s nothing,” he shrugs, “I’ve done a meal for 1.5 lakh a plate in Delhi.”
Back downstairs he hands me a chunky cup of tea. “Kitchen chai... Hot, sweet, strong.” As we settle down, he describes how he rode his Harley to Tranquebar last week, just to eat podi idlis. “I heard about a guy who makes really, really fantastic podi idli there. So I just had to go.” Hmm. Not that la-di-dah then, despite the designer studio, and Emperor’s-new-clothes picture frames? Clearly, Chef Roy, is just as enigmatic as his food.
Lessons for life
After graduating from IHM (Institute of Hotel Management), Kolkata, Chef Roy began working with the Oberoi in New Delhi in 2003. He eventually moved to Tokyo to pursue his interest in Japanese cooking. “It was to work in a hotel called Okura, which has two restaurants, each with two Michelin stars. Sazanka specialised in sushi and Yamazato in teppanyaki. I was a mid-level chef, so I naturally assumed I would be cooking there… Then, I was told my job would be to carry fish from the market to the hotel.” He did this for almost a year. “I hated it at first. Waking up at 3 a.m., going to the market, and then working in the kitchen all day. And through it all, I was not allowed to cook. My mom would call from Calcutta and say ‘I hope you’re doing well’ and I’d lie and say ‘Yes’. It was a bad phase.” He pauses, then adds earnestly, “But that is what made me what I am. I finally understood that in Japan, you need to prove your mettle. Only then will they have confidence in you, and give you the opportunity to learn.”
The lesson that made the biggest impression, however, was to do every job with passion. “Over here chefs will complain if someone says they’re vegetarian. Over there, you should see the love, care and exuberance they bring to anything they make. Even if it’s a simple mountain potato, they will poach it, grill it and serve it perfectly… I’ve seen Japanese chefs do 23-course menus that are completely vegetarian, and nothing will be similar.”
After living and working in Japan “on and off for eight years,” Chef Roy ended up in Delhi, courtesy Chef Masaharu Morimoto. “I had worked with him in Napa Valley, so when the Taj group decided to open India’s second Morimoto in Delhi, I was called in.” Convincing Delhi that there was more to Japanese food than sushi was his biggest challenge. “To them it was all raw fish. So I worked on creating food that customers could connect with, without compromising on authenticity. Something like tamari glazed Chilian sea bass, for instance. Good simple flavours, but styled differently. Or I would serve fish Carpaccio topped with hot oil. Since its cut really thin, customers felt like it was cooked. Gradually, they started experimenting more.”
He continues, “In 2007, sushi in India was filled with cream cheese, spicy mayonnaise, cucumber… To me sushi should be basic. A nigiri sushi for instance is just rice and fish. The rice should have adequate vinegar, the nori should contribute umami and what stays with you after you bite in should be the flavour of the fish. Nothing more. Nothing less.” His style of cooking follows the same rules, except he brings in unexpected global flavours to detract from the starkness, and add an element of surprise to make food fun. “I like to combine unexpected elements. The Japanese don’t believe in mixing flavours: For them simmered eggplant should taste like simmered eggplant. So if I say, lets add a buckwheat crumble, and serve it with some dehydrated pineapple on the side, they won’t like that. But Morimoto gave me that freedom.”
Chef Roy’s philosophy is simple. “I want to connect. But I don’t want to be like someone else. I want to create food that shows my personality.”