Three Indian restaurants won the recent US Michelin awards. Meet the chefs

The recent US Michelin awards awarded stars to three Indian restaurants – Semma, Rania and Indienne. Their chefs tell us why Indian food is winning global acclaim

November 14, 2023 04:19 pm | Updated December 18, 2023 09:08 pm IST

Chef Vijay Kumar

Chef Vijay Kumar | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Chef Vijay Kumar

Semma, New York

Blessed is a word that Chef Vijay Kumar of Semma, a two-year-old South Indian restaurant in New York’s West Village, uses a lot. He admits to being deeply thankful for his hardworking, dedicated team, the appreciation he receives from his patrons and now, most recently, a Michelin Star, which the restaurant has retained from last year. “We just wanted to cook our food, tell our stories through food — unapologetically,” confesses the amiable Vijay, whose roots lie in the deep South, a small town called Natham in Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul district.

The dishes on Semma’s menu are a nod to the food of this region; think kollu rasam, Kanyakumari nandu masala, paniyaram, gunpowder dosa and Dindigul biryani, made precisely the way it is made back home. “We assume that people in the West can’t eat spicy food, that you have to debone the meat,” he says, pointing out that this belief is a fallacy. “They actually want original, authentic food. Why should we change our cuisine to accept what we do?” says Vijay, who counts his mother and grandmother as culinary inspirations.

After studying Hotel Management in Tiruchirappalli, Vijay began his career at the Taj Connemara in Chennai, an experience he holds dear. He then worked on a cruise liner for three years before moving to the restaurants Dosa and later Rasa, both in California. “I got my first Michelin star at Rasa in 2016,” he says, pride colouring his voice as he recounts how the contemporary Indian restaurant held on to the honour for five years before COVID upended the world.

Vaazhakkai varuval and thayir saadam 

Vaazhakkai varuval and thayir saadam  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

While he says he enjoyed cooking contemporary Indian food — elevated South Indian with California ingredients — he hankered to cook how they cooked back home. “I wasn’t 100% satisfied…felt something was missing,” says Vijay, who joined Unapologetic Foods’ Semmain 2021, a restaurant that “represents our cuisine, culture and country,” he believes. “We have more responsibility to keep pushing what we are doing, more and more.”

What he cooks for himself

Rice with dal or sambar

Chef Chetan Shetty

Rania, Washington DC

Chef Chetan Shetty

Chef Chetan Shetty | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Tradition and authenticity of cuisine are not something Chef Chetan Shetty appears to be unduly worried about. Instead, he believes that food evolves. “From my point of view, everything starts changing with time.” After all, many ingredients that are today considered central to Indian cuisine, including tomatoes, chillies and potatoes, did not originate from the subcontinent. “When people say that this is not authentic Indian food, I want to ask them what authentic Indian food is,” says the executive chef of Rania, which won its first Michelin star a year after it opened in mid-2022.

While he was always interested in cooking — his father ran a kitchen in Pune, his hometown — he never imagined it would become his career, he says. “I was into motorcycles and wanted to pursue Automobile Engineering,” he says.

Maths, however, wasn’t his strongest point, so he decided to try his hand at cooking, going on to graduate from IHM Gurdaspur in 2008. “It was a really good place. I got to know what cooking was about,” says Chetan, who spent nearly a decade of his career with Chef Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent, moving to New York in 2016, with the same restaurant.

“Indian Accent was a place of high curiosity. We would serve blue cheese naan, and people would say that your naan had gone bad. We had to educate the clientele about what blue cheese is and the thought process behind it,” he recalls with a laugh. “It was a different zone at that point and an evolution started out.”

Some dishes at Rania

Some dishes at Rania | Photo Credit: Hawkeye Johnson

The evolution continues going by Rania’s latest menu, which throws up a range of dishes that continues to push the boundaries of imagination. A laccha aloo chaat, for instance, seems to be paired with a sorrel chutney, Amritsari hollandaise and moringa podi enhance the flavour of North Point oysters, while a mishti doi has traces of strawberry and rhubarb. “It is not that we dilute the food. For us, it is the integrity of flavour that matters,” says chef Chetan, who firmly believes that food is always a personal interpretation of what you think it is. “The Michelin star is more about confidence that what you are doing is (heading) in the right direction,” believes Chetan.

What he cooks for himself

Maggi cooked in a rich meat stock instead of water

Chef Sujan Sarkar

Indienne, Chicago

Chef Sujan

Chef Sujan | Photo Credit: Neil John Burger

Chef Sujan Sarkar thinks of his gastronomic offerings as “progressive Indian”. Like any vehicle of culture — art, architecture, performance, music — food isn’t static.

“My food is not fusion,” he is quick to clarify, pointing out that the dishes on his menu are elevated versions that do not lose their original flavour, taste or presentation. “I am simply cooking Indian food with different ingredients,” says the man behind Chicago’s Indienne, whose menu boasts unique dishes like duck keema, avocado bhel and a green pea and fava kulcha, laced with goat butter and burgundy truffle.

Sujan is certainly delighted about winning the Michelin Star, but he also doesn’t seem surprised. “As professionals, we know our best work and are proud of it,” he says. “We do not wait for luck or fluke. If you deserve it, it will happen,” says Sujan, who is also behind brands such as Baar Baar and Rooh in the US.

While Sujan has always been deeply connected to land and produce — his father is an agriculturist — a career in food was not his first choice. “I wanted to get into fashion, but I didn’t get through design school,” he says.

He plays an active role in designing his restaurants, working closely with the architect to ensure that the space reflects his aesthetic vision. “Though I never went to design school or became a designer, my love for design always remained,” says Sujan, whose creativity, not surprisingly, percolates into all the dishes on the menu. “You will see a reflection of me in each and every dish... something new, something unique.”

Egg curry with babka pao and cultured cream 

Egg curry with babka pao and cultured cream  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

So, is the interest in Indian food growing in the US? Yes, believes Chef Sujan, who has worked in kitchens across the world, including London, India and Dubai. “The good part of America is that it doesn’t have a traditional palate. There is nothing called American food,” he says, pointing out that because of this, Americans are largely open-minded when it comes to food. Having said that, considering the challenges of rent and labour, it is still a difficult country to open an Indian restaurant in. “It is not only the cooking; there are hundreds of other things you have to take care of,” he says.

What he cooks for himself

Kichadi, preferably one made of millets

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