Meet Priyam Chatterjee, the first Indian chef to receive this French honour

Priyam Chatterjee

Priyam Chatterjee

A conversation with chef Priyam Chatterjee always bursts at its seams with energy. When we first met, it was in April, at Rooh. Chef Sujan Sarkar’s San Francisco restaurant had just opened its Indian outpost neighbouring the Qutub Minar, with Chatterjee as its head chef. As each dish from their tasting menu arrived, he came by with it, talking passionately about its smallest, finest detail, and the hours it took to make.

Chatterjee used his (tattooed) arms, hands, eyes, and the shock of curls on his head to stress a point and delight you with his excitement for his craft. His mannerisms were befitting of the drummer he is in his free time. But now, in mid-August, his hair is just a wee bit tamer, and he’s wearing glasses that make him look a little older than 31.

Today, Chatterjee is a Knight. On August 12th, the French Ambassador to India, Alexandre Ziegler conferred on him the distinction of Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole, or the grade of Knight, in the Order of Agricultural Merit. The award, originally instituted in 1833 by the French, recognises contributions to agriculture, the agro-food industry, or gastronomy. Chatterjee, who’d spent almost three years cooking contemporary European fare at Qla before his seven-month role at Rooh, is the first Indian chef to receive it.

“Oh man, my phone has hung. I’m still getting so many messages, and people are tagging me everywhere. This is really a big deal,” he says, leaving the sentence hanging a bit, almost like a question. He nods to himself, as if answering that half-question.

The beginnings

Chatterjee, a commerce student in high school, went on to graduate from the NIPS School of Hotel Management in Kolkata. “Because I was always inclined towards art, and food is my medium of expression,” he says. Despite this he was, per his admission, “a backbencher”. He got his first job in 2009, with the help of a family member in the hospitality industry at a standard three-star hotel in Salem, Tamil Nadu. Here he worked for 16 hours a day, cooking “regular hotel food”, at a stipend of ₹3,000 per month. He was all of 20.

“Now I realise that as a kid, I grew up in a family of exceptional cooks...with two distinct culinary traditions,” he says, as he tries out a croquette at a popular restaurant in Khan Market. His paternal side has roots in the Krishnanagar Rajbari, a palace in the Nadia district of West Bengal, while his maternal side is from Bangladesh. Plus with the “already elevated [European] food traditions in Calcutta of the Raj and post-Raj days,” he says he had a melange of both worlds — there was Muri Ghonto and pudding; and Shukto, as well as puff pastries.

A Van Gogh inspired dish by Chatterjee, called Langoustine with essence of the ocean, made of squid ink sauce, beurre blanc, and green pea flower pigments

A Van Gogh inspired dish by Chatterjee, called Langoustine with essence of the ocean, made of squid ink sauce, beurre blanc, and green pea flower pigments

But he never fully understood this then. It was when he was 13, and sent to a boarding school in Kalimpong (after his father’s death), that he really opened up not just to food, but also to produce. “We farmed and gardened here...I think that was our ‘punishment’. I learned how to grow peaches and strawberries, and how to pluck guavas,” Chatterjee recalls.

Fast forward to 2012, and he was admitted into the opening team for Park Hyatt Hyderabad. In many ways, the four-and-a-half-years he spent here really shaped him into the French-honour-receiving chef he is today.

The French connection

Chatterjee was almost getting kicked out of this gig when he met chef Jean-Claude Fugier, of the famed three-Michelin-starred La Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France. Fugier, who was helping open Park Hyatt Hyderabad broke ice with him over a croissant that Chaterjee was scarfing down when waiting to meet him, and kept him on. That was one of the most rigorous training periods of his life.

Fugier would sometimes push Chatterjee to the verge of tears, but once kitchen closed they’d bond over a bottle of beer. That’s where he picked up French technique, but he says he’ll slowly but surely bring in his roots: “not as ‘fusion’,” he says pausing to cringe, with both his hands and face, “but blending together memory and maybe ideology, with technique.”

Since the end of June when he quit Rooh, Chatterjee has been in France, Saint-Tropez in specific, as the head chef at Jaan Restaurant Yacht, where he’s doing exactly this. The space, open only from July 8th to 31st August, describes itself as a “fusion of modern French cuisines with flavours from India, on a yacht”, with a menu that changes weekly.

Priyam Chatterjee with the French Ambassador to India, Alexandre Ziegler, after the investiture ceremony on August 12th, 2019

Priyam Chatterjee with the French Ambassador to India, Alexandre Ziegler, after the investiture ceremony on August 12th, 2019

Here, Chatterjee took foie gras, cooked it with Indian khara masala, and liquidised that to make a butter. Pâté was too passé, so he decided to serve this with a thin saffron cracker, topped with more liquified, warm foie gras sauce.

“Fusion would perhaps be foie gras, with chocolate sauce, finished with tamarind chutney. What I’ve done is to blend the best, and most delicate, of two different cultures,” he says.

At the investiture ceremony, Ambassador Ziegler recalled the first time he tasted Chatterjee’s food, adding that upon doing so, he was “astonished that I had not met you earlier.”

“This will help me go a step closer in realising my dream of standing outside my own restaurant one day and welcoming you,” says Chatterjee, who is boarding a flight back to France in just a couple of hours, having come back to Delhi only for the ceremony.

But he’s in no rush. As he finishes up the last glass of Riesling, he looks around, for a second, oddly calm and expressionless, then: “I want to show the world I exist. I don’t strive for fame, but I have many, many goals.”

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2022 11:09:02 am |