*UPDATE: Vineet Bhatia is no longer associated with Rasoi in Abu Dhabi*
The list of accolades and accomplishments goes on and on. Winning Michelin stars, opening restaurants around the globe, improving the food on some of the world’s leading airlines, writing recipe books, being given a role as a judge on Netflix’s The Final Table, and landing an upcoming stint as a judge on Masterchef India, Vineet Bhatia has done the lot. But he’s not finished yet.
The Indian chef is a pioneer. He is widely regarded as the man who brought high-end Indian food to the Western world. He won over his peers and critics after moving to London from his homeland in 1993, becoming the first Indian chef to look after a restaurant to win a Michelin star (in 2001 for Zaika in Chelsea). Three years later he opened Rasoi in the same area of London. From there he has hardly looked back.
Now, 15 years later Rasoi by Vineet has landed in Abu Dhabi, a move he says has been a long time coming.
Despite his achievements, Bhatia is not a man to rest on his laurels. As we sit in his new venture, which is at Etihad Towers, just opposite the lobby of the Jumeirah hotel, he tells us why the Middle East is so special to him and why he’s more concerned about giving back to his staff and serving great food than landing more awards.
Don’t let the huge mural of the chef on the wall as you enter the dining room fool you, Bhatia is anything but big headed.
“Opening in Abu Dhabi is really special for me,” he says. “In 1993 I stopped in Dubai on my way to London for the first time. I got food poisoning and thought – I’ll never come here!
“However, in 2004 I came back and a year later we opened Indego [in Dubai’s Grosvenor House], our first restaurant outside London. The UAE has been very special for us.
“I’ve done pop-ups and gourmet events in Abu Dhabi and we’ve planned to open here for many, many years. It feels different to Dubai, to me, in that it’s more family oriented and people like to find somewhere and visit regularly, locals and expats.
“We know that if people go out here, they make an effort to do so,” he adds. “So you need to make sure you not only serve great food but you also have a great offering overall – that extends to our mocktails, beverages, service and atmosphere.
“Anyone can cook good food, you need to provide something extra to make it succesful.”
Despite being commited to providing something special for Abu Dhabi, Bhatia wants people to know Rasoi will be accessible, too.
He says: “You can’t put people off with high prices. People want value for money, Rasoi is for regular visits, not just special occasions.”
On the day of our interview, it’s the final day of food trials at the restaurant and his pastry chefs are showing Bhatia their versions of his Indian biscuits and desserts. When we arrive he’s hard at work in the kitchen while his staff enjoy their lunch. We’re offered a bowlful of dhal and a few spoonfuls of vegetable curry, some chicken and some bread.
“This is simple food we eat while working,” Bhatia makes sure we’re aware. “It won’t be on the menu, so don’t expect it to be too great...” He’s being modest and while the dishes won’t be on the final menu at Rasoi, it’s definitely restaurant-quality food.
“The menu is very varied here, with lots available for vegetarians, plenty for locals to enjoy and those who like meat,”he says. “We don’t use a lot of fat, ghees and oils – after three courses here there’ll be no burping at all,” he only half-jokes. “You need to enjoy a good meal and leave with a clean palate.”
His food is all about quality produce – a common theme amongst restaurateurs of his calibre. “We want to get the best produce available and do as little to it as possible,” he says. “We have to have some local elements in each restaurant, too. So you’ll have zaatar here, local fish and meats. The local flavours are important for the audience here. Local people need to be able to walk in and understand what we do, but there will still be classics that we do everywhere.
“Dishes such as pisatchio-crusted lamb chops, crusted biryanis and chocolate samosas will never go out of fashion.
“There is some crossover in cooking style and flavours across the Middle East and South East Asia region, which is down to the spice route. We won’t get into who made biryani or samosas first... This food has been happening for thousands of years. What I can say is that when you bring something to India we like to make it our own and what is comparable is the way Arabic and Indian people like to eat, with families. And there has long been a link between India and here.”
Bhatia’s culinary empire now extends across the Middle East (he now has a second venue, Indya by Vineet, in Dubai, there’s a Rasoi in Bahrain and two restaurants in Saudi Arabia), into Europe (Rasoi by Vineet at the Mandarin Oriental in Geneva), he has a spot in legendary London department store Harrod’s and has his name above the door at a restaurant in Mumbai’s Oberoi.
With lots of different brands under the Vineet Bhatia umbrella, how does he choose what each one will be? It’s simple, he says.
“Rasoi was where it all began, so it’s got to be right for us to open somewhere with that name, we don’t just hand it out anywhere.
“When you come to this beautiful setting at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, which sits opposite Emirates Palace, it’s grand, so Rasoi works perfectly.
The restaurant also has different elements to it. A great open kitchen, a bar, a smoking area, places for more private dining. There’s extra effort to make sure there’s something special for everyone here.”
The chef is constantly travelling, both for work and pleasure, and followers of his Instagram account will be used to seeing his trademark hat sitting on an aeroplane table as he jets off to the next destination. For someone so busy, and so successful, he’s very open on his social media channels and responds to as many people’s comments as he can. It’s also where you can see the chef’s works in progress, as he likes to document as much as he can with his camera.
“When people ask me where I live I say seat 5K of whichever plane I’m on,” he laughs. “But my home is my restaurant, wherever I am at that time. I’ll be the first in and the last out.
“As a family, we love to travel, though. Once a year we spin a globe and find out where we’re going. Whether that’s Japan or Mexico, we do it properly – backpacking, in small places, remote parts of countries. We’re not bothered about luxury, I can get that anytime.
“Taking pictures is my other passion, people think I’m crazy because I document everything, but it works for me and works for the restaurants – people like to see pictures.”
Despite the travels, he is always drawn back to the Middle East. “When I first came, the Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai was two lanes. When we moved to Grosvenor House there was nothing else around, really, but you could tell something was coming and something was happening. The team there were always going to make a success of that.
“We moved there at the right time. There was only Gordon Ramsay in Dubai before me, but he was at the opposite end of the city. I have to admit I did wonder if the restaurant would ever fill up, but there was a gut feeling and trust that it would.
“We were based in new Dubai before new Dubai was even there. No-one was doing what we were doing at that time. To be the first one meant we pioneered it and opened the doors for more Indian restaurants to do the same.
“That is something special for us, we were at the avant-garde of Indian cuisine, which is what I always wanted to do as a child.”
When Bhatia first moved to London in 1993 (to work in South Kensington’s Star of India), Indian food looked very different to how it does now.
“It was thought of as a third-world cuisine,” he says. “It was looked down upon, and the food served in the UK at that time was nothing like the Indian cuisine I was used to at home. I had people telling me I didn’t know what I was doing and I should go back to India and learn how to cook properly. I was the only Indian person working in the kitchen! I didn’t know what the customers were talking about, then I realised that Indian food in England then was completely different to what I was used to. I thought it was crazy at the time.”
“I had already been working for eight or nine years by then and was only 24. I had worked hard, had some tough times and struggled – so even though I was young [to be in charge of a restaurant], my focus was clear. I knew what I wanted to do.”
The knockbacks didn’t start when Bhatia moved to London, throughout his life he had been told he wasn’t good enough. “I was the shortest and youngest boy in my class,” he says, and was bullied as a result. A career as a pilot didn’t get off the ground due to his height (“Now I fly at least three times a month, and don’t have to do the hard work,” he jokes). His family laughed at him when he said he wanted to work in a kitchen (“It wasn’t seen as the fancy job people think it is now”).
The Star of India got a favourable review from UK food critic Fay Maschler, of London’s Evening Standard. Bhatia says he owes much of what came next to that one review. Maschler was born in India and the chef says that helped her understand what he was trying to do.
His experiences at the start of his career means he takes great pride in making sure his own staff don’t struggle like he did.
He says: “You mentor them and teach them, you take them under your wings. You have to teach them how food should be and why what we do works, and has done for so many years.
“There’s no magic formula you can learn, it comes from hard work and respect for where you are, as you have to cater to your audience. It’s different here to Europe, which is different again to India. Now it’s more important for me to give back to my staff and the industry than it is for personal achievements.”
Personally, Bhatia says being a chef is the most anti-social job you can get and as a result he has no real friends, just acquaintances in each city he travels to.
However, there is one person in his life that has had more influence than anyone else – his wife Rashima. Telling the chef’s story without mentioning Rashima would mean only telling half of the tale. For more than two decades now she has been by his side and it’s fair to say she is the force of nature behind the business.
“She is my boss,” Bhatia says. “For me family is everything and nothing is worth doing without family. Without family I wouldn’t do anything else in life.
“I’m very fortunate. She has sacrificed a lot of her own life to take on a role in this business. As a result she has the final say.
“The most honest feedback I’ll ever get is from Rashima. I look up to her and will bank on her for all decision making. If something gets past her, it’s happening.”
In a nutshell, that’s all you need to know about Vineet Bhatia – a chef who modernised Indian food, brought it to the wider world and has been receiving accolades ever since – he puts his success down to his wife, cares more about looking after his staff than gaining personal acclaim and would rather you ate well next time you’re in his restaurant than he wins another Michelin star. And that huge mural of him on the way into the restaurant? “That was my idea,” says Rashima. “Vineet really isn’t comfortable with it, but it works.” And who are we to argue?
Rasoi by Vineet is open now at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, West Corniche (02 447 4848).
Michelin stars by Vineet
I don’t cook for those. It helps the business or our profile, of course, but I don’t cook for critics, reviews or the Michelin guide.
I cook because I believe in what I’m doing and I want people to like it. It’s not pretentious, what we do is honest and done with a pure heart and soul.
I don’t think any good chef will be cooking for awards or Michelin stars, that’s not the point. You have to have a good restaurant first. Critics and awards are not my business, so I try to stay clear.
I’m very happy putting food on a plate for my customers to enjoy. When you get an accolade it feels nice, of course.
Television by Vineet
When Netflix first approached me they asked me to Skype them as they were researching a show on food. I didn’t realise that it was an audition. It lasted 90 minutes and at the end I had impressed them.
The Final Table wasn’t scripted, so they wanted to know I was articulate on camera. Now I’ve been asked judge on Masterchef India, which is very different to the UK version. India is all about about emotions. I’ve stayed clear of TV in India for a long time but this felt right.
Celeb chefs by Vineet
When I was at the Star of India, four nights a week a Mr White would order the same takeaway and come to collect it. After a while I asked the guys front of house to let me know when he was in next so I could thank him for his custom. He was a tall guy, very nice.
A few days later one of the team brought the newspaper in and he was on the front. It said his restaurant had won three Michelin stars. I had no idea who Marco Pierre White was, I didn’t know what Michelin stars were! We’ve been friends ever since and he’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. He’s also the most natural chef I’ve ever seen, a true artist.
Snacks by Vineet
Usually I’ll sit after work and have a bowl of dhal and some phulka [bread], but if I’m being really simple you I’ll take brown bread and make an omelette with coriander and green chilli and some ketchup and have it all together.”