Michelin and Indian restaurants

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The beginnings

Moeena Halim , Star Attraction “India Today” 10/4/2017

The Taj Campton Place is a small hotel near San Francisco's Union Square. Its restaurant, Campton Place (pictured top left), run by Chef Srijith Gopinathan, seats about 60 patrons. It has been described as one of the city's best kept secrets. The secret was let out when the restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star in 2011. "We never expected the Michelin Guide to come to us, and expected a star even less," admits Gopinathan. Last year, the restaurant was awarded two stars ('excellent cooking, worth a detour'), making Gopinathan the second Indian chef after London's Benares Restaurant and Bar's Chef Atul Kochhar to win the double accolade.

This March, Gopinathan and another Michelin star winner, Chef Sriram Aylur, traveled to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Coimbatore and Delhi to understand the changing food scene in India and learn how local cuisines, habits and thinking have evolved. And in April, Kochhar will host a three-night pop-up restaurant at the Bengaluru Ritz-Carlton.

They've come a long way. It has been only in the past two decades that Indian cuisine has curried favour in the world of fine dining. In 2001, Indian restaurants were recognised for the first time by the Michelin Guide with Chef Vineet Bhatia and Chef Atul Kochhar being awarded a star each for Tamarind and Zaika in the UK. Gopinathan, who grew up on a farm on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, considers himself fortunate to be part of the movement to modernise Indian food. According to Kochhar, it was Madhur Jaffrey who set the ball rolling in Britain. But the world is now open to Indian cuisine. Chef Sriram Aylur, who heads the Michelin-starred coastal Indian restaurant Quilon (pictured top right), credits globalisation for this change, while Gopinathan highlights the role of professional chefs in bringing a certain sophistication to the food.

Back home in the UK, Aylur has the advantage of serving Londoners "who're not afraid of spice". But Gopinathan has had to work on balancing flavours, ensuring that the spices do not overwhelm California's produce. And so he chooses to poach Californian lobster in a Western way with spiced butter, stock and herbs, but serves it with puffed black rice and a Kerala-style coconut sauce. "It's a very simple dish, but connects both sides of the world," he says.

For Indian food to be truly mainstream, Gopinathan believes Indian chefs need to simplify it. "Less is more. Recipes need not be complicated just for the sake of it," he says. Aylur has a counter view: "There is not enough documentation, not enough recognition of it as an art form. If you go to a culinary school in India, the first thing you're taught is classical French. Why isn't classical Indian cooking taught?" Pooh-poohing international awards as elitist, Aylur says Indians need to recognise their own. "There are many unsung heroes in India. We're the lucky ones who were at the right place at the right time," says the chef, who has retained his Michelin star at Quilon since 2008.

-Moeena Halim

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