Mix and Match

Posted on Back of House Dec 2008 - by Tandoori Magazine
Mix and Match

Head Chef of London’s Washington Mayfair Hotel may be Indian, but then how is he cooking a repertoire of European dishes? Tandoori finds out.

For starters there is home smoked duck breast served on rocket with sliced fresh plum, lamb cutlets served on buttered spinach and garlic mash with a shallot juice for mains, or Belgian style apple lattice with fresh cream for dessert.

Nothing special about those dishes, easily found in any brasserie-type establishment in London. Only, the difference here isn’t just that we are mentioning items from Madison’s, the Washington’s main restaurant, but the cooking comes at the hands of an Indian chef, Rajesh Rao, the hotel’s head chef.

“I know Indian cooking inside out, but then I also like to mix and match. The owners never wanted just an Indian restaurant, they wanted a restaurant with a multi-cuisine menu. To have an Indian restaurant, you need all the works, a tandoor and a dedicated Indian chef. I have a few Indian chefs, but not all of them are Indian. I’m not sure if I’d want to go down that way. It is always better to have a variety.”

Rao was born in Bombay and then lived in Delhi, before to London. Like so many chefs, he was inspired by what his mother was cooking in the kitchen, though Rao admits that he had a “typical Indian father”, in that he wanted him to become an engineer.

“I was never smart enough to do that,” quips Rao. So I would be around my mother and do a lot of cooking too, particularly with eggs although I did do a lot of experimenting as well.”

A course in hotel management followed on.

“The transition to continental food happened latter,” states Rao. “In India, a fair number of the staff comes from a hotel management background though they are not usually put into cooking because the heads of the various departments and HR know that when you learn Indian then you go abroad to America or to the UK. So they put people into cooking continental food. It takes a lot time to acclimatize because from the beginning you are used to spicy food so it’s a long transition, to get used to cooking mild food.

It was a three year Diploma course which I did. It covered every aspect of the hotel industry for the first year, and then in the second and third year you get to concentrate on what you want. That’s when I moved into the production of food.”

Rao then moved to London in 2000 to study at Le Cordon Bleu for a 10 month diploma course in classic French cuisine.

“It’s a very hands on type of course. One day you have a lecture on how to do things and the next day you do it yourself. It was a full-time course, I studied three days a week then worked here at the Washington in between. They liked my work and then they offered to get me my work permit. But when I commenced work here, I had to start from scratch again, because I came here as a student. But I rose through the ranks so I think I very much earned this position.”

In total, Rao currently oversees a kitchen team of 11 personnel.

So if someone wanted to cook multi-cuisine what does Rao suggest he do - is it just down to the training or is it a certain perspective or attitude one needs to adopt?

“You need to get the basics right first,” he adds. “If you are only into Asian food and you have only cooked Indian cuisine then it would be hard for you to want to cook multi-cuisine. Similarly if you asked a non-Indian person to cook Indian food, he would need to have the basics of the ingredients, spices and so on, right. So if you have an idea and you know what to do then it shouldn’t be a problem. Anybody could do, but you need to have the passion in the first place.”

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