The Young Gun

Posted on Back of House Sep 2010 - by Tandoori Magazine
The Young Gun

Jitin Joshi, executive chef of Benares and Vatika, has been hailed as the most talented young Indian chef working in the UK today. He talks to Humayun Hussain

There is something quite sharp and alert about Jitin Joshi. One might even say that at times he’s overly serious. But then you’d need to be if you are as passionate, ambitious and deeply immersed in cooking which simply couldn’t be pulled off without skill and precision.

Besides, there is a tremendous amount of responsibility to shoulder when you are working for the country’s most high profile Indian uber-chef Atul Kochhar, who of course owns Benares and Vatika, and where the outstandingly talented, as many consider him to be, Jitin Joshi holds fort as their executive chef.

When we meet amidst the Michelin-starred splendour of Benares, Joshi is still quite chuffed at having recently won the coveted Best Ethnic Chef of the Year award from the prestigious Craft Guild of Chefs.

“I was absolutely thrilled at receiving the award,” he says with gusto, “specially when you are on stage with the greats of the culinary world. I’m also very grateful to chef Cyrus Todiwala for having nominated me.”

Though Joshi is universally admired by everyone in the restaurant industry, there is no closer working relationship or mutual admiration than with his employer, Kochhar. Yet, when I speak to Kochhar later myself, he readily admits that theirs isn’t just a polite everyday employer-employee relationship. He says of Joshi: “He’s like a friend, he’s a brother and yes, a colleague, but he’s also like a son to me.”

Born in Nainital, in northern India, into a staunch Brahmin family, Joshi’s father was in the army so they moved around a lot. Once he’d finished his schooling, Joshi chose medicine as his calling so he could become a doctor. But that didn’t get him very far.

“Somewhat aimlessly,” he admits, “I then started studying agriculture and even though I was getting good grades, my heart just wasn’t in it. So out of the blue, I sat for a hotel management catering college exam which I passed. Then having graduated from the Institute of Hotel Management in Ahmedabad, I think I pretty much knew what I wanted to do in life.”

But I wondered if there was any one link or thought process that made Joshi become a chef?

“I can’t honestly put my finger on it,” he states. “Even though to this day I ring my mother up to get some recipes, I can’t say that I was particularly inspired by her or my grandmother’s cooking enough to enter the world of food. I put it down to destiny. The funny thing is that at the back of my mind I still wonder what it must have been like if I’d become a doctor.”

After three years in food production, in Ahmadabad, Joshi was about to step-up as one of just 15 students from around the country to have been selected by The Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development, in New Delhi. Two years later, having learnt the various facets of the kitchen, he topped the class with a gold medal.

A transfer to the Oberoi’s flagship Rajvilas was Joshi’s next call. At the same time, he was getting wind of how well Indian chefs were doing in the UK, with Michelin stars being handed out to Kochhar and Vineet Bhatia. So Joshi decided to make an exploratory trip to London.

“It was quite eye-opening,” he notes, “to see successful Indian restaurants operating as standalone operations compared to the hotel-based restaurants in India. Also, it was fascinating to discover some of the ingredients that I’d seen photos of and read about in magazines and books in India, in their actual form. At the time, I applied to various restaurants here for work opportunities, both Indian and non-Indian because for the latter, I was already cooking European food at the Rajvilas.”

Though Joshi met with Kocchar and other chefs, there were no firm offers from anywhere and he decided to return to India. Then one day Joshi received an email from the HR department at London’s Michelin starred Capital Hotel, offering him a post under the hotel’s famed restaurant chef Eric Chavot.

“I joined Chavot as the chef de partie,” says Joshi. “The standards in the kitchen were at such a superior level that I was quite shocked. I had to be very careful in the way I worked as well and it wasn’t all plain sailing either because I did get ticked off a few times, but it was such a learning curve. I was always very inquisitive and asked a lot of questions.”

Promoted to junior sous chef, after a two-year stint at the Capital, Joshi moved on to work in the kitchens of a friend of Chavot’s, Pascal Proyart, at his renowned One-O-One fish restaurant. It was all proving to be very good experience under Joshi’s belt. A year later, Joshi left to work at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant as a pastry chef, but then things came to a natural end and Joshi was fielding a couple of job offers from India, ready to return.

Then a chance meeting with Kochhar followed at the Taste of London of London event in 2006 which changed everything. The masterchef offered Joshi the post of executive chef at Benares and subsequently at Vatika which the young gun accepted.

“I was adamant that it would be London’s loss if Joshi left to go back to India,” says Kochhar. “I actually knew very little about his skills. What I did know was that he had an over-riding passion for food and that was enough for me. I had my agenda to move on with various projects and I knew I could entrust him with that.”

Certainly, one of these projects was Vatika. If Benares is inherently commercial and offers ultra-sophisticated Indian cooking with a modern British twist, Vatika is quite the opposite. Set in a picturesque vineyard in Hampshire, the cutting-edge food here is essentially modern British but with a subtle tinge of Indian. The cooking – starting with different flavoured salts served with bread to supremely delicate desserts - takes the concept of two main ingredients per dish and is so refined and so skillfully rendered, culminating in almost everything that Joshi has learnt so far in his career, that it’s hard to imagine the restaurant without him.

“There are times,” notes Joshi, “particularly at Vatika, when there are no hints of a dish being Indian. But my perspective on it is that if it ticks all the right boxes such as the right flavour and texture, combined with well-matched ingredients and a certain wow factor then it really doesn’t even have to be Indian. I have a strength is being able to marry European and Indian flavours together, but ultimately, my cooking is about three basic factors: ingredients, cooking technique and spicing.”

I ask Joshi what drives him as a chef.

“The huge kick I get out of doing what I do. Not only is each and every day different, but so is each service. It’s tremendously exciting and keeps me on my toes.”

Citing The French Laundry in California, as the restaurant where he’s had his most memorable meal and taking inspiration from such global culinary giants as the Laundry’s chef, Thomas Keller and other such as El Bulli, Joshi gives the following advice to any budding young chef: “Your quest for knowledge should never stop. You should read and ask questions, and tirelessly push on because the more you do the more you will learn.”

Asked if he would like to open his own restaurant in the near future, he says, “Probably not. I have a lot of freedom and flexibility under Atul. In any case, the moment you open your own restaurant, making money becomes the prime driver and you stray from having a creative focus.”

When I put to Kochhar how he sees Joshi’s future, he replies:

“I want for him what any father would want for his son, to do better than him.”

Benares Sample menu

Jal Tarang
seared Scottish scallops, chilled soup
Karara kekda
crisp soft shell crab salad and steamed wonton, apple and peanut salad
Thandi Achari Jal Murgh
pickled duck terrine, orange jelly and smoked magret

Tawa Jhingha
grilled tiger prawns, wok tossed asparagus and spring onion
Mongsho Ghugni

lamb three ways, peppered humus and Punjabi chickpeas
Hiran ki Boti
roasted roe deer fillet, fat chips and coriander salt

Clove macerated pineapple with elderflower granite
Stawberry jelly with black pepper yoghurt parfait
White chocolate Bavarian with guava gele

What the critics say about Benares:

“We lost all reason on the side dishes — it’s hard to resist naan breads filled with cheese, stir-fired peppers and leek, and steamed broccoli with courgette in a masala sauce.”
                     The Evening Standard  

“One ends up just slightly surprised by how delicious it is, and consistently so too. Even the coffee (served with distinctly un-Indian sweetmeats) is decent. For an Indian restaurant, that must surely make it pretty much unique".

“Service is professional and the small bar area dispenses knockout cocktails such as sour cherry margaritas to go with a menu of grazing platters.”
                    Square Meal

Vatika SampleMenu

courgette cannelloni, ginger jelly, sun dried tomato jam
Crab_Mango (£2.00 Supplement)
crisp soft shell crab, puffed rice salad, mango gel
tandoor breasts, vanilla beetroot, 8 y.o. balsamic

Sea Bass_Peas
pan fried bass, cumin mushy peas, coconut reduction
tandoori breast, tikka masala peppers, roasted onion sauce
24hour shoulder, spinach gnocchi, mint yoghurt

apple bavaroise, fennel muffin, sambuca sorbet
steamed mango yoghurt, almond fritters, basil sorbet
steamed coconut pudding, lemongrass jelly, water chestnut

What the critics say about Vatika:

“Towards the end of the meal, we were struggling to find something not to like, so flawless was the food and its delivery.”
                   The Independent

“You realise this place takes itself seriously... my concerns are blown away by the main courses... it does much brilliantly.”
                   The Daily Telegraph

“Refreshing desserts provide a western take on Indian classics, witness a dazzling chilled mango soup with sago risotto and cacao wafers.”
                   Square Meal

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