A Masterchef’s Decade Old Reign

Posted on Movers and Shakers Sep 2012 - by Tandoori Magazine
A Masterchef’s Decade Old Reign

Yogesh Datta is one of those people, who like to stay out of the limelight. He’d rather have his colleagues and business interests be the centre of attention. Luckily though, that’s looking unlikely. Datta is, after all, one of the finest Indian chefs in the UK and besides, he’s talking to yours truly because not only is there an informality between us, as I’ve known him for almost the whole time since he’s been in the UK, but also because he has a 10th anniversary to celebrate this year.

 

The celebrations being for the decade old Painted Heron, one of London’s elite, high-end Indian restaurants, based at an exclusive end of Chelsea. For Datta though, Heron could always have a higher profile. A sentiment not entirely unexpected for someone who is – along with the two Bangalore Express casual dining restaurants in the capital – its director and executive chef. Sure, the restaurant does well, but he wishes sometimes that it were just that bit better known. Clearly, those who have not quite sung Heron’s praises, are missing out on something uniquely different.

“Eyebrow raising”, “distinctly different” and “uniquely uplifting” are just some of the terms that the media have heaped upon Datta’s cooking at Heron.

But then one only has to take a peek at the menu to see why there are so pleasantly surprised: starters may include wild soft-shell crab fried in sesame and chilli batter or tandoori lamb chops with nutmeg flowers. Mains might feature spice crusted tuna steak with semolina upma and lentil curry or corn-fed chicken stuffed with pickled lime, in three bean curry red, broad and runner beans. Sides may be equally refreshing - watermelon in curry, leaf spinach with shitake  mushroom curry or smoked aubergine mash with paneer cheese. Not surprisingly, there’s no compromise on desserts either, which may range from passion fruit mousse with mango coulis to milk jam cheesecake with pistachio ice cream.

When queried as to how Indian cooking can justify encompassing such modern and even unusual flourishes, Datta replies: “The way I look at it is that however much my clientele may enjoy my cooking at Heron, they should always be given dishes that re a little different from the norm, have a ‘wow’ factor and include ingredients and combinations that are seasonal. I think to some extent, they should also be given something that is similar to what they are having at other restaurants, albeit European ones. After all, I don’t just see Indian restaurants as my competitors, but also non-Indian ones.

Datta may quietly be doing wonders at Heron, what occupies his mind currently though, is the anniversary of the restaurant’s beginnings. To mark the occasion, there’s even a set menu in place, which pairs quality wines with some of the establishment’s innovative dishes.

“Looking back,” says the masterchef, ‘the 10 years have gone by very fast. If one considers the general lifespan of restaurants, I never would have thought that Heron would last this long, particularly considering the somewhat off the beaten track location of our premises. So I’m so grateful and happy that the restaurant has such a huge and repeat clientele base.

Born in Shimla, a hill station in northern India, Datta states that whilst his father was a real connoisseur of food, it was his mother who did all the cooking at home and was very good at it too. Long before he even considered going into the culinary profession, Datta would often help his mother in the kitchen. Even today, he notes, that he will include certain dishes on Heron’s menu, which she used to make.

“It never actually dawned on me that I would ever become a professional chef,” admits Datta. “Like everyone else, I wanted to take up a white collar job. But when I did end up behind the front desk of a hotel training institute, in Delhi, I was bored and found the job to far from creative. I realized that a desk job just wasn’t for me!’

After about a year of shuffling papers, Datta decided that if he was going to progress in any way, he might as well do it through the kitchens as that was the quickest way to move up the ranks. Having always followed his instinct and passion, he adds that he could not have ever made a better decision and finally found his true calling. It may have been a slog, but a whole new world opened up for him and one which created a buzz for him throughout the three years he was there, particularly as he was learning the ways of preparing Continental cooking, which put him in good stead for the future.

His confidence levels soaring, Datta then got recruited by the Taj hotel group to be part of their launch team for the Taj Palace outpost. It was a three year stint and one which he says gave him the kind of skills, which, regardless of wherever he travelled, have stayed with him to this day. Following that, data embarked to Switzerland, learning to cook French food, before executing it in a more classical style at a hotel in Geneva, which he found “great fun”, despite the language barrier.

“It was in Geneva,” states Datta, “that I was approached by an entrepreneur to open an Indian restaurant, serving traditional north-Indian cooking. It was my first stab at preparing Indian food professionally. But two years later, I left to return to India before arriving in Dubai, in 1996, to join the Sheraton as executive chef, Indian.

He adds: “One of the perks of my profession is that you get to travel and travelling gives you a vision and widens your horizons. You get to see and learn about different cuisines. One also gets to meet people who are doing all kinds of things with food and if you are receptive and open to new ideas, techniques and ingredients, then you can absorb them. Ultimately, that makes you a better chef.

Two years later, via a contact in Dubai, Datta arrived in London, to work at Dockmaster’s House, which under him subsequently became Tabla. It was here that Datta gradually began to take charge and get to work his modernist magic on the cooking.

“I’d been there for three years,” he says, “before one of my regular customers, a businessman named Charles Hill, who lived locally in the Docklands, made me an offer and suggested that I come and have a look at a site in Chelsea, which of course became painted Heron. The proposition was very much to my liking because I knew that in this kind of a locality, my cooking would get a better showcase compared to Dockmaster’s, in the East End, and I would be serving a cosmopolitan clientele.”

The working relationship between Datta and Hill remains fruitful as the latter continues to back him whilst Datta has been able to exercise his freedom and elevate Indian food immeasurably. He’s also keen to acknowledge that he could not have done it without his right-hand kitchen duo at Heron – head chef Brahmanand Kaausil and sous chef Balam Singh.

As Heron has long become a Chelsea fixture – even though it took almost a year for business to pick up as Datta readily admits – it was Hill who suggested to him that they tackle the mid-range, casual dining Indian restaurant market with the launch of Bangalore Express. Initially, Datta was reluctant. Being used to fine dining operations, both in London and overseas, he felt he wouldn’t quite take to bulk cooking. But he also knew that as the menu would include a bevy of high street Indian favourites that the British public loves to lap up, he would do it better that anyone!

“Operationally, when we opened,” Datta notes, “it was a disaster because we just couldn’t cope with the huge influx of customers and we were completely caught off balance. The Waterloo site has such a heavy footfall, but we just couldn’t have predicted the sheer volume of people. The restaurant remains very busy to this day, whereas it isn’t quite the same with the branch in the City.”

I ask Datta if running two different restaurant concepts puts pressure on him.

“Yes, absolutely it does,” he confesses. “But the way I look at it is that whether it’s Painted Heron or Bangalore Express, my team and I have to provide value for money. The food costs that I bear at Express are far greater then what they should be, but then you can’t compromise on quality too much either. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have served something in the region of 600,000 customers to date.

Looking back, with further restaurant business plans, which he doesn’t want to divulge too much at this point, Datta says that despite having had to often get out of the kitchen and partake in operational duties in his current role, he’s enjoyed every minute.

“I’ve had the chance to be immensely creative, motivated and had a lot of freedom. Yes, the downside of what I do are the long and odd hours, but if your family backs you and you get used to your job, then I have no major concerns or regrets.”

 

 

Sample Menu

The Painted Heron

Starters

Baby squid broth with curry leaves

John dory fillets with gooseberry compote

Squab pigeon breasts in tamarind, grilled in tandoor

Mains

Black cod, spice roasted, in Malabari curry

Duck in Indian green curry with coriander, mint & cashewnuts

Guinea fowl supreme in karahi masala withchick peas & fried green chillies

Desserts

Walnut & chocolate brownie with coconut cream

Chocolate & pistachio fondant

Coconut sorbet

The Painted Heron, 112 Chene walk, London SW10 0DJ

 

Bangalore Express

Starters

Shrimp masala in mini dosa pancake

Chicken wings cooked with roasted spices,  served with onion fritters

Masala chickpeas on sweet coconut kulcha bread

Mains

Pakistani lamb shank in nihari curry with butter naan

South African bunny chow with curried lamb, peas & sweetcorn in a bread shell

Bengali chicken & okra curry

Desserts

Bangalore express sundae  

with fresh mango, strawberries, ice cream,

gulab jamun & chocolate sauce

The Bangalore Express, 1 Corbet Court, Gracechurt Street, London EC3V 0AT 

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