A Masterchef’s Decade Old Reign
Director and executive chef Yogesh Datta of The Painted Heron, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and Bangalore Express, talks to Humayun Hussain about his career and restaurants.
Newly refurbished and with a Michelin star to its name, Quilon is one of the UK's finest Indian restaurants. Its executive chef Sriram Aylur gives an in-depth interview to Humayun Hussain
Quilon is one of those London restaurants that give diners the "wow" factor. Owned by the Taj hotel group, it isn't just the UK's most upmarket south Indian restaurant with an emphasis on the region's coastal cooking – it’s probably the worlds. It helps too, of course, that the establishment has retained its Michelin star since 2008.
Like any restaurant worth noting, what makes it a place to be reckoned with is its executive chef, Sriram Aylur. When we speak, it’s just a few days after Quilon re-opened its doors and a few weeks before its official re-launch. He certainly appears to be his customary calm and collected self, but there’s no denying that he has an air of excitement about him. Why? Because after a period of closure, Quilon has welcomed in a complete redesign of its interior and seen a chunk of its menu changed.
Exciting times indeed for Aylur, who has steered the restaurant from a mere success story to one that is striving for new heights.
One look at the redesign and you realize what a vast improvement it is on the previous incarnation. Serene, with an understated elegance, dark grey tones are highlighted by splashes of amber, jade, green and blue fabrics. Atmospheric lighting puts emphasis on different areas of the restaurant. Intricately-patterned ‘jaali’ screens are finished off in bronze as they stand beside limestone-rendered walls and weathered timbers. The restaurant’s new bar – Q Bar at Quilon – comes with a bespoke feature candle wall with flickering tea lights reflecting the restaurant’s cultural origins.
A fabulous new look for sure, but one that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself.
Making no bones about the makeover, Aylur states: “Quilon opened over 12 years ago and like any place, signs of wear and tear were becoming obvious. One can’t let that happen to a restaurant which is renowned internationally. So I thought, high time we got a fresh new look.”
A revamp or even just being the master of his grand domain, all this is a far cry from Aylur’s early days in Mumbai, where he grew up and helped out in his father’s restaurant.
“My family originates from Kerala,” he says, “but growing up in Mumbai gave me an insight into the melting pot of different Indian cultures and how that can lead to cooking being so varied and adventurous. I was exposed to all kinds of regional Indian food and I found that to be tremendously exhilarating.”
The intention was that Aylur would only help his father for a couple of years as he studied to become a lawyer. But as it transpired, his father encouraged him to consider entering the world of food and hospitality, which he became quite receptive to. The next thing Aylur knew was that he ended up at the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, in Hyderabad. This was to be followed by Aylur gaining a post-graduate diploma in Mumbai.
“The best part of all that studying,” he recalls, “was that being on my own in a hostel allowed me a lot of freedom and independence. I was away from home, had no responsibilities and just felt that I was having the time of my life. But there was a lot of serious learning to be done too. Besides, you do not just understand the cooking side, you are picking up on everything from housekeeping to accounting and various other aspects.”
Surprisingly for Aylur, albeit in a positive way, the cooking methods which he was being taught were primarily western – from how the meat was cut to how the kitchen was organised. It was, as he puts it, very “disciplined” and very much a science, as opposed to the Indian cooking methods, which he found to be very much an art.
“Nevertheless,” he adds, “when my training was over, I was flirting with the idea of continuing my studies even further. Not because I’m some kind of a perpetual academic, but because I felt that Indian food required much more documenting and understanding, something that is consistently not done across India. I said to myself that perhaps I would work for a few years first and come back to it, but then I became so engrossed in following my career that time just passed me by.”
The question occurs though, what made Aylur focus on south Indian cuisine so specifically?
“Despite my family roots,” he says, “I have always been very much a ‘Bombay wallah’, and never felt that I had to specialise in any particular sector. But what I was seeing around me in India, was that people were gradually moving towards having lighter food and even more vegetarian and seafood cooking. So south Indian cooking, particularly from the coastal shores, ticked all the right boxes. I knew that the region offered far more than what most people perceive – nothing more than items such as idli, dosa and sambar. I wanted to just seize the opportunity.”
Recruited after a campus interview, Aylur went on to join the famed Taj group, where he initially took on the responsibility of the Gateway Hotel, in Bangalore, only to then be promoted a mere two years later to be the executive chef of the hotel. It was here that Aylur really came into his own and conceptualised what would be India’s defining south Indian restaurant, Karavali. Aylur readily says that Karavali was the most “serious” and “upmarket” attempt at launching a restaurant that had south Indian cooking at its heart, and it brought him much kudos. He eventually moved on to become the executive chef of the renowned Taj West End Hotel, in Bangalore, before coming to London and launching Quilon.
Contrary to what one might think, with the exception of the name and the then interior, Quilon had no particular brief that was set in stone.
“What the team heading the project and myself had concluded,” notes Aylur, “was that considering what our sister restaurant Bombay Brasserie – which served pan-Indian food with more than a hint of north-Indian influences – had achieved in the years since it opened, Quilon would do the same for south Indian cuisine. So there were a few things I set out to do. Firstly, that whatever is cooked, is authentic. Secondly, that whatever ingredients I use, whether perishable or non-perishable, will be the best possible, and thirdly, that I ensure that the dishes look presentable, but without taking away the essence of the dish being truly Indian. As I know when the spices are picked and harvested in India, I even ensure that they are imported from there, which we then grind ourselves.”
Accorded a Michelin star four years ago, did Aylur consciously strive to win it?
“No, I didn’t,” he says candidly. “But like so many chefs, of course I’d have liked a Michelin star. Yet, you know, what one can’t do is to be sidetracked in becoming too aware of what one should or shouldn’t be doing in order to gain a star. I wanted to stay absolutely focussed on what we were doing at Quilon and I believed that if we did it well, we may well win a star. Naturally, I was very happy to have won it.
People then asked me if I’d like a second Michelin star and again, I have to say that there’s nothing I’m doing too consciously to court it. That said, what I always aim to do is to raise our standards higher and higher. One has to ensure that the dining experience for our customers is enhanced as time goes by.”
Standout dishes on the Quilon menu include lotus stem and colocasia chop, coconut cream chicken, curry leaf and lentil-crusted fish, baked black cod, herb-crusted tilapia with mustard sauce, pan-fried duck breast with green pepper sauce and Mangalorean chicken. Even desserts have quite a modernist spin on them: there’s caramelised banana pudding with banana parfait, spiced chocolate and dark chocolate and hazelnut mousse, and last but not least, butternut squash pudding with rose petal ice cream.
As a result of Aylur’s increasingly elevated cooking at Quilon, he has also been accorded the duty of overseeing menu changes at Bombay Brasserie.
“You have to bear in mind,” he states, “that the Bombay Brasserie is an institution with a loyal following, so there’s a level of expectation on the part of the diners. What I’ve ended up doing is to bring back many of the dishes that were in the restaurant’s original menu, only they are more refined and made with high quality ingredients.”
When I ask Aylur if being a chef turned out to be everything he had hoped for, he replies: “I like to micro-manage things and be very involved in whatever I do. Even after so many years in the profession, I still do 16 hours a week, six days a week, sometimes seven days a week. I don’t think I even have time to analyse that question!”
Quilon Sample Menu
Oysters in onion shell dressed with lemon ginger chilli
Lobster with kokum and mango
Pink pepper chilli prawn
Stuffed quail legs
Hot vermicelli kheer
Bibinca and dodhol
Bombay Brasserie Sample Menu
Bhatti ka asparagus
Scallops on peppered crab
Dum ki nalli
Berries reduced milk pudding
Almond medjool date pudding
Mango fig ice cream