Have you ever experienced that feeling where you go to a restaurant and eat its food and the first thing you want to do is to go and give the chef a tight kiss? At the expense of sounding creepy, I have! Multiple times. And a lot of those times were at Elephant and Co gastropub. Known for its delicious and experimental cocktails, this bar has been one of my favourites since the time it opened its gates last year in May. From then till now, they have tried to experiment with a lot of dishes, bringing in fun elements such as serving teriyaki chicken in a bowl made out of a real pineapple. However, not all of them received the response they expected.
But luckily for them, since the past one month, all that everyone has been talking about is their food! When you go to a bar known for its cocktails and get to have interesting dishes on the menu such as Dosa Waffle with Chicken Chettinad or Ricotta, Spinach and Mushroom Lasagne, it does raise a question in your head. What changed? No points for guessing – they got a new chef! Yes, all the fun fusion food on the new menu is a brainchild of Sohini Bhattacharyya. We got in touch with Sohini to understand what made her such a passionate chef and to get an insight into her journey so far:
1) Tell us a little about yourself.
I am a Bengali who was born in Kolkata although I have been raised in Mumbai. I’ve pursued my hotel management degree from the Institute of Hotel Management (IHM) Aurangabad, after which I’ve worked at the Taj Group of Hotels, JW Marriot and Trident in Mumbai. I’ve worked at a Coffee Shop, a Bakery & Confectionery, and also a couple of Asian restaurants. But the most independent experience till date has been the one where I ran a cafe in Bandra for eight months.
2) How and when did you know that you wanted to become a chef?
I have always LOVED food! By the time I turned eleven, I could cook an entire meal – dal, chawal, roti, sabzi on my own. There was something about entering the kitchen that made me really happy and still does. So choosing this industry was never a decision which I needed to doubt. Chefs generally specialise in a particular cuisine. I was confused about which one to specialise in and as a matter of fact, I still am. But that’s only because I like to play around with different things. I don’t want to restrict my learning or passion by sticking to one particular cuisine because there can be no end to learning and I want to make the best out of it.
3) Is there some funny/memorable incident you’d like to share from the various places you have worked at?
Well, there are a lot of memories, both good and bad. But this one time I remember vividly is when I was working at the Trident. I had crazy working hours where my team and I would work for 18 hours straight. So clearly, we had no life apart from working. Incidentally, this was the time when Karan Khilnani worked with me. During one of our break shifts, we went out with the intention of getting haircuts but we ended up downing three beers each in the car and getting hammered. We really needed it! This was followed by a session of vada pavs because we thought they would help sober us up but it obviously didn’t help.
4) When you want to come up with new dishes and experiment with new combinations, where do you get your inspiration from?
After a long day’s work when I sit and relax, that is the most peaceful part of my day. That’s when most good ideas come to me. Apart from that, I read a lot of books. Instagram is another platform which helps me a lot in getting new ideas. The moment I see a picture of food with beautiful colours, it gets me thinking as to what new things I can do with my food. Then I go back to my roots and brainstorm to come up with concrete ideas.
5) You have come up with some innovative food combinations. Which one do you think is the weirdest or most unheard of out of the lot and still works really well with the customers?
I don’t think any of the combinations are weird. They’re different but that’s what makes them what they are. And more than the food itself, it’s the way it is presented. People have mutton with bhakri all the time; ‘Chettinad’ is an established flavour. But it’s about how we present the two dishes here at Elephant; that’s what makes them interesting and appealing.
6) Coming from a Bengali family, you have probably grown up eating good food all your life. Is that what inspired you to become a chef?
Yes, to an extent. I think my mother played a very important role in the whole process. She was the one who introduced me to all the good food. She would bake her own bread at home and make sandwiches for me. Sundays at home were all about stuffed roast chicken. She would make the simplest of things taste really, really good!
7) Which other food places have you tried in Pune? And which one is your favourite?
I honestly haven’t tried too many places yet because I have been around for a very short while. However, I have always been a fan of Zamu’s from the days I used to visit Pune earlier! Two places which I really want to try are Savya Rassa and Boteco.
8) Which is your favourite drink?
I like my drinks straight up! A glass of gin and tonic is my favourite.
9) Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Elephant and Co in five different cities and me managing all of the kitchens.
10) What is the one thing you are extremely particular about when working in the kitchen?
Hygiene! Also, when someone else cooks my dish, I like it if they manage to make it taste exactly how mine does.
11) What’s the best compliment you have got till date for your food?
Once a girl at Elephant stated that I should be called the ‘Chettinad Connoisseur from Calcutta’!
13) What’s the cheesiest thing anyone has ever said to you?
You’re my missing ingredient.
14) If the world was ending and there was one last dish you could before you died, what would it be?
I’d want an entire Bengali thali with fish curry, mutton curry, shukto, poshto, mishti doi and a lot of rice!
Good food definitely requires hard work and patience. But it’s people like Sohini who make it sound so simple! No wonder brilliant dishes come easily to her. I can’t wait to see what more she has in store for us! Can you?