As children, when we ate yummy food, not always did we give thought to what exactly has been put into a dish or the kind of effort that has gone into putting it together. That’s what made our next #Forker, Himanshu Saini, different than the other kids he grew up with! Coming from a family of Punjabi foodies, he would love to spend time in the kitchen and conjure up new dishes for his food-loving family. From the street food lanes of Chandi-Chowk to the Tresind in Dubai, where he works today, Chef Himanshu Saini stands at the fountainhead of progressive Indian cooking globally! All of 28, Himanshu currently heads this post-modernist Indian restaurant in Dubai. The two year-old restaurant is literally ‘reclaiming the Indian element in modern cuisine’.
Here is an excerpt from our conversation with him, discussing his career, risks that he took and the shocks that he had to bear through the journey where he discovered himself.
1. From your Delhi days to where you stand today, the journey has been quite a roller coaster ride. Tell us more about it and the thoughts that went through your head during that phase.
Life was going on regularly like anyone’s would after college graduation. I found a job where I was learning and understanding the way forward in the industry.
It all began in New Delhi one winter, with an international cook-off. I came across the form online and decided to fill it out. It came with some guidelines that said that we couldn’t bring our own cutlery, or any pre-cooked items, etc. I ardently followed the guidelines but, as fate would have it, I was the only one who did. I was really very nervous, which one of the judges noticed in the pre-interview and spoke to me about. She told me that she wanted to hire me, but couldn’t since the decision would solely be based on the results of the competition. Humbled by the words, I told her that I really wanted to win but the possibility seemed bleak, especially since all the other participants had broken competition guidelines, and thus were better prepared with their dish. She motivated me by saying that she had enough confidence in me and that I still had time to do whatever it took to beat the others.
I had only 500 rupees on me; I ran to the market and bought some additional ingredients. I had no money left, but I somehow managed to borrow some fancy cutlery from a store in CP. The owner of the store promised me that the plates would be mine for free if I won the contest. And fortunately, I did! Haha!
I stayed at my winning position of Head Chef at a New York restaurant Vermillion for 45 days after which I decided to leave. This was one of the most difficult and boldest decisions that I had to take in my life. Initially, I had chosen to go to New York because I thought I would explore more, know more. But instead of learning new things, I felt like I was going back. I also faced infrastructure and manpower issues.
After all this, I finally decided to move to Dubai and join Tresind.
2. So what is Tresind all about and what are the factors that differentiate it from other players in the industry?
Tresind is a modernist Indian restaurant, almost two years old now. We work on progressive Indian cuisine, as it is my area of expertise. We use different types of molecular gastronomy in our preparations. I feel like working at Tresind was what I was always supposed to do since I have always worked in a modern Indian setup. I love to observe and work around the connection that Dubai has with Eastern and Western cultures in terms of the variety and the kind of ingredients and equipment that are used. When I moved to Dubai, I was surprised by the high-quality products, advanced techniques and opportunities that were available there. The food industry in terms of quality was pretty much at par with New York, London or Chicago. And today, I can gladly say that I have been having a great time here, learning and creating new dishes every day!
3. Molecular gastronomy and progressive cuisine are the kinds of things new age chefs like you have been experimenting with. What newer food trends do you think the future holds?
To put it simply, molecular gastronomy is the science of food preparation. Many people, though, are not aware of the concept of molecular gastronomy, and restrict its understanding to just visual theatrics. But this is not true! Several things that we do not notice go into the dish and help enhance its taste and consistency. Many Indian dishes have been claimed by western chefs, but many Indian chefs have also started emerging in the scene in the past few years.
Modern Indian cuisine is already two decades old and was started in 1997 in London by Chef Vineet Bhatia. Since then, multiple restaurants have opened under that umbrella. So then we, at Tresind thought, what next? And we decided to focus on what is going to happen in the future! That is when we came up with the concept of Post Modern Indian cuisine.
We don’t say that it has more science or more molecular gastronomy. With post-modern, we are going way back in our history, culture and heritage. There are so many things that are very exciting but people are not aware of. There are many not-so popular dishes which are originally Indian but were popularised by the west. We are working towards claiming back those dishes!
3. You experiment with innovative combinations like khandvi sorbet and mishti doi cheesecake. 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 think nothing is weird! Otherwise, why would it work? Like I said, molecular gastronomy is a complex science of putting not just visual theatrics, but also different flavours together. Some of our most popular items have been the Mushroom Tea and the Chilli Hoisin Duck Kurchan.
4. Would you ever consider bringing a similar concept to India?
Well, as they say ‘never say never’. At the moment, though, I don’t think I will. There are so many bans on different food items, the quality of ingredients that are available isn’t that great either.
5. What is your personal favourite dish?
The wild Mushroom tea at Tresind.
6. If you were given a chance to go back to Delhi right now and spend 12 hours there, which are the specific foods you would like to go and eat?
Nothing better than home-cooked Rajma-chawal made by my mother, whenever I am in Delhi! However, I would also love to head to Rajendra Dhaba for its Chicken Curry, Darya Ganj for the crazy Pav Bhaji there and Lajpat Nagar for its lovely Chana Bhatura!
7. Tell us something about yourself that nobody knows.
I don’t know how to ride a motorbike. Haha!
8. When you are not in the kitchen cooking or coming up with new dishes, what other things do you like to do?
I like playing football on my play station and watching Manchester United matches.
Well, science and technology are definitely taking over our world and our lives. But with a look into the science of modern Indian cuisine, we think we can safely say that it has been taking over our food too! And this could’ve not been explained better by anybody but the lovely and bubbly Punjabi munda, Chef Himanshu! We wish him all the best for his future endeavours.