raj kachori is sacrosanct. It takes skill, confidence and creativity to experience this beloved street food. Chef Manav Tuli has all three in good measure. He is the head chef at Hong Kong-based restaurant CHAAT, which received its first Michelin star last month.
Typically, raj kachori is a messy affair of chutneys and toppings. It wouldn’t have worked in his Haldiram-avatar for a gourmet restaurant like CHAAT, located in the luxury Rosewood property in Hong Kong. Tuli had to be innovative. He noticed that diners spent several minutes taking photos of the food before digging in. And, cats are consumed as soon as they are served in India. For his version of raj kachori— to please Instagrammers and Hong Kong diners alike — he tweaked the aesthetic while making sure it didn’t get soggy. Instead of stacking them with chutneys, they are served on the side and the shell is crispier to withstand a long photo shoot. It was experiences like these, and many more – marinating foie gras with tamarind and kokum chutney – that made him a top chef in Hong Kong.
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Tuli, who turned 40 today, spent the early days of his career with the Oberoi group in Udaivilas in Rajasthan, and oscillated between Delhi and Mumbai. In fact, the lowest point of his career was the night spent at the Trident in Mumbai during the 11/26 terrorist attack. “It was a really bad time,” he shares. In 2011, he landed a job at the glamorous fine-dining restaurant Chutney Mary in London. In 2018, he joined Tamarind in London which had a Michelin star. In 2019, he moved to Rosewood in Hong Kong and opened CHAAT the following year. In an interview with Salonhe unpacks what it takes to create dishes worthy of Michelin.
Tell me about your background.
I was good for nothing growing up. In my class 12 board exams, I was first from last in my city, even though the marks were not low. It was a disaster for my family; as if someone had died in my house. My dad thought the best career path for me was to open a cement plant. I was born in Bhilai which is famous for Bhilai street factory and grew up in the adjacent town named Durg in Chattisgarh. My neighbor who was a civil contractor offered me a job saying that if I took the logistics of the cement company, I could one day run a store. My first job was to build the staircase of the BSNL building in Durg with a monthly salary of ₹ 1000. I didn’t expect anything good to turn up then. But, in my 12th standard, I had filled out a hotel management form at the suggestion of a friend who said that working for hotels meant traveling to exotic places and meeting movie stars.
Till date, I don’t know how I passed the hotel management entrance exam. When the results were known, I decided to choose a university as far from my home as possible. It was the Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology in Kovalam.
Why and when did you decide to be a chef?
Growing up, the one thing I remember clearly was liking food, eating, not cooking. The motivation to be a chef at the university was khaana toh achaa millega (at least the food will be good). There was no five-year plan, and I took it one day at a time. I had good teachers along the way. At the hotel college, we had a teacher named Ranjit Pillai who handed out a brochure with the names of Michelin starred chefs like Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. He said if we ever wanted to do anything in life, these were the guys we had to look up to. It instilled in me the dream of one day working for a Michelin starred chef.
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And, you worked at Tamarind in London, followed by CHAAT, and both got Michelin stars. How did it happen?
You’re talking to a guy who failed half his life (laughs). I thought about working with someone who has a Michelin star, I never tried to win one. But when I went to London, I thought maybe that was a possibility, because I had the right teachers (so to speak). I learned to maintain consistency, quality and execute food on a different level. Chef Karunesh Khanna of Tamarind would never let go of his standards. With Tamarind, the emphasis was on “lighter Indian dishes”. I wasn’t sure how to deliver this because my learning was rooted in traditional Indian cuisine. Chef Karunesh was familiar with ‘lighter’ Indian cuisine. In the butter chicken, for example, he used more tomatoes than butter; in look for kebab, the butter (ghee) was replaced by olive oil. His menu was ahead of its time.
How did you target street food for CHAAT?
In Hong Kong, nobody focused on street food from India, and I wanted to do something different. The management of Rosewood, owner of CHAAT, asked me what I could create for them. CEO Sonia Cheng said she wanted this Indian restaurant to be the best in town. There was that pressure, combined with the knowledge that the food would be served to Indians who know the kitchen, and every dish had to be beautifully presented. I had to deliver something that was fun, bursting with flavor and could be refined for an ultra luxurious experience. That’s why I chose street food with dishes from all over India, and refined each dish.
How did you polish it?
So I already told you about raj kachori. Another example is the samoussa cones. It is inspired by patti Hyderabadi samoussa whose coating is like free leaves. We make a cone with the leaf, bake it, then stuff it with kheema. Then we have the foie gras biryani, eton strawberry shrikhand mess, and more.
Impossible to win a Michelin without a solid team. Tell me about your team.
I’m lucky to have a great team, always. My kitchen has boys from India and Nepal. They’re not a young team—my tandoor guy is 45—but they’re young at heart and eager to learn. With the exception of my sous chef who worked at a restaurant in Gordon Ramsay, none of them got the right exposure and I had to train them. During the interview process, the only question I asked was what they would cook for their idol, be it their favorite politician or their favorite movie star. Each time I got the standard response; butter chicken, Palak Paneer Where dal makhni. Then I would follow up the question with, wouldn’t they want to give them something more. Those who said they would go the extra mile are now part of my team. To win a Michelin, each member of the team must work as if they were aiming for it. The best part is that even if you don’t get the prize, you’re still happy with the team.
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