Mentored by the legendary Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent, Chef Pradeep Khullar has managed to chart his own, very interesting course in the world of modern Indian cuisine.
Chef Pradeep Khullar’s first successful experiment with progressive Indian cuisine happened when he made a tomato habanero chutney to complement soft-shell crabs, and presented it to his mentor, Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent.
Pradeep was part of the Indian Accent team in Delhi when it had just started introducing the wonders of modern Indian cuisine to a largely ignorant audience. However, despite having worked with Mehrotra before as a trainee, Pradeep was unsure of how his fastidious boss would react to the preparation. The hesitation stemmed from three reasons: One, being more inclined towards bulk cooking like most chefs, Pradeep used to struggle with the nuances and finesse that progressive cuisine demanded. Two, progressive food was an unknown entity back then with dishes like “makhni pastas” being passed off as “fusion food”. And three, Chef Mehrotra wasn’t one for long-drawn explanations if he didn’t like a dish — it was left to the young chefs under his wing to decipher the mistakes.
Therefore, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that Pradeep got Chef Mehrotra to taste his creation. Imagine his pleasant surprise, when the acclaimed chef, after trying the chutney, patted him on his back and said, “Mazaa aa gaya” (roughly translated as ‘it was great’). “The shot of confidence that comment gave me was indescribable,” laughs Pradeep who never looked back after that, going all out to turn typical Indian dishes on their head and give them a stylish makeover.
The initial tough grind stood Pradeep in good stead as he headed to Dubai to spread the essence of modern Indian food, first at a restaurant called Jodhpur and then at the swish Mint Leaf of London where he is the Executive Chef. Along with a new generation of young Indian chefs, Pradeep leads the trend of progressive food in Dubai, elevating traditional Indian cuisine to a whole new level that woos an informed, discerning audience comprising both the western expat and the global, well-heeled Indian.
Today, Mint Leaf of London is consistently ranked among the best Indian restaurants in Dubai and the credit largely goes to Pradeep’s inventive menus — paired with clever cocktails — that marry the best of Indian culinary heritage with western techniques and presentations.
And no, in his case, ‘modern’ does not mean making makhni pastas or gulab jamun brownies. Rather, it’s about traversing two diverse worlds of food, retaining the Indian soul and spices while treating it with global sass and flair.
I tried his latest experimentations the other day and was blown away by the sheer audacity and creativity in the menu. Take for instance, the Basil Cod Tikka — soft and juicy cod in garlic-flavoured basil marinade served with dill-flavoured sauce made of labaneh and Arabic cream cheese. Or the Pakchoy Chaat — gram flour batter-fried crispy pakchoy leaves mixed with fried lentil dumplings and topped up with sweet yoghurt, mint and tamarind chutney. It was a deliciously daring take on the humble chaat, the exploding flavours of which takes you straight to food heaven. Another must-try is the Robata Lamb Escalope Bowl and Pickled Onion — thin slices of melt-in-the-mouth marinated boneless meat cooked on robata and served with pickled onion, fried spinach and chilli raita on a bed of mini tawa roti. (If you are ever visiting Dubai this summer and crave Indian food with a Western touch, you now know where to go!)
What makes Pradeep’s menu unique is that he does not blindly fuse ingredients or go OTT with presentations and techniques in the name of progressive cuisine. On the contrary, every dish is painstakingly put together, a result of countless trials and errors in the kitchen until it hits the perfect sweet (or savoury) spot. Some of them are inspired by similar dishes in other restaurants or destinations. For example, Pradeep got the idea of using cod in an Indian dish after he had the famous Black Cod at Zuma in Dubai. “It was just so incredible, I wondered why not experiment with cod using Indian flavours.” A bit of Indian spices and grilling resulted in the afore-mentioned Basil Cod Tikka — a dish that was as delicious as it was innovative.
Not surprisingly, getting adept at progressive cuisine takes time, patience and skill, says Pradeep. But is it more challenging to cook something up in modernist style than say, a regular biryani or butter chicken?
“No,” he says. “The best way to judge an Indian restaurant is by ordering a dal makhni or butter chicken. Simple, traditional recipes but very difficult to get right and even more difficult to make in batches and keep the taste consistent. Progressive Indian cuisine, on the other hand, just gives you an extra dimension to work on.”
Pradeep has a different definition of what makes for a challenging dish. “It’s not the difficulty level,” he asserts, “The challenge is underlined by three parameters — to produce an item that tastes amazing, can be reproduced by the team and is well received by the diner.”
The third is undoubtedly the toughest. Convincing an audience that is still reluctant to move away from their culinary comfort zone is not easy. But unlike many other modern Indian chefs, Pradeep does not judge his audience. “My philosophy is that food has to be enjoyed so if a diner prefers to round off his meal with a dal-chawal or finds comfort in his roti, rice, onions and pickles, despite appreciating a high-concept dish from a modern menu, so be it!” That is precisely the reason why his menu at Mint Leaf of London offers the comfort of dal makhni or kulcha and rice along with the quixotic kaffir lime prawn or duck shammi kebab with peach compote.
A judicious mix of the old and the new will ensure that your restaurant attracts both the modernists and the purists, Pradeep reiterates. To keep the interest levels thriving, all a chef needs to do is be creative while consistently working on new concepts — a skill that requires years of practice.
Pradeep recalls being confounded by Chef Mehrotra’s process. “We would ask him countless questions to understand how he came up with a dish that had varied ingredients, used just the right temperature, techniques and textures. But he would not say anything. Upon probing a lot, he would simply advise us to keep at it until we get it right. Ho jayega, he would say.”
Today, it’s the same advice that Pradeep imparts to chefs under his tutelage. His own process is a bit of science, art and logic. “The actual cooking is the science, the menu preparation is logic as you have to balance it out using the correct textures, avoiding repetitions, deciding which dish should follow one another, etc. And the colours, textures and presentations are the art,” he says.
I ask him to name one dish from his many menus that could be counted as the perfect combination of these three elements. “I think it was the laban and ricotta kebab I made once at Jodhpur restaurant — it was beautifully crisp on the outside, cold from the centre and coated in smoked rose petals. It was undoubtedly one of my best creations, I am still very proud of it,” he says.
The passion is evident as he continues to conjure new recipes that bend, twist and overrule the diktats of Indian fare. The road may not be exactly smooth given the challenges in sourcing ingredients, the uncertainty of acceptance and the massive competition in a dynamic foodscape of Dubai but Pradeep believes progressive Indian food will go a long way. Giving it a fillip is the recent flood of international food guides like Michelin and Gault & Millau and the plethora of food shows, lists and awards nights. “These events and lists help shine the spotlight on Indian food. We meet, network, invite non-Indian chefs to taste our cuisine and they are all very receptive. It’s a wonderful community and gives us an opportunity to showcase Indian food in a different light. The future is definitely bright.”