Spanish chef, author and restaurateur Omar Allibhoy, who has won multiple awards, written several books, and has rocked YouTube with his recipes, is now in India with exquisite wine-paired dinners in both cities.
Six delicious Spanish tapas-style courses served at sit-down dinners at the stunning Sette Mara in Mumbai’s St Regis and Bengaluru’s Leela Palace. Crafted by Chef Omar Allibhoy, one of the UK’s most popular culinary sensations, and paired with exquisite Spanish, French, and Italian wines selected by the knowledgeable Nikhil Agarwal, CEO of the wine consultancy All Things Nice, these dinners are the talk of the town. Not least because the charismatic Chef Omar has been dubbed the ‘Antonio Banderas of cooking’.
We meet him a day after he’s arrived in Mumbai. He has already spent his first day exploring the city, looking at the local markets, sampling the kebabs at Bademiya’s at Colaba. How do the flavours compare with Indian fare in the UK? “There’s an incredible difference!” he exclaims, explaining, “In the UK, it’s decaf. It feels more artificial. I think more manufactured products are used, to be completely honest. Not a lot of fresh masalas are used as they are here.”
Owner of the very successful Tapas Revolution chain of restaurants across the UK, Chef Omar is all about the best ingredients worked with in a way that their inherent flavours stand out. Something that he learned early in life, cooking with his mother in the family kitchen, joining a restaurant at the age of 14, and later, when he spent three years working with the famous Ferran Adria at El Bulli, the number one restaurant in the world, before he moved to England.
Chef Omar arrived in the UK in 2008 to take over the reins at El Pirata Detapas in West London, quickly establishing it as one of London’s best tapas restaurants and garnering excellent reviews. He’s spent 17 years in the UK since then and has not only created his restaurants but taught at cookery schools and worked hard to change perceptions about Spanish cuisine, which, he says, was badly represented in the UK earlier.
Featured on several TV shows and author of best-selling Spanish cookbooks Tapas Revolution and Spanish Made Simple, Chef Omar also has a hugely popular YouTube channel ‘The Spanish Chef’, where he teaches viewers how to make Spanish food, which is “very natural, very tasty, and very easy to make” as he puts it. The Madrid-born chef is excited to bring this real Spanish cooking to Indian diners.
But, what about the desi penchant for spices? “I am trying to adapt as little as possible because I want to give you the traditional experience, I want to show you our flavours. For us, when you use too many spices, you are hiding the flavour of the ingredient behind the spices. In Spain, we let the ingredients shine and leave the cuisine very natural. We do have sauces, but they are very much in the same vein as pairing wine with food. For us, the sauces need to balance and add some value to the main ingredient,” he says.
But there’s one dish on his menu that, he feels will connect especially well with the Indian palate. “Spanish cuisine is heavily influenced by so many cuisines and cultures that have come through Spain throughout history. In the case of the lamb chop I’ve planned, it’s very Moorish, so it has spices.” In fact, according to him this main course will be a beautiful end, a showstopper, that will be the star of the meal, even though there’s dessert in the form of a ‘Torrija’ bread and butter pudding, with almond custard, coffee granita, and hazelnut ice-cream, after.
They’re traditional tastes but with a contemporary twist. For example, he’s doing a slow-cooked egg with Iberico ham, but with a truffled potato parmentier, that should balance well with a Rioja white. And his modern take on the classic paella which will be served with a glass of Rhone Valley red reserve.
“I’m doing individual portions as opposed to a large paella pan. It’s a creamy shellfish (or artichoke for the vegetarians) paella. But creamy not in the Italian way where they put butter, double cream, parmesan… we make it creamy through the starch of the rice, the olive oil, the shellfish stock, which is slow-cooked and thick like a bisque,” he extols.
This dish is especially close to his heart, he divulges. “Paella is our go to dish. And my wife is from Valencia, the region where paella is from, so I’ve had to become an absolute expert to conquer her heart and the hearts of her family, as you can imagine!” chuckles the chef.
In fact, when we quiz him on any plans of doing a different type of restaurant in future, he quickly comes back with a great idea. He says, “If there’s somebody in India interested in backing me up, I would love to open a restaurant here. Something different. I think a paella restaurant would work very well because of the biryani connection. Paella accepts any flavours, vegetarian, vegan, fish, meat… I think it could be a good concept here. That would be phenomenal!” It would, indeed. After his two-city India tour, he will head back to England, where he will prep his team at the 12th Tapas Revolution restaurant that’s set to open in Bassingstoke soon.
He is exactly where he has always wanted to be. “I always wanted to be a chef all my life. I never wanted to be a football player or an astronaut or a superhero!” smiles the chef whose first memory was his mum cooking in the kitchen.
“Probably that was a very strong influence. And since I was a little kid, I would finish school, go back home, play football with my friends, and then my number one priority was to cook dinner with my mum. I cooked dinner all my life and that was what I wanted to do. It was the most entertaining part of my day. I feel lucky to have found that passion from my early years and I never wanted to change that,” he avers.
At the age of 21, he decided to learn English so he could travel the world and learn all the cuisines at the origins. And now, although he had to leave his wife and three children (the youngest only six months old) summering in Spain, he is happy that he can take Spanish cuisine to the world and, in the process, absorb some recipes from his travels to ignite his imagination.