Farm-to-Table is one of the great innovations in the global culinary scene.
In India, One Chef who has been at the forefront of this innovation is Vaibhav Bhargava.
We caught up with him recently to learn more about his personal journey to chef stardom, his motivations and his latest foray as a food consultant.
Several years ago, on my birthday, after office, I had to go to a popular Japanese food restaurant to review a food workshop. The Chef was a rising star and it embodied the farm-to-table concept brazenly and before anyone started using the term as a catchphrase. The menu was purported to be the essence of seasonal with everything being grown and procured locally. Given that my birthday is in autumn, I was sure to experience a depth of creativity. I remember Futomaki Sushi Roll – oversized sushi rolls with salmon, tuna, tamago, crab and sakura denbu all stuffed together in one giant roll, Tuna Tartare – marinated and diced sashimi tuna with avocado, served on paper-thin cucumber slivers with tobiko (caviar) and katsu mayo, and House Salad with zucchini ribbons, carrot ribbons, thin slivers of beet, bamboo shoot, bits of broccoli and palm heart tossed in karashi mustard, and with a generous sprinkle of roasted sesame seeds. Each item was delicately prepared so as to not lose its essence, in terms of flavour, texture, and aroma. I enjoyed the environment and prompt service. It all came together perfectly. Of course, this restaurant was Guppy by Ai, at Lodhi Colony, Delhi, and the Chef was none other than the lauded Vaibhav Bhargava.
Since my initial Guppy experience, I’ve had the pleasure of dining at all the restaurants in Delhi-NCR Chef Vaibhav worked for – Pan Asian, The Drunken Botanist, Vietnom, Mic Drop, and more. Meals with Vaibhav always include the unique and unexpected. Menus often include dishes rooted in multiple cultures and regions. Vaibhav takes pride in being a member of the Indian Culinary Forum, along with the World Association of Chef’s Societies. He did his summer training at NOMA restaurant in Denmark, wherein he got a chance to work alongside the world’s most famous chef Rene Redzepi. He was also a part of the Young Chef Association for Sustainable India and Slow Food Chef Alliance. However, Vaibhav came into the limelight in 2016, when he represented India at Slow Food International Summit and helped raise charity funds by cooking alongside chefs from 150 countries. Vaibhav has earned several recognitions and awards – both nationally and globally.
Earlier this month I was able to chat with Vaibhav, and he told me about his new role as Consultant, his inspirations and aspirations, and what drives him to create every day. Read on!
Pritisha Borthakur (PB): How did you end up deciding that you wanted to pursue cooking as a career?
Vaibhav Bhargava (Vaibhav): I was born and bought up in Old Delhi, the food capital of Delhi. Since my childhood, I have eaten only the best food available around the corner. My grandmother was a fantastic home cook and she used to stay with us. I remember her different creations that were so hearty and full of flavours. Later when I joined hotel management and finished my training, I decided to pursue cooking as it was going to give me an opportunity to express myself through creativity and innovation.
Food is closely intertwined with cultures. All the different foods that are available from all over the world and how people often pass down family recipes from one person to another were also some moving factors that gave me the push to venture into this industry.
PB: Give us some insights into a Chef’s life for the people who aspire to become a Chef?
Vaibhav: Chef’s life actually looks very glamorous from the outside, all thanks to social media and TV channels! However the reality is very different and demanding. A chef’s lifestyle requires an input of 12-15 hours and massive commitment in the workplace. It includes administrative tasks, such as creating new menus, maintaining paper work, keeping inventory records, engagement with the customers and new clients, and above all team management. A very important factor required to become a chef is right attitude.
You have to sacrifice a lot in personal life when you choose to become a chef as you won’t be able to celebrate festivals with your family because you will be cooking for the guests at that time but on the other hand it’s a passionate profession where you get a chance to bring smile on others’ faces through your food and creations.
PB: What’s your philosophy when it comes it food?
Vaibhav: My philosophy for food is very easy – keep it simple, fresh, and tasty by using local sustainable ingredients and creating a melody with a visually appealing presentation. It should be an experience to remember for the guest. I don’t waste food; wasting it is like wasting one of the most precious things given by God to us.
PB: What inspires you? How do you come up with ideas for the dishes?
Vaibhav: The way food has connected all of us and the way it is cooked in different parts of the world always made me curious. The way different foods react in different chemical composition with flavours inspires me to create and experiment with it. I am an avid reader and I like to research about different styles of cooking, the local and seasonal ingredients, and taste and flavours enjoyed in which region. Architecture, people, and staples – they inspire me.
I love to travel a lot and that helped me a lot to recreate the dishes which I experienced during my travel .I love to create dishes from ingredients which are seasonal and naturally produced.
PB: You are known for practising the farm to table concept religiously. Is it what you learnt at NOMA? What is the response in India? Do you think this concept is mass-friendly or targeted towards a niche crowd?
Vaibhav: Yes, NOMA was an eye-opener for me as they promote local Nordic cuisine to the world and showcase farm-to-table concept.
When I came back from NOMA after my training, I started working on the concept in 2011, and slowly and gradually tried to explain to my guests about the importance of farm-to-fork concept. It became an instant hit. Now with more and more local farms coming up in recent years, it has become easier for chefs to promote local ingredients and sustainability.
I would say, it was a niche product initially because it was new and unique, and many chefs were not practising this concept, but slowly over a period of time, in last two years, it has become mass-friendly. Everyone these days is trying to source the best food with local influence, and the benefit of course goes to the consumers!
PB: What’s your favourite dish on the menu and why?
Vaibhav: Sushi will always be my favourite. I love Japanese cuisine because of the flavors that can be played around with. It is well- balanced, healthy and hygienic.
PB: Do you have any vivid or memorable food experiences that impacted on you as a child or as a young chef?
Vaibhav: I remember going to Chandini Chowk in winters to have Daulat Ki Chat as a child and would be amazed every time the way it was made with natural ingredients.
PB: People you look up to for motivation?
Vaibhav: Hospitality industry is full of talented individuals who are working behind the kitchen, and I am very lucky that I got a chance to work with the finest chefs nationally and internationally. I was influenced with their strengths and I adopted their style and philosophies in my style too. I learnt from them, no matter how great one is but one should always remain grounded, be able to handle criticism, work together as a team.
There are a few names I would like to mention: Gordon Ramsay – he has always raised food standards generally through highlighting issues such as cleanliness and quality. He is tough and very hardworking. Another name that I can think of is Chef Manjit Gill. His creativity, ethos, and down-to-approach nature inspires me.
PB: Is there one place that you worked that was a breakthrough or life-changing moment?
Vaibhav: NOMA was a wonderful experience for me and I’ll cherish it for the rest of my life. NOMA instilled the passionate love of demonstrating culinary art in me.
PB: Your comfort food?
Vaibhav: Home-cooked; it will always remain my comfort food and of course with change of season new things add up but anything that’s home cooked is comfort for me.
PB: Is there anything that you won’t cook with, that you dislike?
Vaibhav: No, food is a universal voice and I wouldn’t want to detach myself from anything that holds me back from learning new recipes, understanding new flavours, and taste.
PB: What are your signature dishes?
Vaibhav: Every recipe is like a newborn baby and close to my heart, so it’s very difficult to say or choose signature dishes but serving my signature Sushi Rolls to legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar is an experience close to my heart.
PB: Who cooks at home? What do you usually eat at home – from breakfast to dinner?
Vaibhav: Since we are under this Covid lockdown, there are days when I cook, some days my wife cooks, and there are days when my son is experimenting too in the kitchen with me.
My morning starts with Turmeric Water, followed by Porridge, Poha or Cheela; lunch is Veggies and Dal mostly; evenings I prepare whatever the family wishes to eat; and dinner is usually Dal, Roti, Subzi.
PB: What do you like to do outside of the kitchen?
Vaibhav: I like to read. Reading helps me develop my vocabulary. Even if my dictionary isn’t nearby, I can still guess the definition of unfamiliar words. I love to keep myself fit and try to devote time to the gym. I also love to travel and eat around the world.
PB: If you were to open a new restaurant, what style of food would you pick and where would you want it to be located?
Vaibhav: It’s a dream for every chef to open their own restaurant. I would like to reflect my philosophy of food in my restaurant where food will be versatile and has no boundaries, and will showcase ingredients as heroes.
The location I would consider would be somewhere in the heart of the Capital city, like Connaught Place or South Ex.
PB: You’re now a Food Consultant. Name few projects close to your heart. Also, why the switch from being a full-time chef to a consultant?
Vaibhav: Mic Drop and Takashi were my recent projects which were completed before the lockdown. The food was done after a lot of thought process, keeping in mind the segment of people targeted. Felt really good to see guests appreciating our food.
It’s been a long journey of 18years and I realised that many people want to enter in this industry but they don’t have right expertise. I am now providing 360-degree services to many such enthusiastic entrepreneurs who want to enter the restaurant business.
Secondly, it gives a lot of freedom to do things which are different and creative to build a brand. I am enjoying this new role of my life where I get a chance to travel, spend time with family, and create brands under my expertise.
PB: The dining scene is changing and will be going through a makeover in terms of hygiene and social distancing. What are your thoughts on it and how are you preparing for the change?
Vaibhav: This change is inevitable and I am working with other business chains to bring some new and more interesting options keeping health as our top priority. Physical distancing is a part of the new normal, food trucks with take-away and delivery services too might start again soon!
PB: Your success mantra
Vaibhav: Great things never came from comfort zones. Keep the right attitude and work hard with honesty. Success will definitely come once you know your goals and objectives.
PB: Do you have any tips for budding chefs or restaurateurs?
Vaibhav: Never shy away from experimenting, shape up your life according to what fits the best for you.
In order to learn, you make mistakes, and of course you will make mistakes, but what you can’t do is make the same mistake every-time.
I would just suggest all upcoming chefs be patient and learn the basics, take ample amount of time but learn! There is no shortcut to success and everything takes its own time. Don’t lose yourself in the process.