Chefs who are taking traditional cuisine and reinventing it with a dose of creativity and a focus on quality are the new pioneers in the Indian food scene.
Delhi-based Chef Pawan Bisht is no exception.
We caught up with him recently to learn about his philosophy on promoting local food, his childhood memories, inspirations and much more
It was March, 2016, and I was standing, long after dark, in an unlit alley at a commercial shopping centre. There was a blank doorway and next to it a medium-sized, polished white plaque. It read “Junglee Bille”. I paused there for a moment. When I pushed through that door, I was hit by an adrenaline rush of noise: a babble of happy voices, overlaid by the clink of glass on glass, the rattle of the cocktail shaker, the sound of crockery carrying appetising delights, and all of it underscored by soothing instrumental medleys.
Atmosphere. Buzz. Food. These are the things most likely to bring us back to a restaurant, and it’s the thing I’ve missed most in lockdown. People who know me know my admiration for certain chefs – not because they cook fabulous but because of their dedication, success stories, and down-to-earth approach. Junglee Billee didn’t just give me a perfectly calculated emotional geometry of good food, drinks, music and service, but also introduced me to a chef extraordinary yet so humble and friendly –Pawan Bisht.
“Food is all about intense connections and sustaining relationships. Connections between tradition and modernisation. Relationships between senses – taste, smell, texture, emotions and the combination of all of those that transform the familiar into a whole new perspective on the importance of food. The linkage between the seasons and other elements of nature – they together produce a memorable gig,” Pawan said, during a candid conversation. And this stayed with me as if those were the golden words I wanted to hear from a chef.
In these times, when our world has shrunk to its essentials, and many of the pleasures we take for granted have been snatched away from us, I like to wallow in memories.
Every time I speak with Pawan, I cannot help but sense the emphasis he puts upon the connections between people that are so often facilitated through food. He artfully weaves his life and culinary experiences together, beginning with his Chhoi (Uttarakhand) upbringing in a farmer’s family, continuing through his time at the stoves of Sodabottle Openerwala, Olive group of restaurants, Junglee Billee, several food festivals, and finishing with his role as Corporate Chef, Research and Development Executive with a couple of restaurants namely, Verandah Delhi, Mango Bar and Kitchen, Verandah Handcrafted, and One8commune – Indian cricketer Virat Kohli’s venture.
Pawan, armed with a degree from IHM Mumbai, and carrying over 11 years of experience, has intensely driven to push the boundaries of what food can be, but for all his innovations he thinks of himself as an ordinary guy.
I spoke to this shy talented chef once again about his obsession with local ingredients, love for travelling, his major milestones, and why it’s important to preserve the past, be in the present, and yet prepare for the future. Read on!
Pritisha Borthakur (PB): How did you end up deciding that you wanted to pursue cooking as a career?
Pawan Bisht (Pawan): I am from a rural village Chhoi, in Nainital. My mother has seen quite a lot of changes in her kitchen. In the early years of her marriage, she would use the Desi Chula, then after few years she got kerosene stoves, which eventually converted into gober gas (cow dung gas setup), and finally into L.P.G. I had closely observed all the changes and felt no matter whatever cooking setups she used, the food tasted same – in a good way. I asked her once, how she manages to control all these changes and could still dish out the same tasty food. Her answer was, “You just need heat, as the medium of cooking hardly matters. If you could control the heat in any form, you could cook great food, too, and rest experience would make you an expert.”
This is how I found interest in cooking, by observing and learning. Also, I used to stay away from home for my studies, which means, I had to prepare food on my own. My friends were great morale boosters. They motivated me to experiment in the kitchen. Gradually after a few years I decided to pursue my hospitality career as I knew my heart was in cooking.
PB: Give us some insights into a Chef’s life for the people who aspire to become a Chef?
Pawan: Passion, hard work (physical and mental), focus, innovation, someone who is not afraid of failure but focuses on trying till the time you perfect it (work or life both), ready to take constructive criticism, and a clear thought process sums up a chef’s life. I believe that one should always be ready to accept challenges, disappointment, competition, and sometimes even failure, but never say “never”.
PB: What’s your philosophy when it comes it food?
Fresh, more greens, eat local, support local, and most important cook from the heart. From receiving of raw ingredients to the final dish on the table, always think that you will be eating that dish and see the outcome. I bet if you think in a similar way, from hygiene to cooking to plating, you will see a drastic change – in a positive way.
PB: What inspires you? How do you come up with ideas for the dishes in the restaurants you are associated with?
Pawan: Travel, explorations, experiments. If I fail, I try again, and that’s how I come up with new ideas.
I think I am a good listener and observer, so everything I see, hear, and feel around, inspires me. I belong to a farmer’s family. My dad and all the farmers in the world inspire me for the amount of hard work I put in. It is in my genes. Unconditional love and protection that any country’s army gives to its country inspires me. I have learnt dedication from weaver birds – how passionately they make nests for their loved ones. Co-operation and coordination from the ants. Vision, taking a risk, and hard work put by restaurateurs. Learned how to support and try to give 100 per cent in whatever scenario from my colleagues, both juniors and seniors. I think for a person who wants to learn, there is inspiration everywhere; you just have to observe.
PB: What’s your favourite dish on the menu and why?
Pawan: There are so many: Mushroom Cream Cheese and Truffle Oil Dimsum and Health Bowls at One8commune, Assorted Flavoured Appams and Sago Popcorns at Verandah, Tingmo Hotdogs at Mango Kitchen and Bar, are few of my signatures and favourites. Some are because of its outstanding taste, some have different travelling memories. Each dish has a story behind its creation.
PB: Do you have any vivid or memorable food experiences that impacted on you as a child or as a young chef?
Pawan: Every summer, we used to travel to the hills to our relatives’ place, in Uttarakhand. I was prone to altitude sickness at that point of time, not now though. The regional dishes of Uttarakhand are to die for. There was this plant called sisson/ bichoo ghas (stinging nettle). None of the kids would go near the plant as an elderly person told us that touching it would give one a painful itching sensation, which could last for a day, or more. One night I saw, my aunt and mother preparing Sisson(stinging nettle) ka saag , madua ( finger millet) ki roti and lasoon(garlic) ka namak. I was horrified and surprised! They made me eat it, and the entire night I couldn’t sleep thinking it would itch my stomach. However, I was all fine the next day and the altitude sickness was gone. This incident changed my thought towards food; that’s why I say, food can heal you. Choose the right eating habits, instead of depending on medicines.
PB: People you look up to for motivation?
Pawan: Every hard-working, dedicated, passionate person gives me motivation, irrespective of gender and age.
PB: So when you entered the restaurant industry, what were some things you wanted to achieve?
Pawan: Just wanted to learn and learn a lot, as the culinary world is an ocean of knowledge. The more you learn, the more you will sail; and the more you sail, the more world you will explore.
PB: What do you usually eat at home?
Pawan: Home-style food like lauki (bottle gourd), kaddu (pumpkin), baigan (brinjal), curd, chapatti, paratha, yellow lentil, and steamed rice.
PB: Do you have any tips from the kitchen that you’ve picked up that could be useful to home cooks?
Pawan: Hygiene matters a lot; you never know a small mistake can make a big blunder. Keep anything and everything related to food clean and hygienic.
PB: What do you like to do outside of the kitchen?
Pawan: I am a mountain boy and mountain lover, so whenever I get a chance I just drive towards the hills. Long drives are my thing, looking for street food joints and other kinds of small food joints for local flavours and feel. Researching and learning about my own cuisine (hidden and lost Uttarakhand local recipes) are a few of my hobbies.
PB: During the Corona outbreak, while many are wondering how to spend time, you’re utilising in a wonderful way by introducing farm to table concept of Uttarakhand local dishes, using traditional cooking methods. How did this idea strike your mind?
Pawan: I have been doing this for the last six years now, by hosting pop-ups in my restaurants, to promote Uttarakhand cuisine. Verandah’s menu features a few dishes from Uttarakhand. After a long time, probably after 10 years, I have got a chance to work closely in my home town, Chhoi. Uttarakhand cuisine is one of the healthiest cuisines in India, also known as Ayurvedic cuisine. I thought the lockdown period could be a great way to utilise my time and let people know the beautiful lesser-known cuisine of my state.
PB: Do you plan to introduce Uttarakhand traditional dishes offline as well, once things get back to normal?
Pawan: I will be opening a small restaurant in Delhi, offering delicious, healthy and presentable Uttarakhand delicacies. Waiting for the right time and funding.
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?
Pawan: As I have always said, hygiene is the first priority. We will be taking more care now. Will reduce seating capacity, and more focus would be on sanitization and all healthy practices required for keeping staff and guests safe.
PB: Your success mantra
Pawan: Hard work( don’t wish for it, work for it), passion, come out of the comfort zone, trust yourself, and ready to accept failure, learn from them and then rise again – for me these points will definitely make you a “Dark Horse”.
Sharing with you all the recipe of Pahadi Raita, from Chef Pawan Bisht’s kitchen. Try it out – it’s healthy and delicious at the same time!
Preparation:– 15 mins
Cooking:– 05 mins
Servings:- 2 portions
Peeled and grated pahadi cucumber: 1 cup
Hung curd: 1 cup
Roasted jakhya seeds: 1 teaspoon
Mustard seeds: 1 teaspoon
Roasted cumin seeds: 1 teaspoon
Fresh peeled garlic: 3-4 clove
Red chilli powder: 2 teaspoon
Turmeric powder: 2 teaspoon
Salt to taste
- Make a paste of mustard seeds, cumin seeds, garlic, red chilli powder, turmeric powder and salt.
- Take a mixing bowl. Add curd to it. Whisk well, add the paste, and mix properly.
- Now add the grated cucumber and mix well again. Adjust the seasoning and sprinkle roasted jakhya on top of the raita.
- Mix well and serve.