The head chef at Vivaanta on his love of fish, the myth that Indian restaurants ‘can’t do’ seafood – and his challenging encounter with a jellied eel
Tell us about your cooking
It’s very important to me to challenge people’s perceptions. There’s a great Indian cooking scene in Birmingham at the moment but I’m not interested in replicating what’s already here. I want to use the best produce available locally and then use traditional cooking techniques from South Indian to provide a really authentic taste experience. I’m really proud that everything we use in my restaurants is from the Birmingham wholesale market. I like to cook everything fresh and from scratch. Nothing is held over, nothing is pre-cooked because that’s what usually happens in most Indian restaurants. Seafood is my speciality. There’s a massive misconception that Indian restaurants can’t do seafood very well. Where I’m from, we’ve always eaten a lot of seafood so I’ve adapted those influences and created a menu where the food isn’t heavily spiced or over-spiced, so that customers can appreciate a range of flavours.
How did you become a chef?
Ask any Indian chef they’ll say home-cooking has always been their inspiration. I’m no different. My mother was very much an inspiration. Throughout college and university I was always excited about becoming a chef and although I worked part-time in restaurants, there’s nowhere in the Midlands where you can actually train to become an Indian chef. In the early Nineties I went travelling through India and the amazing experience I had of touring the country, getting a better feel for the nuances of flavours in different towns and cities really inspired me. I came back to the UK and set up my own restaurant in Aldridge more than 20 years ago and I’m still driven by the desire to change the view of Indian food.
What do you eat when at home?
I’m often so busy at work and running my business that I don’t often cook for myself, so I don’t really have a signature dish as such. But when I do cook, you won’t be surprised to know it’s usually seafood.
Who’s the best chef in the world and why? And the best in Brum?
In the world I’d have to say Gordon Ramsay due to his sheer presence and attitude. He doesn’t say or do anything he doesn’t want to. Two guys vie for the top slot here – Adam Stokes and Glyn Purnell. Birmingham is really on the map when it comes to the choice of superior restaurants, the city is so vibrant.
Is the customer always right?
Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not but what we always do at Vivaanta is treat our customers with love and respect.
Share a cooking tip
When you’re cooking seafood for the first time, don’t use too much oil or fats – avoid using any if you can – and make sure that your oven, grill or pan is hot enough before you start. Then it should be ready in 5 to 10 minutes.
What was your favourite food as a kid?
I grew up in the 1980s and was obsessed with fish finger sandwiches – with lots of tomato ketchup on.
Food heaven and food hell?
Heaven – full marks if you answered ‘seafood’. You’ll get a gold star if you said cooked seafood, because my hell is raw seafood. I can’t stand the texture of sushi!
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten?
Without knowing, I once ate jellied eel. I was tempted to spit it back out, but instead I respectfully chewed and swallowed that first mouthful. I couldn’t eat any more of it after that.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I’d probably be a food journalist because I love travelling. I’ve toured India and visited a lot of Europe. What I love most is visiting restaurants as well as lots of ‘real’ food places – you get a feel for what locals eat every day.
What do you recommend from this evening’s menu?
I couldn’t really recommend anything because our food is pretty much ‘bespoke’. Everything is locally sourced and freshly cooked to order.