Chef Mrinmoy has a prolific and distinguished profile that few can boast of. Being at the right place at the right time, he was worked with honchos of the culinary industry who have left behind a legacy, be it Chef Moshe, Chef Viraf Patel or Rahul Akerkar. The veteran has also proved his mettle in cult eateries of their time such as Indigo, Under the Over, Nagarjuna’s Touch and more. Currently, he is the Culinary Head of Ciclo Café in Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore and has developed a menu that can be healthy for cycling buffs but also goes all out with delicious, even sinful offerings. Here, Mrinmoy spills the beans on his experiences as a chef and shares some valuable tips…
How did your culinary journey begin?
Actually, I did not plan to get into cooking, I had pursued Hotel Management but used to hate the kitchen. After a brief service stint, I was sitting jobless and bumped into a friend of mine who put me on to Chef Dev Mallik at Under the Over in Peddar Road, one of the best continental restaurants in Bombay at that time. He turned out to be a very good and almost mentored me. That is how I started my journey in the kitchen. It is mostly thanks to him, I am still doing what I am doing.
What do you feel are the key things that you learnt at the initial stage of your career?
I got opportunities that nobody would ever give a newcomer. Whenever Chef Dev Mallik would make menus and new things, he would always involve me and take my opinions. That gave me a huge opportunity to learn at a very earlier stage. When he left for aboard, I got to run a kitchen for a year and a half at a very early stage of my career.
How did Indigo, which was a trendsetter of its time, happen?
Under the Over and Indigo were both Rahul Akerkar’s creation. When the latter was opening up, Chef Dev Mallik under came back and got me connected to Rahul. I think Indigo changed the resturanting culture in Bombay because after seeing its success, Olive and Rain came up. Before that, it was either a nightclub or a restaurant. Indigo in that way was almost a trendsetter.
It was. Could you tell me a little bit about your experience at Indigo because there are a lot of fans that would really love to know how it was back in the time?
I remember one incident during the first week, Rahul was walking around and looked very nervous. He was like ‘I do not know if this is going to work or not’ because it was a huge gamble. I still recollect the apprehension that he had about whether this is going to work because it took a good month or so to pick up.
In terms of ingredients, it was a huge learning experience, the first place where I got to know about balsamic vinegar. I got to learn a lot of techniques too as we had some really good chefs such as Chef Nitin Kulkarni and Chef Sai Viswanath who had come from New York. He was at the grill section and watching him work was almost like an opera. His station at 7 in the evening would look the same and at 12 in the night when he had fed almost 250 people. It was so clean, spick and span. He was one of the most stylish chefs I have worked with!
Even when it came to the kitchen, Indigo was among the trendiest at that point in time with its equipment and design. It was my first preopening and again came to me pretty early in my career. That way the restaurant more or less gave me everything that I needed eventually.
You also worked with Moshe, do tell us about that experience?
I was in Goa for a bit and I came back at a point when Chef Moshe was opening up a café in Bombay Gymkhana called ‘Moshe’s at the Bombay Gymkhana’. I got a chance to work with him which was great because of the way he was. Moshe was very clear about his business module and believed in opening up small places with multiple outlets unlike a lot of other people. His economics of business made more sense in Bombay. His technique and style of cooking were also very different. Being a Jew, his cooking had a lot of Middle Eastern influence which I learnt from him.
You have also worked with Chef Viraf Patel, another prominent name in the culinary world, do tell us about it…
Nagarjuna was opening a restaurant in Hyderabad, where Viraf, a friend of mine was heading the kitchen. He asked me if I was interested and I took it up. The good thing about him was that he had studied and worked abroad. To work under somebody like that is a completely different experience because of their style and international process. Viraf is an extremely talented guy and I got to learn a lot from him.
You also had opened up your own restaurant, how was the experience?
I always wanted to open my own place but did not have the money. Along with a friend of mine who put in most of the funds, I opened up a small restaurant in Bandra called the Table of Contents. I had to shut down in six months, as we lost a lot of money. It made me realise that I am never going to open up my own place again, it is not worth it. While everybody wants to open up a place, not everybody can do this. Being a chef is one thing and being a businessman is another. I do not have the business acumen as I am extremely passionate and one can’t be passionate and think about the logistics.
How did Ciclo Café come about?
Ashish (Ashish R Thadani – CEO Ciclo Cafe) had called me to revamp the menu of one of his restaurants. At that time, he was also running Ciclo in Chennai and wanted to expand. Ashish and Nidhi (his wife) were wonderful people to work with and I got along really well with them. For joining, I had the conditions that I won’t leave Bombay, the team will be mine and there would be no interference as far as the kitchen was concerned. To put out a good menu, you have to have a good team and fortunately for me, I have that.
Did you have a certain vision in mind while deciding on the menu?
The Ciclo menu is a contribution of everybody including Ashish and Nidhi. Nidhi is very knowledgeable and has helped me a lot in creating it. The menu is a combination of what all we like. For instance, I’m a Bengali and have put a prawn malai curry. The second thing we have done is although we are primarily a Western cuisine restaurant, we have also had a few Indian favourites which are typical of a certain region such as a mini version of vada pav, pav bhaji, chicken curry, Telangana mutton, etc. We have kept a little bit of Indian menu too because that is our food at the end of the day and it also draws in a whole family.
Further, we also try and do things a little differently, for instance, doing chicken wings that are boneless and onion rings which have got a stuffing inside. In terms of ingredients, we make sure that the Goan sauces come from Goa, vada pav masala from Bombay, gunpowder from Hyderabad and so forth. We also try and explore new ingredients.
Do you have any favourite ingredients?
Cumin and black pepper as it adds to everything. I am also saying from a point of view of our palate which leans towards a spicy cuisine. That is why there is always a complaint that pasta is bland! Pepper, cumin and green chilli are all great for flavouring.
In terms of dishes, do you have a certain preference?
I’m a crazy meat person. I love meats and I believe chicken is a vegetable. As far as enjoying coming up with new things, I like doing so with meat. I also consciously push myself to think about more vegetarian inventions as it is really difficult.
What do you think about food trends such as going vegan and gluten-free?
To be honest, I do not think anything of it. A couple of years back it was organic food which is gone and died up. I do not think any of these trends will get entertained too much in India. It won’t last.
Also, one bad thing happening due to Instagram is that food has become all about the show. There is a cartoon where a couple is sitting on the table and the guy is saying, ‘Get me whatever looks nice on Instagram’. There are a couple of places where food is entirely a drama. While it is good to have drama, the food should also be substantial. One thing that again died out was molecular gastronomy. I believe that everybody wants to eat something which they can envision when they go back home or at least make it. Food has to be relatable, you can’t make magic out of it.
When it comes to the taste, how can one make a regular food like dal more appealing?
If you are making dal, you should have a little bit of an experimental mind. Add something to it or make it a little differently. It could be any vegetable or chicken. For example, I tell my staff to cut some chicken and put it in the dal for me. A lot of times, we are stuck to a certain way of cooking and their own region.
What about the people who want to balance eating healthy and good food?
There is nothing like healthy food, that is the biggest misconception. Around 3-4 years back when I met Milind Soman, he said his favourite food is pork belly. Now that dish is 80 percent fat and 20 percent meat! I am just giving an incident, you need to have a balance of what you are eating. If you are gorging on pizza seven days a week, then it is not a good idea, but if you are somebody who exercises and works out and has a healthy meal, I think it is fine. It depends upon how much you eat and take care of your health. Eating outside all the time, even if it is dal and chawal is obviously unhealthy. Reason being, you are not aware of the quality of ingredients used.
What advice would you give when it comes to eating healthy to those pressed for time?
If you do not have the time or are not very good at cooking, the best thing to do is get some raw edible vegetables, wash them and cut them small. To this, add some salt, pepper and lemon and you have a fantastic meal. As I am mostly staying out and travelling, I do not eat out at all. I tell my staff to cut some carrots, cucumber and tomatoes and add some salt and lemon juice and I just have that. Rather than eating something from outside, this is a better option when one does not have the time.
The second option is that if you are a fruits person then just have them whole. You do not even have to be somebody who knows how to use the knife!
How do you keep fit?
I do not eat out, every night I am going back and mostly eating dal and chawal. My love for food is only the cooking part of it. Because my schedule is very haywire, I go to the gym or workout wherever I can, even if it is 15-20 minutes. I keep a pair of shoes in every city.
It is not just because I want to try and maintain myself but for exercising is like therapy as I am away from home and barely get to see my friends. It is like a meditation where for that one hour, I do not take my phone. It is not necessary to go to the gym, you can go for a walk or cycling.
Ciclo Café was set up with a vision to bring together members of the cycling community, increase awareness about cycling and foster cycling excellence in the community. It is all accompanied by world-class hospitality in the form of premium F&B services with international cuisines.