Rajesh Bhardwaj brings his Michelin-awarded New York Indian restaurant to Dubai
Dubai’s population has long marched on a stomach filled with fantastic Indian food, but it’s the fine-dining end of the cuisine that has really boomed over the past few years, with big name openings all over the city. The latest to join the ranks is Junoon, New York’s Michelin-awarded restaurant, headed up by chef Vikas Khanna. Open now, it occupies a portion of Sheikh Zayed Road’s Shangri-La Hotel. We meet restauranteur Rajesh Bhardwaj, the man behind the move to the Middle East.
How did it all begin for Junoon? To get to Junoon, I have to give you a little history of what I did first. I started my first restaurant in New York in 1990. It was called Kality (‘quality with a “K”’ he laughs). It was a small restaurant, in an area that was more South Asia dominated. I think every country has a pocket where most immigrants end up. In New York, it’s a place called Jackson Heights. When I opened, I think it was the second or maybe third Indian restaurant there. Now, there is nothing but South Asian restaurants, dominating that area for a ten-15 block radius. As more Indians started dominating that area, I would find that my restaurant was maybe 70 percent Indians, 30 percent non-Indians. Eventually I thought, ‘I have come this far to America, my intention is not to just do Indian food, for Indians, I have to take it more mainstream’. So, in 1995 I decided to move to Manhattan, where all the action is in New York.
I always wanted to do Indian fine-dining, but when I did a little research, I felt the time was not yet right. Where was Indian food in America at the time? For some people it was hard to even pinpoint India on the map. People were not ready to pay fine-dining prices for Indian food, because they were not familiar with the cuisine.
Did this style of modern Indian restaurant already exist in New York at that time? There were two fine-dining Indian restaurants at the time, small, 80-seater restaurants. But actually, in today’s terms, these were only average Indian – that was the fine-dining standard at that point. So I decided to do something different. I thought, ‘How do we make Indian food more accessible, less intimidating?’ People view Indian food as spicy, and very different. How could we make it more inviting? I came up with a concept called Café Spice. It was more like bistro-Indian, rather than fine-dining. It was not an Indian-Indian restaurant. My approach was to make it have a broad appeal to the mainstream.
So how did you tailor it to the mainstream American market? I had an American designer to design the venue, there were non-Indians working there. It was still classic Indian food, but Indian cuisine is a cuisine of sharing. People order lots of dishes and like to share. But in the US, when most Americans dine out, they are all used to composed plates, and dining individually. So when I opened Café Spice, it was the first restaurant where I started doing composed plates, so the plate consisted of a complete meal by itself (main course, lentil of the day, vegetable of the day, naan bread, rice, salad). I don’t think anyone else has really done it, and I don’t know why because it was very successful. That was the USP back then. The restaurant diners were 98 percent American, two percent Indian.
How did the success of the bistro bring you closer to creating Junoon? By this time, India had come into its own. There had been lots of migration, crossovers between Hollywood and Bollywood. In the past 20 years, India has really risen in to an economic powerhouse. Today, if you look at the Fortune 500 companies, among the top five people you’ll find at least one Indian, a CEO, a CFO. With all this happening, I felt that the cuisine was lagging behind, and I really felt it was time to take this to the next level. To create a fine dining platform, for people to really celebrate Indian cuisine.
How did you put your ideas into action? I landed in New York, and I opened a restaurant. I had no training in this, but I used to eat out a lot. My wife used to complain about the credit card statements, but I used to say, ‘Well, this is like when you invest money in your college education, right?’ And I never used to eat in Indian restaurants. I wanted to see what other cuisines did differently, what made them successful. What was there that I could incorporate into a fine-dining concept? That was a learning curve. My wife said, ‘It was enough that you want to do one restaurant, it’s a lot of money, and a lot of savings, but now, you want to do a fine dining restaurant, which is more investment. And on top of that, Indian fine dining! What are you going to do that’s so different then?’ I thought that was a phenomenal question, it had never really crossed my mind what I wanted to adapt, and I really had to figure out what I really wanted to do.
How did you figure it out? I thought, I had to come with a mission statement. I wrote on the wall, ‘I want to open a restaurant that serves Indian food, not an Indian restaurant’. It gave me a framework within which to deconstruct, and then reconstruct the restaurant in my mind. I thought these Indian CEOs don’t actually want to go out for Indian food. I used to joke with them, ‘Why don’t you want to celebrate your own cuisine? How often do you close your million-dollar deal, and you want to blow ten thousand dollars in an Indian restaurant?’ You’d rather go to a restaurant like Per Se. They said to me, ‘Name one Indian restaurant where you can spend that kind of money!’ They wanted an Indian restaurant with all these international elements, like mixology, a great drinks list. So this was what I set about trying to construct.
When you finally launched Junoon, how did the menu differ from what already existed on the Indian restaurant scene? The menu has evolved over the years. When we started, the kitchen was all Indian. I wanted to make the food more appealing with modern techniques, but retain the same flavours. The Indian chefs focussed more on traditional processes. My GM had worked at Alain Ducasse. He said there were a few young and talented chefs working there, let me call them and see if they would like to come and work here. Forget about knowing Indian food, I think they had never even eaten Indian food. These chefs said, ‘We want to maintain our job with Ducasse, but we’ll come here three days a week, work a few hours in the kitchen and learn’. They really loved to play with the spices. They found it so interesting that two of them quit their job with Ducasse and came to work with me. I said to them, ‘When this chef does a plate of Indian food, I want you to use your vision of how you can develop this dish, but without losing the flavour profile, and without losing the traditions of the dish’. A very good example of this is a dish called duck telli chilli pepper. It’s a black pepper that comes from Kerala. My Indian chefs were cooking this dish as if they were making a chicken curry, and that is how it is cooked back home in India, but duck is different from chicken. This was one of the first dishes the new chefs changed. They smoked the duck breast in Indian spices such as clove and cinnamon, adding nice smoky flavours, and put the sauce on the side. You still had the traditional sauce. So it was fusion of technique, not of flavour.
After the success of Junoon in New York, which was awarded a Michelin star for its fine-dining Indian concept, what prompted you to open a second restaurant? Two years down the line with Junoon New York, we were already thinking of expanding. I really think there is not a single global Indian concept. Go to the moon, and you’ll find an Indian restaurant. They are everywhere. But a recognisable brand, with a certain style of service, ambience and so on? I thought fine-dining was a challenge, and maybe we should embark on a new journey and see if we can create a brand with Junoon; internationally, with a presence in ten or 12 top cities in the world, somewhere where you find tourism and cosmopolitan dining. So we were thinking, where next? We thought about Shanghai, London, and Paris. Different cities came to mind. So many people asked me, ‘Why not London?’, which seemed automatic. But I didn’t want to open in London with our second venture. First of all, it’s your first venture out, thousands of miles away, and then you go to the heartland of Indian food, where everyone knows Indian food… And in London, you also have all these chefs that are actually gunning for you (Rajesh chuckles).
So why was Dubai the right location for the second Junoon? I have been coming to Dubai for the past ten years for holidays. I have friends here, and on the way to India, I’d stop here for three or four days, and I’ve seen Dubai grow. It’s becoming a global city, a big trading centre, and it is trying to develop into a great tourist destination. It’s a multicultural city: you find a lot of Indians here, and expats of other nationalities as well. And Indian food is popular here, with the locals too. The other factor was, we have a big following from the local GCC population at Junoon in New York. It seemed like a no brainer to open a second outpost in Dubai. Junoon is now open at the Shangri-La Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 405 2717).