Interview: Vineet Bhatia on his UAE expansion

With two restaurants in Dubai, the chef talks about why he loves the UAE

Interview: Vineet Bhatia on his UAE expansion
Interview: Vineet Bhatia on his UAE expansion Image #2

The list of accolades and accomplishments goes on and on. Winning Michelin stars, opening restaurants around the globe, improving the food on some of the world’s leading airlines, writing recipe books, being given a role as a judge on Netflix’s The Final Table, and landing an upcoming stint as a judge on Masterchef India, Vineet Bhatia has done the lot. But he’s not finished yet.

The Indian chef is a pioneer. He is widely regarded as the man who brought high-end Indian food to the Western world. He won over his peers and critics after moving to London from his homeland in 1993, becoming the first Indian chef to look after a restaurant to win a Michelin star (in 2001 for Zaika in Chelsea). Three years later he opened Rasoi in the same area of London.

Despite his achievements, Bhatia is not a man to rest on his laurels. As well as opening Indya by Vineet at Le Royal Méridien in Dubai Marina earlier this year, he’s just launched Rasoi in Abu Dhabi, in Jumerah Etihad Towers.

“Opening in Abu Dhabi is really special for me,” he says. “In 1993 I stopped in Dubai on my way to London for the first time. I got food poisoning and thought – I’ll never come here!

“However, in 2004 I came back and a year later we opened Indego [in Dubai’s Grosvenor House], our first restaurant outside London. The UAE has been very special for us.

“Anyone can cook good food, you need to provide something extra to make it succesful.”

Despite being commited to providing something special for Abu Dhabi, Bhatia wants people to know Rasoi will be accessible, too.

He says: “You can’t put people off with high prices. People want value for money, Rasoi is for regular visits, not just special occasions.”

His food is all about quality produce – a common theme among restaurateurs of his calibre. “We want to get the best produce available and do as little to it as possible,” he says. “We have to have some local elements in each restaurant, too. So you’ll have zaatar, local fish and meats. The local flavours are important for the audience here. People need to be able to understand what we do, but there will still be classics we do everywhere.

“There is some crossover in cooking style and flavours across the Middle East and South East Asia region, which is down to the spice route. We won’t get into who made biryani or samosas first... This food has been happening for thousands of years. When you bring something to India we like to make it our own and what is comparable is the way Arabic and Indian people like to eat, with families.”

Bhatia’s culinary empire now extends across the Middle East (as well as the two in Dubai there’s a Rasoi in Bahrain and two restaurants in Saudi Arabi) into Europe (Rasoi by Vineet at the Mandarin Oriental in Geneva), he has a spot in legendary London department store Harrods and he has restaurants in Mumbai and Mauritius.

The chef is constantly travelling, and followers of his Instagram account will be used to seeing his trademark hat sitting on an aeroplane table as he jets off. For someone so busy, he’s very open on his social media and responds to as many people as he can. It’s also where you can see the chef’s works in progress, as he likes to document as much as he can with his other love, taking pictures.

“When people ask me where I live I say seat 5K of whichever plane I’m on,” he laughs. “But my home is my restaurant, wherever I am at that time. I’ll be the first in and the last out.

“As a family, we love to travel, though. Once a year we spin a globe and find out where we’re going. Whether that’s Japan or Mexico, we do it properly – backpacking, in small places, remote parts of countries. We’re not bothered about luxury, I can get that anytime.”

Despite the travels, he is always drawn back to the Middle East. “When I first came, the Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai was two lanes. When we moved to Grosvenor House there was nothing else around, really, but you could tell something was coming. The team there were always going to make a success of that.

“We moved there at the right time. There was only Gordon Ramsay in Dubai before me, but he was at the opposite end of the city. I have to admit I did wonder if the restaurant would ever fill up, but there was a gut feeling and trust that it would. We were based in new Dubai before new Dubai was even there. To be the first one meant we pioneered it and opened the doors for more Indian restaurants. That is something special for us, we were at the avant-garde of Indian cuisine.”

When Bhatia first moved to London in 1993 (to work in South Kensington’s Star of India), Indian food looked very different to how it does now. “It was looked down upon, and the food served in the UK at that time was nothing like the Indian cuisine I was used to at home,”  he says. “I had people telling me I didn’t know what I was doing and I should go back to India and learn how to cook properly. I didn’t know what the customers were talking about, then I realised that Indian food in England then was completely different to what I was used to. I thought it was crazy at the time.”

But Star of India got a favourable review from UK food critic Fay Maschler, of London’s Evening Standard. Bhatia says he owes much of what came next to that one review. Maschler was born in India and the chef says that helped her understand what he was trying to do. And his experiences at the start of his career means he takes great pride in making sure his own staff don’t struggle.

He says: “You mentor them and teach them.There’s no magic formula, it comes from hard work and respect for where you are, as you have to cater to your audience. Now it’s more important for me to give back to my staff and the industry than it is for personal achievements.”

Bhatia says being a chef is the most anti-social job you can get. However, there is one person in his life that has had more influence than anyone else – his wife Rashima. Telling the chef’s story without mentioning Rashima would mean only telling half of the tale.

“She is my boss,” Bhatia says. “Family is everything. I’m very fortunate. She has sacrificed a lot to take on a role in this business. The most honest feedback I’ll ever get is from Rashima. If something gets past her, it’s happening.”

In a nutshell, that’s all you need to know about Vineet Bhatia – a chef who modernised Indian food, brought it to the wider world and has been receiving accolades ever since – he puts his success down to his wife, cares more about looking after his staff than gaining personal acclaim and would rather you ate well next time you’re in his restaurant than he wins another Michelin star.
Indya by Vineet, Le Royal Méridien Dubai, Dubai Marina (04 316 5550), Indego by Vineet, Grosvenor House Dubai Marina (04 317 6000), Rasoi by Vineet, Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, Abu Dhabi (02 447 4848).

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