Chef Manav Tuli recently gained the Michelin Star for his restaurant CHAAT in Hong Kong. Even though it opened during the pandemicin May 2020, CHAAT has earned a spot among some of the most popular restaurants in Hong Kong, with a two-three month waiting list.
Beginning his career in Kerala, Tuli discovered food alchemy in the kitchens of luxury hotels across India and Mauritius. Later, he was invited to work at London’s legendary Chutney Mary restaurant, where he became the head chef and stayed for seven years. In 2019, Chef Tuli had the chance to reopen Tamarind, one of London’s first Indian restaurants to receive the coveted Michelin Star. Excerpts from an email interview:
Since CHAAT opened during the pandemic, how was the experience? Was it about survival, sailing through or just waiting for the good times to roll in again?
I landed in Hong Kong in September 2019 as CHAAT was supposed to open a month later, but it got delayed due to social events in 2019 and then Covid-19 in early 2020. Initially, I was very skeptical when our CEO, Sonia Cheng, said we would open the restaurant in May 2020, pandemic or no pandemic. But since the day we opened, we have not looked back. Somehow, the pandemic did not have any effect on our popularity or on the business. People are interested to know what we want to serve, as it’s a bit different from what the city as a whole offers in terms of Indian cuisine. We have been full since the day we opened.
International travels has been limited, so are local people the main patrons as of now?
Yes, but in terms of locals also we have a good mix of people from different regions of the world, because Hong Kong itself is very diverse. There are people from all over the world. Of course, international travel is limited, but we have guests from different European countries like Britain and Spain, and also a lot of local guests, including those of Indian origin. Even if international travel was open, it would have been the same mix of crowd.
Has the pandemic given you any long-lasting lessons in terms of food?
The pandemic has given us a lot of lessons. The first was, of course, never to take things for granted, whether it is a big brand or a small restaurant, the pandemic affected everyone equally. The problems could be smaller or bigger, but if you are not making money, you will be out of business. The second lesson is you need to adapt very fast and be ready to adapt to any environment. For example, last year when the dining-in was totally closed, we had to adapt to takeaway food, which was easier in terms of Indian food. But we also added a lot of different dishes to the menu.
Another lesson I learned is that we should keep the local guests in mind when running a restaurant. When I came to Hong Kong, a lot of people told me that you need to rely on international travel guests. I had no idea a pandemic was coming, but still my motto was that the local guests should be happy. We have worked on dishes like Octopus Biryani, Uri Pulao, Black Truffle Biryani, keeping in mind the interest and the likes of the local guests, and they love it.
Do you think Michelin recognition for CHAAT is also a global recognition for Indian street food?
Whenever any chef in the world joins the food industry, the first thing they come to know about is the Michelin Star Chefs and they aspire to become one. The importance of Michelin is much bigger than anything else. At CHAAT, we focus on street food of India, not any one region. The name is CHAAT, but we don’t just serve those set of savory snacks which are collectively called chaat. We serve street food of India and we pass it through a lens of ‘refine’ and ‘balance’. The recipes are authentic, but we also adapt ourselves to the local ingredients. The octopus, the sea urchins and the caviar are loved here. Now that Michelin has noticed what we are doing is good for the cuisine, people listen to us. We can do things that we want to do. For instance, there’s a manuscript called ‘Nimatnama’ of the king of Mandu. I want to revive those recipes. Now that we have a Michelin, we can do it much more expressively.
At the restaurant, how did you arrive at this particular style of Indian food – homemade classics, street food?
When I came to Hong Kong, the initial idea was to have a restaurant with north Indian food, focusing on Delhi and Punjab. Part of the reason they chose me was that my genes are Punjabi. But when I came here, I told them about my experience – I am a Punjabi, but I was born and bought up in Chhattisgarh. I studied in Kerala and my first job was in Rajasthan. I even huddled in Delhi and Bombay a lot. I have a close friend who was Bengali. When I was in London, I was sent to Bombay so many times to learn Parsi and Goan food. So, I’m the best Jack you can have, who knows at least 7-8 different cuisines. I don’t know the whole Indian cuisine.
How do you amalgamate regional influences in your food?
I did not want people only from north of India. I wanted people from south of India, Rajasthan, Himanchal, Delhi, Mumbai. I have all those people in my kitchen, and the moment I add or start adding dishes from their regions, the ownership increased on its own. That also plays a part because then they could start coming up with dishes which I don’t know. For example, we used to have a guy from Tamil Nadu in our kitchen. When he made the fish curry that his grandmother used to make for everyone’s tasting, we were blown away by the flavor profile. We said we need to put this on the menu. For the whole year, we put on the menu the Salem Fish Curry: Salem is the name of village where he comes from. That’s how we amalgamate different regional cuisines. Of course, there are certain dishes which any Indian menu should have, but the only variation we do is that it is really well-balanced and mostly kept authentic.
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