Anyone despondent about the challenges facing restaurants and the UK’s wider political and economic outlook would do well to spend half an hour or so in Rohit Ghai’s company.
The former JKS Restaurants and Jamavar chef has dreamt about running his own restaurant in London since he started his culinary education in India, and he’s not going to let a silly little thing like Brexit get in his way.
“I’m not worried. I’ve opened enough restaurants to know this industry is always challenging,” he says. “If you’ve got a good reputation in the market and good contacts, you’re not going to have a problem getting staff. London is one of the greatest markets in the world for food.”
Ghai opened Kutir with business partner Abhi Sangwan – another veteran of top-end London Indians – late last month in the attractive but logistically awkward Chelsea townhouse that was once home to Vineet Bhatia’s Rasoi.
Taking over a restaurant site so closely associated with top-end Indian food – Rasoi won a star way back in 2001 – is a smart move for the pair, even if the building’s recent history is chequered (Bhatia relaunched it as VBL in 2017 but mysteriously closed it a year or so later despite regaining a Michelin star).
Kutir is a very different proposition to the tasting-menu-only VBL, which was intended to be Bhatia’s flagship restaurant and showcase his overtly modern and technical take on Indian food.
Split across two small rooms, the ground floor dining room has been expanded from 22 to 38 covers and offers food at a considerably lower price point. “The tasting menu at VBL was over £100. Chelsea is an affluent place but that’s expensive,” says Ghai. “We’re on a residential street. We wanted to create something that has a neighbourhood feel.”
It’s a sexist cliché, but Chelsea’s mid-week market does skew towards ladies who lunch, a demographic that is not – by and large – likely to want a 3½ hour tasting menu. Popping into VBL for a quick bite was not an option, but it is at Ghai and Sangwan’s new place. There’s a sensibly priced à la carte menu, a set lunch menu and an early evening menu. At £60, the tasting menu is competitively priced, too.
“This area needs better value restaurants. A lot of the established places around here are expensive, and in some cases they’re not worth it,” says Ghai, who was originally looking to open in Knightsbridge.
Location, location, location
Mayfair is the default area for ambitious Indian restaurants and a market Ghai knows well, but he believes it has become oversaturated as well as overpriced. He and Sangwan were aware VBL had closed but didn’t consider it an option until they saw it listed on a property agent’s website.
“It’s a shame we found it so late in our search, we could have been up and running a year ago. We like that it’s on a residential street,” says Ghai, who describes Kutir – which takes its name from the Sanskrit word for cottage – as a small project funded by family and friends.
The restaurant draws inspiration from royal hunting expeditions, with both the food and interiors designed to encourage a convivial and celebratory atmosphere. The menu is focused on game and fish and with Sangwan’s cocktail menu inspired by the botanicals found in the rural areas in which the hunts would have taken place.
With the exception of classics, all Ghai’s dishes are brand new. The à la carte menu is split into small plates and mains in a bid to make the first part of the meal more convivial.
Small plates include lobster rasam; naan with scrambled quail’s eggs and truffle oil; and crispy potato cake with tamarind, honey and yoghurt, while mains include 24-hour lamb shoulder rogan josh with stone moss and offal samosa; jackfruit kofta with herb pilau and tomato sauce; and duck korma with pickled swede.
The site was only refurbished a year and a half ago but has been overhauled again to give the space a brighter, fresher feel while retaining the building’s original features.
Above the main ground floor dining area are two PDRs that bring Kutir up to 63 covers (there’s also a small roof terrace for drinks and canapés).
Kutir is one of a number of ambitious Indians to open in the latter half of 2018 (see Indian fine dining hots up). Most notable of these is Kahani, which is located a five minute walk away to the north of Sloane Square. Opened last month, it is helmed by former Tamarind chef Peter Joseph.
Other upcoming Indian launches include Farzi Café – a modern Indian-owned restaurant in St James’s – and the previously mentioned Tamarind, which is reopening early this month following a major revamp.
Ghai doesn’t appear to be fazed by the direct competition on his doorstep and the even more crowded marketplace down the road in the West End. “I don’t believe in thinking of other restaurants as competitors. I’m confident in what I do and am totally focused on getting it right,” he says.
A passage to England
Born to a Punjabi family, Ghai grew up a few hundred miles to the south of Delhi in Gwalior. Like most high-profile Indian chefs, he started out cooking a mix of Indian and international food in large hotels.
“Back then that was the only route to a career cooking high-level food,” says the 36-year-old. “But things are changing in India. The arrival of ambitious standalone restaurants has given young Indians more options.”
Those that want a place on The Oberoi Group and Taj Hotels’ respected training schemes need to work incredibly hard at school and culinary college (they may be big companies, but in a country of over one billion people the ratio of applicants to places is extreme).
Although perhaps a bit biased, Ghai believes these hotel giants train chefs to a higher standard than any other company or educational organisation in the world. “I was trained by Oberoi. It’s an incredibly thorough programme. Vocational training is offered alongside a three- or four-year degree,” he says. “The company also has access to some of the best specialist chefs in the world to lead the classes and oversee trainees. There’s nothing else like it.”
Ghai worked at Oberoi for five years and spent a further four years with Taj. He arrived in England in 2008 to work for Atul Kochhar at Benares as head chef. In 2013, he moved over to the Sethi siblings’ JKS Restaurants group, which at the time comprised Trishna and Gymkhana. As executive chef, he oversaw menus and was involved in the launch of Verandah in Denmark (now closed) and the development of the group’s more casual offshoot Hoppers.
The Gymkhana effect
Of all the Sethis’ Indian restaurant projects, the British Raj era-influenced Gymkhana has had the biggest impact on the market with its authentic, high-impact dishes that are fiery and flavourful enough to please an Indian palate.
Clearly Ghai had a big hand in Gymkhana’s success – it was named the best place to eat in the country in Restaurant’s National Restaurant Awards 2014 and won a Michelin star the same year. But to his credit he is quick to acknowledge the significant input of the Mayfair restaurant’s two head chefs as well as JKS co-founder Karam Sethi. “What makes Gymkhana a game-changing Indian restaurant is that it doesn’t seek to westernise its flavours. It is rustic and bold. This direction is largely down to Karam. He is able to think about Indian food in a very creative way and he’s good at creating buzz. He can cook and has a great palate, which helps.”
In 2016, Ghai was head hunted by India’s Leela Palace Hotels to open its debut international restaurant Jamavar. With a more modern and light pan-Indian menu, the Mount Street restaurant is far from being a rip-off of Gymkhana, but like Gymkhana its authentically-spiced dishes are a very different proposition to those served in more established star-coveting Indians, including his former stomping ground Benares.
Less than a year later the restaurant won a Michelin star, cementing Ghai’s reputation as a hitmaker on the Indian scene. Just before leaving the group to go it alone, he opened the more casual Bombay Bustle, which has also been well-received by the critics.
A Michelin star for Kutir seems likely. With experience overseeing several Michelin-starred kitchens, Ghai understands the formula and knows the stumbling blocks. Principle of these – he believes – is the requirement for seasonality and regularly changing menus, something that does not necessarily come easily to Indian kitchens.
Standing out from the crowd
Ghai also thinks Indian restaurants need to make themselves stand out. “There is a lot of great Indian food in this country, London especially. There needs to be some creativity in terms of flavours and, as importantly, presentation. You need something that’s fresh with a bit of a wow factor.”
Another thing that star-seeking chefs might consider borrowing from Ghai’s playbook is the way he comes up with his dishes and runs his kitchen. Many Indian kitchens are arranged into sections run by chefs specialising in particular dishes or cooking methods. Often these section heads have an unusual amount of autonomy because they’re more experienced in their niche than the chef in charge.
As a lot of Indian restaurants demonstrate, this model can produce excellent food. But it doesn’t work for Ghai. “I’m totally hands-on. I create every dish and teach everyone in the kitchen how to cook it my way. You need absolute control over the recipes and the kitchen in order to get that consistency.”
This approach also makes staffing easier because specialist chefs are difficult to get hold of and command high wages. Ghai oversees a mixed kitchen team at Kutir. “You don’t need to be Indian to cook Indian food at a high level. You just need to be interested. The practical skills are similar, people are already proficient. The key is to create a proper training plan and get less experienced staff to shadow the more experienced ones.”
It’s very early days, but Ghai and Sangwan’s experience and desire to make what they do approachable should ensure that Kutir is a success.
Indian fine dining hots up
Three other ambitious subcontinental openings
Kahani: Located down the road from Kutir, Kahani is the irst solo project for ex-Tamarind executive chef Peter Joseph. Translating as ‘story’ in Hindi, the restaurant is billed as a contemporary space with a focus on robata-grilled dishes. Kutir and Kahani have a lot in common (debut solo restaurants from established Indian chefs, Chelsea townhouse location) and will inevitably be competing for the same customers. With broadly similar sounding names, there’s potential for people to turn up at the wrong place, too.
Tamarind: This stalwart of Mayfair’s Indian fine-dining scene re-opens early this month following a major revamp that will see the dining room double in size to 152. Tamarind’s long-standing head chef Peter Joseph, who left the restaurant earlier this year to go it alone (see above), has been replaced by experienced executive chefs Karunesh Khanna and Manav Tuli. Khanna was head chef at London’s Michelin-starred Amaya for 13 years, while Tuli led the kitchen at Chutney Mary in St James’. The pair say the new menu will be light in style. The restaurant lost its Michelin star in the 2019 edition of the Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland, though this was due to its brief closure.
Farzi Café: Delayed but expected to open this side of Christmas, Farzi Café is the first UK project from the Indian-owned Massive Restaurants. It’s high-profile owner Zorowar Kalra is hoping to shake up London’s Indian restaurant scene with creative dishes made using “post-molecular and post-modern techniques”. Traditional UK dishes will be reworked, including haggis and fish and chips. Farzi Café will also be o fering its famous take on chicken tikka masala, which is served up in a red London telephone box to highlight the dish’s true origin. Its unusual location just north of Trafalgar Square could be problematic.
This interview first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.