Earlier this year, Priyanka Chopra Jonas put another feather in her already healthily crowded hat by opening a restaurant that celebrates the food of India. SONA in New York was introduced by Chopra Jonas as “the very embodiment of timeless India and the flavours I grew up with.”
Well, Chopra Jonas didn’t just describe Indian food like that without actually bringing on board chefs that will celebrate our essence, and make dishes that will take your taste buds for a joyful ride. Chef-in-charge of SONA, chef Abhijeet Singh Rathore, decided to take humble inventions from home and add surprisingly delightful twists to them — picture this — a curd rice ice cream with sweet mango pickle chards, or a Ghevar Edamame Chaat.
29-year-old Chef Rathore’s food comes from a traditional Rajasthani family, and his family recipes, that one secret masala from his mom’s kitchen or the way his uncles cook meat, is what has inspired him to take the chances his instincts tell him to create scintillating dishes that will appeal to a global audience while retaining the roots of where the food culturally comes from.
Rather says he’s learnt from some of the best chefs as well, such as chef Rahul Kanojia of the Taj Rambagh Palace, Jaipur, chef Akshraj Jodha, known as the masterchef of Rajasthani cuisine, or his most popular stint — at the Indian Michelin star chef Vineet Bhatia’s Rasoi by Vineet in Bahrain, where Rathore was exposed to the endless possibilities of modern Indian cuisine.
MW speaks to Chef Rathore about SONA, Indian food on the global map, and tips for the upcoming generation of chefs.
How did you land the SONA gig? Please tell us about your journey.
After passing out from Institute of Hotel Management, Jaipur, I got opportunities to work in some of the best Indian restaurants under Michelin star chefs — like Rasoi, Junoon Restaurant, Masti Cocktail, etc. I met chef Hari Nayak, the consultant chef of the restaurant and now the executive chef at SONA, when he discussed the concept of SONA with me. I wanted to be a part of a restaurant that does regional Indian cuisine in a progressive way, so here I am.
You said you’re inspired by your roots and the food you ate back home. Can you tell us some anecdotes that helped decide what you put on your menu?
I grew up in a joint family, where everyone had a duty towards cooking; the women of the house divided the work, and men used to cook meat dishes like Laal Maas, Safed Maas, Maas Sule, etc., on Sundays. So from a very early age, I had the privilege to learn from so many family members. My mother is from Haryana, so I learned Kachri ki Chutney, Bajra Khichri from her, and from my uncle, I learned Laal Maas, Dal Baati Churma, and so on. My learning and inspiration helped me a lot in designing the menu. I keep things simple, but I love to present them in a progressive way, like we have ghewar on the menu, which is served with pickled rhubarb and cheesecake.
Taking inspiration from traditional Rajasthani and westernising it to suit new palates, are you ever afraid of this approach diluting the essence of a dish?
No, I am never afraid of trying new approaches. Some creations work and some don’t, but every creation teaches me something. The main thing that needs to be kept in mind while doing or creating something new is that there should be a perfect balance of every element that is present in one dish. Other than that, I don’t refrain from experimenting.
What’s your opinion on fusion food and merging cuisines?
If you asked me this question eight or nine years ago, I would be saying that fusion food is just a trend, but now, fusion food is a statement. Indian cuisine is so diverse that chefs are exploring every state these days to gather knowledge, and with their creative minds, put that knowledge on a plate in a very creative or progressive way. So I’m in favour of merging cuisines.
What has been your most successful experiment in the kitchen? And what has been one epic fail?
Serving ghewar with pickled rhubarb, strawberry jam, and a cheesecake was a successful experiment, another successful experiment was truffle black lentil jus with gnocchi ricotta croquette crusted with roasted vermicelli. There is no major epic fail so far, because before trying to make something. I always imagine the flavour profile of the elements in my mind, and then work on it, but if some elements don’t go well with it, I use those elements in my other creations.
When in India, where do you like to eat (other than your home)?
I love the food of Kerala. The diversity of food and flavour profile they serve is unique, and very inspiring as well as tasty.
Five Tips For Aspiring Chefs by Chef Abhijeet Singh Rathore
- Always be dedicated and disciplined towards your work
- Keep reading
- Keep exploring
- Always take out time to do staging in the best restaurants as that will help you broaden your creativity horizon
- Always be humble while learning from your senior chefs. They’ve got experiences that will tell you a lot about how to navigate your chef life.