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Chef Bharath Shridhar Bhat advances Indian cuisine by returning to his roots

by Mahmood Hossain

The executive chef at NILA brings coastal culinary art to life.

By Mahmood Hossain

From completing his Bachelor’s degree in hotel management in Mangalore back in 2003 to diving into the deep end of his international culinary journey in 2005, Chef Bharath Shridhar Bhat, Executive Chef at NILA, is no stranger to the local culinary scene. He’s come a long way from being a chef de partie in Dubai, to embarking on a new coastal cuisine voyage with the soon-to-be-opened restaurant NILA at Amari Bangkok. This new venture actually hits closer to home, as he imprints his own upbringing and ancestral influences on nearly every dish on the menu. With this new project, Chef Bharath and his talented team want to deliver the best coastal Indian cuisine experience in the city, where tastebuds are tantalised, the aroma never fails to allure, and the service is consistently immaculate, like the restaurant’s interior décor.

In 2015, after returning to India for a short stint, Chef Bharath, as he’s fondly known amongst the Bangkokian crowd, took the helm of Punjab Grill Bangkok for the past eight fruitful years. As an executive chef, he led the restaurant through a transformative period, elevating its Indian cuisine with a commanding presence in the kitchen and innovative ways to cook, prepare, and plate classical North Indian dishes. So, what has changed? After all these years, what enticed Chef Bharath to bring exciting new flavours of coastal India to Bangkok? I had the pleasure of sitting across this brilliant culinary artist, and peeling back the layers of his latest long-term project, beginning with the question: what’s in a name?

“The name NILA, there are a few different meanings behind it,” began Chef Bharath. “For one, the word nila means blue, referring to the ocean. Second, there are blue gemstones, such as topaz and sapphire, that represent good fortune or a sign of prosperity in the spiritual sense. Finally, the blue itself seems infinite as you look into the ocean off the coast. The ocean is so vast, that it seems as if there is no end to it. We want to hold on to that feeling at NILA.”

NILA is a fantastic title for a new chapter in your career. What lies on the horizon with the restaurant?

I’m excited to take this on because it’s quite different from my time at Punjab Grill Bangkok, where the focus was more on North Indian cuisine. Here at NILA, things are different. There are no tandoors, and we’ll not be serving chicken tikka masala, naan, and the sort. NILA is a coastal cuisine affair, which is very close to my heart because I was not only born and brought up in Mumbai, a coastal city, but my ancestors are from Mangalore. Again, yet another coastal city. I’ve gone back to my roots and have the opportunity to be more creative in that aspect. I want guests to experience the beauty of coastal cuisine from India.

Generally speaking, when people think about an Indian restaurant, their minds go to the usual North Indian menu items. But at NILA, we offer something different. Yes, it’s food from home, but we still needed to dive further into the details of the coastal variety. We travelled across India to learn about the authentic flavours, and procure the spices, cutlery, crockery, and so on. We visited every major coastal city you could think of, alongside the East Coast to the West: Kolkata, Kerala, Mangalore, Mumbai, and of course, Goa. NILA is based on a Portuguese artifact traveller who is settled in Goa, and the restaurant’s décor resembles the design of the traveller’s home.

Now to bring our focus to the actual experience of the restaurant. The first thing we noticed the moment we entered the restaurant is —

— Is the bar! Yes, the concept of the bar incorporates the classic rum from Goa. We actually have Goan distilled rums with cashew or coconut feni (a local liquor originating in Goa), so the bar is essentially a feni bar. We will have a few jars where we will flavour the feni with different spices for various cocktails. Again, we are incorporating coastal elements through our bar options that can be globally accepted, with some Indian flair.

While the bar is the first thing guests will see, what are the main foci of NILA’s culinary experience? What dishes are you most excited to introduce?

Well, this is a culinary journey. That’s why we say NILA is the essence of coastal cuisine. As mentioned, this journey begins from eastern India, travelling to the South, then making our way to the West. From West Bengal to Orissa, then to Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, coastal Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, and some parts of Gujarat. We will have dishes from all these states.

Naturally, guests will expect wonderful seafood, not to mention a selection of meats, but we are delivering food from the southern region as well, which means we will have plenty of vegetarian options. But it’s not exclusive to the South. For example, one of the more popular foods from Kolkata is the Mochar chop (banana flower croquettes) served with tomato chutney.

As for signature dishes, I’m excited for guests to try the Lobster ghee roast, a dish from my childhood. The origin of ghee roast comes from the neighbouring town of Kundapura, where I used to live. At NILA, of course, we wanted to put our own twist on it by replacing the original chicken dish with lobster; we’re simply adopting most of the spices of the original.

Even the slightest alterations like the lobster can lead to more innovative dishes it seems. From your perspective and experience, do you believe too much innovation is creating a disconnect from traditional food? How do you balance innovation and staying close to your roots?

I can’t speak for others, but personally, I like to keep the flavours authentic. Take the lobster ghee roast dish again, as an example. We keep the same traditional ingredients but we will present it in a unique way where the technique or plating of the dish is completely new. I wouldn’t say this is fusion. These are basically ingredients rooted in tradition, yet presented in a contemporary manner. Times are changing, and Indian restaurant culture is also opening up to new ideas and accepting of modern takes on traditional dishes. For any cook, you should always know the authentic flavours before becoming adventurous and trying contemporary cuisine.

Could you indulge us in your thought process as to how you keep your ideas for food so engaging and evergreen for people?

When we were creating the menu for NILA, for instance, we wanted to figure out ways to add to the dining experience, not just various ways of plating food. We have ideas on how to not only present the food but also new ways to prepare the food on a guest’s table. For example, we will be serving a dish called Prawn tomato sour – it’s a version of a tomato soup infused with prawns.

The traditional way of serving soup is basic. Our serving technique will involve a coffee siphon, which is in two parts. At the base, we have the soup, and in the top part, we have the prawn, coriander roots, and black peppercorns, which are the main ingredients of the soup. When the soup starts heating up, the vapours travel upward and mix in with the rest of the ingredients. Once we remove the heat, the rest of the soup comes back to the base, ready to be served in the guest’s bowl.

We’re always trying different ways to engage with our guests, because they expect so much more than the food that is being served. They want to immerse themselves in the surrounding environment and truly enjoy the ambiance. Later, it is recorded, saved, and shared on social media. So, we also have to make these dishes and experiences more aesthetically appealing.

On the topic of innovation and moving forward, what do you believe sets the current generation’s chefs apart from the more seasoned veterans of the culinary field? What are the lessons to be learned?

I would say for the younger generation, it is critical that you know your basics first. No matter the cuisine, if you do not grasp the foundational steps to cooking, you will not be able to innovate or create food that sets itself aside from the rest. I urge them to toil hard, learn the basics, understand the roots, and practice with the authentic dishes first, then they can advance in their culinary journey and put their own touch or flair to it.

Finding the right ingredients for particular Indian dishes may be challenging, but not impossible. However, are there elements to Indian cuisine that can’t be duplicated outside of India? What are the possibilities of bringing that to Thailand?

When we were creating the menu for NILA, we definitely did our due diligence and thorough research when we were travelling across India. We knew there would be certain ingredients that were not available in Thailand, so we’ve collaborated with special suppliers that will import and deliver those necessary ingredients from India. We want to make sure our guests have the most authentic experience when it comes to dining at NILA.

What do you hope to achieve with NILA? What would you like people to take away from their experience?

As we are planning to open NILA in the second half of March, we want our guests to eat and enjoy quality coastal Indian food, as well as embrace the entire ambiance. We not only want to make NILA a famous brand in Thailand but also throughout Southeast Asia, and eventually, expand to other territories across the continent. That was one of the key factors in joining this project. We have a genuine opportunity to make NILA a global brand through Amari hotels in several destinations, and we’d love for all of your readers to be part of that.

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