Much like the fictional storyline, what makes Mad Hatter Hospitality so special is its exuberant human centrepiece: Chef-Founder and occasional forager, Chetan. A real life version of Lewis Carroll’s striped hat maverick, Chetan has boldly amalgamated the many passions of his life - dipping in and out of broad and idiosyncratic expertise - into one bright, impressive brand. “Mad Hatter Food is a consultancy that accommodates for an entire dining experience,” he told us. “From creating unique and experimental menus to minimising the operational strain in kitchens, and advising on architectural design and restaurant trend forecasting, we use a wealth of culinary, corporate and scientific experience to ensure clients receive the best bespoke service.” Moor Hall – the only restaurant in the UK that can boast a brewery, bakery, and stunning cellars on site – is the young businessman’s latest project and beautifully encapsulates the Mad Hatter limitless vision. It also helps that Chetan is a highly qualified chef, who loves to directly collaborate on and experiment with his projects’ respective dishes. Having started up Mad Hatter Food on the side at university, whilst doing wedding favours such as baking brownies, Chetan also naturally grew what would become a signature sophisticate palate: his degrees in Clinical and Pharmaceutical Medicine from UCL and in Physics from Oxford University (a DPhil), gave him wonderfully precise attention to detail, and an appreciation for respectful interaction with fellow colleagues.
“There are many ways in which my background informs my current work. In terms of the more technical science, there’s an instrument called a sonicator which is used to disrupt membranes," he told us, " and that can be used to create a super smooth puree! Of course a basic understanding of heat reactions and chemical reactions has also been foundational for more advanced cooking! Being able to communicate warmly with others in your field and go to work with a smile is also pivotal to good hospitality: it makes your restaurant accessible. Another way in which my interests have interplayed is through the product management. The maths learnt at graduate level plays a big part in hospitality operations and helps them run smoothly. I can accurately read how restaurants are performing through analytics: there is no single formula, but the available data can be used to improve the performance of individual restaurants.” However, the final layer of Chetan’s professional genius lies beyond the realm of reputation: “I went to train at Basque Culinary Centre for haute cooking because that’s where I could picture myself aged 40, pulling the longest hours at work. That’s a really pertinent question to ask yourself. Though I excelled at academia, I could never see myself sitting behind a Professor’s desk, working away on one paper after the next. I enjoy engaging my intellect, but I also love to travel, meet like- minded eccentric people and have the opportunity to explore the intricacies of the gastronomic world. During my time at the top Spanish restaurant Mugaritz, for example, they were serving sea anemones with tiny Medusa-like hairs! In life, you’ve got to do what you’re passionate about, and what’s special. Some people can’t even chop onions properly – that’s reflective of it being a valued skill. If you are really good at your trade, you should be respected for it.” Thus, emphasising the value of the experiential over the systemic and staunchly cerebral, Chetan and his Mad Hatter franchise don’t just bring you exciting and candid dishes, but also a liberating theory of mind.
Name another exotic or surprising ingredient that you’ve come across?
I’ve tried Hemlock in my quest for Sweet Cicely, and that ended up being poisonous. When you forage for that perfect dish, you should smell and not taste!
What’s been one of the best dishes that you've tried?
Surprisingly some chicken I tried at a restaurant called Sketch on Conduit Street, Oxford Circus. It was just when I’d begun to get a feel for fine dining, and the way the chicken had been layered, using finely shaved Truffle, really brought out the flavour. The quality of the chicken also struck me. It showed me that simplicity really is key: getting the basic produce and preparation right. As I’ve advanced in my culinary journey, I’ve found that less is more. On Gordon Ramsay’s show ‘The F word’, he made a good point: the more mature you become as a chef, the less you need to put on the plate.
What first sparked your passion for cooking?
My grandmothers. I spent a lot of time with them growing up. My paternal grandmother lived in the UK, and my maternal grandmother was based in India. I remember one of the times I travelled there and we took a trip to the market, as you do: my grandma emphasised the need to patiently wait for the fresh batch of tomatoes. She taught me that the little things count.
What are some of your favourite refined techniques learnt from Basque Culinary Centre?
The importance of good equipment and rudimentary cooking techniques: for example, always have sharp knives! My most expensive tool is a chef’s knife from Japan. I learnt the basics, such as practicing traditional cuts and how to make my own stock. I love ramen and you need to have a fresh source for that!
What is your hope for the future? Do you want to finally open up your own restaurant? What would be your signature style?
Yes, I’d like to open up my own restaurant. I made the change from being Director of Research and Development at the Umbel Restaurant Group to my own consultancy because it was starting to feel right. I’d learnt a lot about what restaurants were doing right, and where they were going wrong, and felt I could really utilise the knowledge. Currently I have been working with the extremely talented Head Chef Mark Birchall at Moor Hall and am feeling similarly inspired. I’ve learnt so much from him and have the itch to pursue my own creative curiosities. For example, I really love the idea of simplicity and pure flavour: serving up a carrot fresh from the earth, with just a little garnish that’s prepared well to accentuate the natural taste. I think my British-Indian background would naturally influence my dishes too. When we did the course trials at university, it was shown that mums who imbibed carrot juice during pregnancy had babies who'd also developed a palate for it.
Finally, what’s your favourite part of restaurant consulting?
In terms of the service aspect: it's the adrenaline rush: I’ve not been able to replicate it with any other job.But for the consulting side it's the fact that I have a different challenge everyday; one day it's designing burgers for a national brand, the next I can be doing something super technical for a double michelin starred restaurant.