There is a composed yet playful air about multi-award winning chef Yogesh Datta, and it really comes as no surprise. All the best cuisinieres are able to offer up a unique technique to the world, experimenting with age-old recipes and throwing in new ingredients for good measure, but being his accomplished self, Yogesh whisks this formula one step further. Receiving such recognition as the Remy Martin Award and being noted the Best Chef by the Curry Club Guide, he has not just brought a fresh cooking spin to our tables but helped shape an entire tradition: “When we opened my latest restaurant, Bangalore Express City, in 2009 it was to provide modern and more affordable Indian food at a very fast pace. We set the precedent for that kind of approachable Indian cuisine – now popularised with franchises such as Dishoom on the market - which you could enjoy in a relaxed and friendly environment.” Perfecting his grasp of classical Indian cooking, which he picked up working for the Taj Group and Sheraton Hotels in India, Yogesh seriously trained as a French chef in Switzerland before finally moving to London where he brought his emerging starlight – or should we say gaslight – to top city establishments such as Tabla at Canary Wharf and The Painted Heron on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. So, Yogesh straightforwardly shows us, sometimes the secret to professional success is simply to be: “I believe all chefs are artists,” he aptly added: “You’ve got to be born with a je ne sais quois from within – that’s what ultimately spurs you on.”
What exactly defines your signature cooking?
I discovered it properly when I was working at the Painted Heron Restaurant, which was opened in 2002. This, along with a select few others, led the way for modern Indian cooking. It wasn’t so much authentic cooking from India as we used local methods and fresh ingredients as well. If you take a fish curry dish, for example, you might have a lot of it with a very thin consistency, and the fish is just swimming in sauce. What we started to do was to make it more eye-appealing: we would use very good quality fish which was filleted and cooked separately and it wouldn’t be drowning in oil. We cooked it to just the right amount. In short, it was Indian cooking with a very practical twist: we identified what was not quite working with traditional preparations and adapted it for a contemporary palate. Purists might not be happy, but I think it’s important to adapt.
What would you say has been the single greatest influence on your cooking?
My training as a French chef: it really informs how I experiment with my cooking. I can see outside of the box and identify what perhaps a traditionally trained Indian chef couldn’t. For example we tend to stick to either fish or prawns when it comes to seafood, not daring to push further. I’m not afraid to use scallops, and soft shell and king crabs.
What’s a unique service offered at Bangalore Express City?
The menu has evolved since we started because it always relates to customer demands. A traditionally rooted dish is the curry matrix which is popular in Bangalore: you choose a meat, for example fish or chicken, and how exactly you would want it cooked e.g. mild or spicy. That’s been the best-selling section of the menu for the last 8 or 9 years.
Name some refined techniques that you really enjoy using?
Using a combi oven where you cook with steam instead of dry heat. It’s a good way to preserve moisture and cook the selected food through and through. There’s also cooking on induction which has less oil and fat, and I’ll use modern ceramic pans. I adapt the cooking methods and make use of what is available and being tried in other cuisines. Finally, there’s the thermomix method for very smooth chutneys where the flavour is retained more than perhaps with an old-style stone grinder.
What is your favourite part of the cooking process?
Well, the secret behind Indian cooking is the spicing right? The type of spices are the same in all dishes, but it’s the timing of when you add them that creates the different flavours: I love the fact that I can play around with 5 or 6 spices, just by putting them in at various points and changing the whole intricacy of the dish.
What’s an important tip for young chefs who are starting out?
Unless you love what you do you cannot be a good chef. The right training and where you train during your initial years is also very important.
Were you always interested in cooking?
If you interview most chefs, they will say yes and tell you that their passion was stoked from watching their mothers in the kitchen: my story is no different. I was the youngest sibling out of 5 and the only one to help my mother with the large groups she would have to cater for: she was a brilliant cook. I never thought I’d take it on as a profession but it always called to me. I went into hotel management hoping to work in the front office, but following just one year of service I realised my heart was in the kitchen! That’s when I went to train in Switzerland and my journey as a professional chef began.
Is there anything in particular about the atmosphere of your dining establishments that complement your food?
In the past, we’ve made a deliberate effort to move away from the clichéd idea of a curry house with ornamental elephants and colourful wallpaper, but at this stage, as India becomes more confident as a nation - and our cooks have more confidence to project themselves - we have also started to add more of an Indian twist to our décor and the feel of the place.
Finally, what’s one misconception about being a chef that simply isn’t true?
That we’re fussy eaters at home! My kids are adults now, but there was many a trip to McDonalds when they were younger. I would also cook very simple Indian dishes for dinner.