WE may be miles away from Noma, L’Arpege, The French Laundry or any other restaurant that requires a reservation months in advance. But our very own culinary stars are not leery of innovation. At a recent party at The Park, hosted by Priya Paul and her husband, their top chef, Rajesh Radhakrishnan and his team, worked on concepts for over a year and gave us an Alice in Wonderland experience, with chairs lined up under a table, cushions to rest your plate on, and a menu that featured, among other gems, rock lobster and sous vide duck in a glass, a gondhoraj-scented scallop and lamb rice with betel leaves. The experiments continue at full steam, both in his domain and that of his counterparts across the city. We got these chefs to talk about the most wanted item on their Xmas and New Year’s Eve menus, their trusty gadgets and, to help you at home, some gourmet tips.
Rajesh Radhakrishnan, The Park
Chef Rajesh is known to bring global experiments to his kitchen, which is why parties featuring his food are highly anticipated. Take the sous vide trend he introduced here a few years ago, for instance, or the nitrogen elaneer payasam at the Michelin Green Guide launch. His trusty gadgets are obviously the sous vide machine and his Japanese knife with a hand beaten blade.
Xmas tasting: ‘‘The turkey stuffing is special with cranberry and pistachio. It’s such a large bird, so we marinate it in brine to get it moist and juicy. We also have flambeed Xmas pudding, snow eggs, and poached pear in red wine.’’
Cheat sheet: ‘‘One trick we use at 601 restaurant is the sous vide machine. We vaccum pack the meat and cook it in the immersion circulator before the restaurant meal session. It takes only a couple of minutes for a perfectly roasted or grilled chicken breast. Meanwhile, if your vegetable cutlets mix is too moist, crush some ready-made potato chips into it.’’
Willi Wilson, Kryptos, Tuscana and Burgundy
Our globe-trotting chef who made Chennai his home 12 years ago, is an unconventional operator with shades of Gordon Ramsey. He likes to keep it simple in the kitchen, but with Kryptos having turned into a vegetarian restaurant recently, isn’t short of challenges. Passionate about his garden and motorcycle, the chef is pretty impressed with the might of the nifty Philips Airfryer in his personal kitchen – ‘‘it makes French fries with just a spoon of olive oil and sausages with a crisp skin that fairly jumps! And it can easily serve four to six people.’’
Xmas tasting: ‘‘Don’t miss the Xmas turkey menu at Tuscana, which is made the British and American way, together with steam pudding and eggnog,’’ he shares, confiding that the mince pies this year are excellent.
Cheat sheet: ‘‘If you are caught up on time with tenderloin, you pressure cook it — throw a tablespoon of water, put a lid on it and place on the grill plate. I also make my eggs at home this way.’’
Massimo Gullota, Ottimo — Cucina Italiana
AT ITC Grand Chola’s flagship Italian ‘kitchen’, Chef Massimo has been calling the shots for two years now. That said, he admits to how the city still catches him off guard. ‘‘For instance, even at Ottimo Cucina Italiana, which is a fine dining restaurant, we have requests for tandoori paneer pizza and chicken tikka pizza fairly often! I understand many guests relish this ‘fusion’ cusine and my team is used to it by now. But I never fail to be bewildered,’’ he tells us. He enjoys using fresh seafood from Kerala and local produce, especially the tomatoes.
Xmas tasting: While the Xmas menu is under wraps, we hope it features his award-winning Risotto with Porcini Mushrooms.
Cheat sheet: ‘‘Adding rock salt and extra virgin olive oil to chocolate cake really brings out the flavour of chocolate. And cooking a steak on a salamander makes the meat more tender.’’
Dharmen Makawana, The Leela Palace
A shattered kneecap and a dengue damper haven’t been able to keep chef Dharmen Makawana down. He’s been relentlessly guiding The Leela’s baby steps in Chennai. But the cherry on top of a successful first year will be the Christmas and New Year celebrations.
Having moved here in December 2011, he calls the city one of the “friendliest, safest and dirtiest places” he’s been to. And while this executive chef believes that the Chennai palate has grown incredibly, he’s learned: nothing can replace curd rice! “In the middle of the most luxurious banquet, you will still have that one person asking for his favourite comfort food,” says Makawana, who now makes sure there’s always a corner for that dollop of white.
Xmas tasting: The menu will feature traditional offerings like Berkshire pork and Black Forest ham. “There’s nothing to beat our cake shop. We’ve already kicked-off the festivities with a gingerbread house and a 3-foot Christmas tree made with sugar leaves,” says Makawana. New Year’s eve will see a foie gras counter, Peking duck served three ways, and salmon belly tarter with Keta caviar.
Cheat sheet: Sparkling wine gone flat? Pop in a few raisins to get the fizz back. Plagued by limp vegetables? Add sliced potatoes to a water bath and soak veggies for half an hour.
Peter Tseng, Chap Chay
With Buddhist and Christian heritage, chef Peter Tseng, who hails from Kolkata, says Christmas is close to his heart. “But my wife celebrates it while I work,” laughs Tseng. He’s not disappointed, though — he brings the Xmas spirit into his restaurant instead. Quite a challenge considering it specialises in stir fries!
Xmas tasting: “We are trying fusion this year. On Christmas eve, we will have dishes like spinach-duck roulade with marmalade sauce and roast turkey paired with sauces like chilli hoisin and orange-chilli,” says Tseng. New Year’s eve will see luxury foods like Wagyu beef, black truffles and foie gras. Tseng is not worried that people might stay away from the new flavours. “People in Chennai are not restrictive when it comes to their food tastes; they are very open,” he insists.
Cheat sheet: ‘‘If your Thai curry turns out too sweet, add some fish sauce. And to make perfect fried rice, season your wok properly. Heat it well, bring some oil to the smoking point, wipe down the wok and finally swirl some salt in it till it browns.’’
Alok Anand, Taj Coromandel
From swapping food stories with a jet-setting crowd to cooking in the kitchens of traditional households (like that of late actor Sivaji Ganesan), chef Alok Anand spent his three years in Chennai gaining a deep appreciation of the city and its people. Traditional but no longer conservative, he believes Chennai has a clientele with an adventurous palate. “Their only demand — food must be authentic, flavourful and fresh,” says Anand. A demand he has no trouble meeting because it’s his mantra, too.
Xmas tasting: This Christmas, the Taj Coromandel is getting ready to tempt taste buds with a vast array of Christmas delicacies, including maple-glazed turkey with wine poached pears and bread stuffing, and their special pannetones. What is definitely off the menu is even the whiff of anything fusion. “Fusion just breeds confusion,” shrugs Anand.
Cheat sheet: ‘‘To brown onions faster, zap them in the microwave (15 to 20 seconds) and then cook them. While baking muffins, fill two moulds with water to get moist and fluffier treats.’’
Praveen Anand, Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers
The go-to man for well-researchedrecipes from South-Indian kitchens, chef Praveen is partial to the term ‘brilliant’. With 30 years in the industry, he has quite a few handy tips up his sleeve. But first, he talks about his ‘samurai’ knife, gifted by a friend and his essential kitchen tool for a year now. “It’s like a Chinese cleaver and unbelievably sharp. The other is a ceramic blade knife,” he reveals.
Xmas tasting: ‘‘We’re doing a Cuba night at On the Rocks on December 31; it’s exciting to discover a new cuisine. We have a brilliant flautist from Cuba who is helping us with the food as well,’’he confides.
Cheat sheet: ‘‘For a frothy South Indian filter coffee, use fresh milk. Don’t heat the decoction but add it to the hot milk. The froth helps retain heat without any cream forming. Also, when you make sushi, mix in a little tempura crisp. It is brilliant, and anyone who enjoys sushi will love the contrasting textures.’’
Fabien Berteau, Park Hyatt
Currently away on a Christmas break, patissier Berteau has a growing fan club thanks to his cooking classes and his heady Flying Elephant Valrhona cake. Given his reputation for teasing the taste-buds and his Xmas treats that are making their way to homes, we’re saving ourselves for dessert here.
Cheat sheet: ‘‘For Chocolate Éclair with choux pastry and chocolate cream, get the éclair shape correctly by piping the choux pastry in an oblong manner. It’s important that you use good quality chocolate, at least 70 per cent for the chocolate cream. One needs to ensure that the choux is filled with the cream fully and is served cold.’’
Alfonso Montefusco, Alto Vino, Bangalore
This Italian speaks five languages fluently, has authored a cookbook and appeared on cooking shows. The head chef of Alto Vino at Bengaluru Marriott Hotel Whitefield, has also baked a cake for Madonna.
Cheat sheet: ‘‘For a perfect roast chicken, rub the outside of the bird with softened unsalted butter. This encourages browning. If you love cheese on pasta, but worry about the fat content, add cow’s ricotta, a good compromise because it is rich in calcium and low in fat.’’
Oliver Zhang Xue Shi, Stix, Hyatt Regency
From the bustling streets of Beijing to Chennai, chef Oliver Zhang has travelled quite far, but still feels at home. “Once you get used to the heat here, everything else falls
into place,” says Zhang, who enjoys going to Marina beach and sampling the street food. Though Stix is an authentic Chinese restaurant, Zhang plans to get into the Christmas spirit by adding a few new dishes to the menu — like sliced beef with Haricot beans and a special silken tofu.
Cheat sheet: ‘‘Add Chinese rice wine to your meat to tenderise it and make it glossy. Been too generous with the salt? Add some pineapple.’’
— Rosella Stephen, Surya Praphulla Kumar and Ryan Peppin
Pics: A Raja Chidambaram, P Ravikumar, R Satish Babu, Albin Mathew