A Strong Connect With One’s Roots Can Inspire Many Stories: Chef Sujan Sarkar

A Strong Connect With One’s Roots Can Inspire Many Stories: Chef Sujan Sarkar

These are difficult times for the restaurant industry, and it will probably require a reboot before it takes off again. There is little that Sujan Sarkar, Chef Partner of ROOH Restaurants (SF, Chicago, Columbus and New Delhi) and Baar Baar in New York has not seen in this space and his creative mind is already thinking of many ways to cope.

For Sujan, going back to the basics will perhaps not be very difficult as he has been propagating it for a long time. Growing up in a small town close to Calcutta; having an agriculturist father, Sujan always has always been a son of the soil.

Before interviewing him, I came across an interesting survey by a few IIT students who analysed 2000 Indian recipes in terms of chemical compounds from a recipe book by famous Indian chef. The researchers deduced from their findings, that while Western cooking tends to pair foods which have similar chemical compounds and flavours, Indian recipes tend to mix ingredients where the flavours don't overlap.

Interesting, but not as interesting as Sujan’s reaction. “Even if they were to analyze the almost two million and more regional dishes and variants we have, I do not think any survey could honestly conclude this. Our range of cuisines and dishes are so wide and complex and that is what makes them incredible. 2000 is just the tip of the iceberg, the world is yet to unravel the true potential of Indian food. Somewhere the flavour overlaps and somewhere it doesn’t – this is the appeal.”

“Think about a simple chaat (various textures and temperatures combine together),” says Sujan, “but depending on the location in India, it may be made completely differently.”

After working for 13 years with Andre Garret, Chris Galvin and Peter Tempelhoff in the UK; he joined Automat as head chef at the age of 27. In the shortest time after joining, he opened gates to Almada next door, making it one of the most exclusive hideouts for celebrities in central London.

Sujan talks about the importance and respect for farming which reflects in all that he offers on a plate.

Bengal is known to be a very 'gastronomically' savvy state. Every dish has achieved cult status in India. Even the jaggery from there is in much demand. How has this shaped your thinking on food?

I hail from a suburb of Kolkata, and my childhood was deeply influenced by a natural respect for farming and local produce, thanks to my father. I grew up eating a variety of Bengali food at home and during my college days in Odisha, which helped develop a better understanding about simple ingredient-driven cuisine which is highly seasonal, many of which are still etched in my memory. A strong connect with one’s roots will inspire stories, and any initiatives I have been undertaking are backed by a strong story.

Did you get exposed to working with fresh food through your father? How did his work influence how you see ingredients, farmer markets and seasonality of food?

Watching him, observing him and learning from him were a big part of my childhood and it has deeply influenced the respect for seasonal produce that I try to continually develop. Food used to be only seasonal back then. There used to be a huge weekend market (similar to present day farmers markets) next to our house, where farmers used to gather to sell the freshest produce straight from farms and local areas. Going to the market with him used to be one of the most exciting things as a kid. It has inspired me to cultivate symbiotic relationships and networks across the globe, wherever we work. While some produce is indigenous to India, we have managed to invest our time and trust in partners such as Gopal Farms (New York) that can now help us grow anything we’d need for our menus locally. The philosophy remains the same; it’s a relationship that must be nurtured and it grows together.

You define your way as being 'progressive Indian'. Could you tell us a little more about it? What impelled you to innovate on traditional Indian food?

I grew up eating a variety of regional food, absorbing its flavours, many of which are still etched in my memory. We had none of these fast food or global chains around us. I grew up eating local, regional food and I found magic in that. Over time, I have married my understanding of regional flavours with the techniques and sensibilities I developed over the course of my professional career. Propagating “progressive Indian” or “New Indian” cuisine comes from the desire to hero regional food, showcasing our pan-Indian diversity, using the techniques learnt in professional kitchens across the globe.

It’s the confluence of my past and present – how far I have been able to come as a chef to push the boundaries of this cuisine, while the inspiration emanates from my younger days.

You worked with Michelin star restaurants in the UK? What would you say was the biggest learning for you in working in Mayfair with perhaps the brightest of minds in the culinary world? 

I think there were two aspects to it – first, the work culture, which taught me discipline, perfection, collaboration and team work. Second, the actual cooking technique, exposure to such a high powered environment means incredible learning about how to treat produce and to innovate and yet stay consistent.

How has the UK helped define Indian food for better or worse?

The standard idea of what Indian cuisine is, has become mainstream in the UK. But it currently does not showcase the truly exciting diversity of our food. UK could reinvent the idea of what is considered “Indian mainstream cuisine” by opening up the delightful variety our regional food offers. This has started to happen little by little.

You mention that half the food you create is vegetarian or vegan. In your experience in the UK and the US would you say the Indian idea of vegetarianism is slightly different from the Western notion of Vegetarianism? How does that influence what you offer?

As Indian ingredients are slowly becoming more available abroad, we don’t find ourselves constrained. It’s rather liberating to work with the great variety of vegetables (even if not indigenous/Indian) available in the West too. It adds another layer to our offering, however the fundamentals remain the same - the flavor.

We assess the offering based on palette preference and ingredient availability – this plays a key role in India as well as abroad. For instance, I may not find the best artichoke in India, if I did a curry with it, perhaps people would try but would it be the best dish or become a regular item? Probably not. Similar to how a bitter gourd may find more acceptability in India if presented in an exciting new way, but likely not in the West.

Food habits are evolving, the offering has to pace itself accordingly.

Was your experiment and experience in New York different? How would you compare the Bay area Indian cuisine scene with that of New York?

The variety of produce available in each is plenty, but rather different, based on their respective environments. Along with that tastes, habits and preferences also vary which has an impact on how our product evolves and how it is accepted by the local diners.

A lot of reviews talk about 'fusion food'. Do you see Western chefs adapting some aspects of Indian food culture? In which areas is this most evident?

I’m not too fond of the phrase “fusion food” – I’d rather refer to it as drawing influences. Cuisines across the world draw influences from each other, especially Western cuisines from others.

Not many people have enough of an understanding about Indian food or flavours to adapt it, but seems like we are at the beginning. That’s good for us, but mainstream Indian food abroad isn’t as commonly incorporated in terms of technique.

Popular dishes may get mixed together, but there is so much more potential if we scratch beyond the surface. We are seeing a Butter Chicken Pie, for instance on American menus but if our regional Indian food gets more popular, this may pick up further. We ought to see more influence of Indian flavours on the West sooner or later.

You deconstruct some of the common myths about Indian cooking - that it is not only about 'spice' or only from the North or South of India. How do you communicate this to diners...the fact that a gravy has been cooking for 8 hours straight or that preparations start the day before when you start soaking the grains or marinating something? Is this knowledge important to your clients?

This is our work. When you make an iPhone, you don’t talk about the exact process of making it, the nitty gritties. Frankly, I don’t think 95% diners care as much about this – there have been fads that have come and gone, but ultimately diners care most about the final product. If you like something you’ll judge it most based on how it tastes when it arrives on your plate in front of you, regardless of whether you knew it was cooking 72 hours or it wasn’t.

I loved your explanation of how the humble aloo tikka became this exalted multi flavoured offering with a profusion of tastes and colours. Is there a little laboratory in your head that conjectures up these combinations on a daily/weekly basis? What inspires this creativity?

The creative process is very atypical…I carry a diary everywhere, it starts there. I look at simple Indian dishes and think about how one can change the perception of that dish, while keeping the same flavour. When I travel, I’m constantly gleaning inspiration, from things I see to when an idea strikes, I try to tease it out, what the flavour combinations could be, what the ingredients in season would be, what story it resonates with. Often I even draw out what a dish could be like.

How do you name your dishes and package your menu. Is there an Indian approach to 'plating'?

I try to balance familiarity with novelty, taking local factors into account. For instance, local Indian terminology may not be as known to diners in our Western locations – so we will try and build familiarity through mentioning known ingredients. Diners definitely look into ingredients to make their choice of what to order and try. In India, the same ingredients may evoke excitement or aversion, so we will focus on technique or what is exciting in it to encourage diners to try it.

How do you approach your bar menu? People like to team up food with drink and you offer a wide range. Do you have a specialist and are these offerings inspired by Ayurveda in some way?

I work with some talented mixologists, it’s definitely a combined team effort. We look at how to use Indian ingredients at the core of the exercise, to bridge our food and drink menus, but focus on ensuring that they ultimately be independently appealing too.

You started off initially with an interest in fashion designing. How has that aesthetic influenced your food choices? Are the paintings displayed in your restaurants done by you?

Art has always interested me, from the very start; the good fortune of belonging to a land like Bengal, with such a rich culture. Being in an environment like London and New York, also rich cultural hubs, has further pushed me to continue exploring. It has certainly had an impact on my philosophy as a chef – going beyond food, I involve myself in the overall restaurant concept, interiors, artwork, cocktails, music, ambience, the entire experience – inside and outside the kitchen. We work with local artists in all of our locations to curate the right selection of artwork for that particular city.

Décor of our Restaurants in every city is similar but not the same. We work extensively with local artists and architects to curate our restaurants in each location, and this reflects in the final results, but initial design - mood board and creative is one by our design team in India.

Then it’s just trial and error with the team and trusting our gut (and our taste buds and memories).

Who are the chefs who have inspired you in the recent past?

Chef Heston Blumenthal used to be my biggest inspiration when I use to work as a commis in London. My interest in modern and molecular cuisine developed because of his TV shows.

In my 19 years long professional career I worked with so many talented chefs and it will be difficult to name just a few.

When I use to work at Galvin at Windows, cooking the best pommes puree (mashed potato) and cleaning the cooking ranges used to be the best way to impress Head Chef and Sous Chefs.

On a closing note, where do you see the food industry going from here, post-Covid? Do you think chefs and the restaurant industry will have to reinvent themselves?

It’s definitely going to be replete with challenges, but it may present opportunities in disguise too. Restaurants must adapt to survive and even thrive.

Take-out should remain essential: Full service restaurants will pay attention to take-out business along with regular operations after they re-open. A dine-in restaurant's revenue may go down by 40-50% because of social distancing measures, while a take-out option can add 20-25% revenue back in the business. For take-out options, full-service restaurants may develop innovative yet simplified menus with top quality seasonal ingredients.

Streamlined service overall: I don’t think people will give up eating meat because of COVID-19, but we will definitely see less items on the menu with more innovative approaches to a “zero waste” philosophy. Dishes will be individually portioned as sharing plates may not be an option for some time.  Innovative THALI (Indian-style meal made up of a selection of various dishes which are served on a platter) can gain its popularity in upscale Indian restaurants to reduce interactions with servers.

Tech in dining: QR code-based ordering (you can scan the QR code at your phone to access the menu items and guidelines) can replace traditional menu cards, which will reduce interactions and subsequent risks they may present.