Hari Nayak, an internationally acclaimed chef, restaurateur and consultant, started his epicurean journey from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Today, he is one of the most sought after chefs in North America for his unique cooking style. He also works as a culinary consultant to many restaurants that are associated with larger hotel and resort properties, especially in the Middle and Far East. Born in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, today Nayak runs three successful Indian restaurants in the US. Varun Jain got an opportunity to speak with the chef who put Indian cuisine on the global culinary map.
At what age did you started cooking? When did you think of becoming a chef?
I started trying my hand in the kitchen when I was around 15 years old. I had no idea then that one day I would become a chef. It was later when I joined the Hotel Management Institute (WGSHA) at Manipal that I started thinking seriously about the profession.
Tell us about your journey from India to USA. Why did you chose to study at CIA?
During my hotel management course, I knew I wanted to become a chef and take it up as a profession. So, I started putting in extra hours in the hotel kitchen that was part of our school. I knew I had to educate myself at the best cooking school of the world. That’s why I chose the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. As a result, I landed in USA.
You have been presenting modern Indian food in an artistic manner to the West. How do you think the West looks at Indian food?
When I landed at CIA, it wasn’t with the plan to represent Indian food in USA. I simply wanted to learn Western cooking techniques, baking and pastry making. Indian cuisine happened later and by default. When I came to the US in 1995, what was being served as Indian food was not well represented. The local Americans knew very little of authentic Indian food. It was the basic cream-based curries and naan bread. Very few restaurants, which were considered the best in the league, were serving very average food. Now there are so many restaurants and chefs who are doing such an amazing job to represent our cuisine and culture. It is a good time for Indian cuisine. It is widely accepted and loved. I use my Western training skills and incorporate them into the traditional flavours of Indian cooking. That makes it modern and unique. The locals and Indians who want something new and exciting enjoy it. It is a unique niche market.
Where do you see Indian food on the global culinary map?
Right now it is probably in the top 10, right behind French, Italian, Japanese, Oriental, Spanish, and South American food. It is amongst the top three cuisines in the UK. I feel it is just a matter of time that Indian food will figure amongst the top three cuisines on the global culinary map.
What kind of food do you enjoy cooking and serving to your guests the most?
The food that I love to cook is South Indian regional recipes using local and seasonal ingredients that are available here with a Western twist.
Tell us about your restaurants and their concepts. How have they been received in the US?
My restaurants are considered modern, global and eclectic Indian. The food has a unique global twist, changes seasonally and is influenced by my travels.
Matt & Meera is an American café with a flavour punch from ingredients and spices from India and around the world. It is American cuisine created by people who found their calling through passion, not ancestry. This new restaurant shares inspiration, ingredients and attitude.
Orissa is a wine bar and bistro serving eclectic Indian food. There are small plates at the bar and elegant plated meals in the main dining room. The cuisine is a blend of traditional Indian dishes with a modern twist and classic Western dishes flavoured by Indian spices and seasonings.
Dosateria is a unique, quick service restaurant with an open kitchen bringing together the South Indian quick service concept merged with a French style creperie.
The restaurants have been very well received by people who are new to the cuisine and also by those who love Indian cuisine and want something different.
You are also a culinary consultant. What is your role?
I am a culinary consultant to many restaurants that are associated with larger hotel and resort properties, especially in the Middle and Far East. Mostly, I participate in menu planning, recipe development, presentation, and special events.
What, according to you, are the common mistakes restaurateurs make, which spells doom for their business?
Today’s customers are very knowledgeable and well travelled. They understand food more than ever before. We need to stay true to the concept, provide value for money, and not spend extra on creating a high-end experience. We should, instead, spend our time and effort in creating the best and most memorable food experience that customers will cherish.
What, according to you, are the top three factors for developing a successful economic proposition for a restaurant business?
Leadership and a winning attitude, business planning and clarity of an innovative defined concept, quality food, quality service and flawless execution.
What is the current food trend globally?
- Restaurants serving small plates and tapas bars
- Eclectic menus with a global influence
- Restaurants with open kitchens, stadium seating around the kitchen where they get to feel the vibe of the chef and his team dishing up meals
- Casual dining and doing away with the jacket-only formal service
- Farm to table, where the restaurants support the local farmers and suppliers and where the emphasis is more on seasonal, fresh and local food.
How do you tackle food wastage at your outlets?
One must be creative with the menu to reduce wastage. Planning your menu and purchases is the key. We always forecast the sales based on past data and prep according to the business need. Other simple tools like creating a wastage log and tracking and documenting always help.
How can a restaurateur keep reinventing himself?
One needs to be open and aware of global trends. One should be well travelled and should always follow the top successful chefs and restaurateurs who have made an impact on the culinary map.
What is the toughest thing about this business?
The toughest fact to take in is that there is no guarantee of return and success even if you do everything right.
You have authored almost half a dozenF books on Indian food and spices. What is your inspiration behind writing these books, and what do you plan to achieve through this?
I enjoy writing books as much as I enjoy cooking. It drives me to learn and research more about our cuisine. There is so much to learn. It is best to share the knowledge that I have learnt through my experiences. It is a very humbling experience to see my books used as a guide in many hotel management and culinary schools.
You are also working on a new book, India: A Journey through Culture and Cuisine. What is it about?
In this, I return to India to discover the best of regional cooking like never before. In the book, I take a personal tour to learn about one of the most diverse and rich cuisines of the world. The book is laced with vibrant, stunning photography that connects to the stories and the food. It captures the true essence of the beauty of India and the deep connection between the culture and cuisine of its people. It is a cookbook, a travelogue and a memoir, offering a fascinating and personal look at the food traditions that have shaped my life and cooking – from my home town in South India to my ongoing work as a chef and restaurateur in the USA.
Apart from being a chef, culinary consultant, and a restaurateur, what all do you have your hands in?
I am the corporate chef for one of the topmost and largest Indian food service companies of North America known as Café Spice. Café Spice (www.cafespice.com) brings authentic Indian food to the food service, gourmet retail markets nationally.
Not many years ago in India, chefs were faceless people who toiled in the kitchen as unsung heroes. In the last five years, however, there has been a rise in celebrity chefs in India and many of them have become brands in themselves. What is your take on this phenomenon?
This reminds me of the days when I used to work in the hotels back in India. I think gone are the days when the general manager of the hotel wanted only those people who wore suits and ties to be out in the lobby and restaurants interacting with the customers. Now they are proud to showcase the white uniform and the chef. Customers want to know and be one with the person who is responsible for the meal that they enjoyed. Chefs are more educated. It is a global phenomenon and it is here to stay. Hence the growing popularity of the open kitchen trend around the world.
Several enowned Indian chefs are making heads turn in the Western culinary landscape. How do you think the presence of Indian chefs on the global map is influencing Indian food?
I think it helps our cuisine and country very much and makes a significant impact. We are all working towards one common goal – to showcase the fact that India and Indian chefs are not far behind and we stand equal to the world’s top chefs.
What is your ultimate goal?
To make Indian culture and cuisine mainstream and in the forefront on the global culinary map.
Tell us about your current and future projects?
I am deeply involved in creating a multi-unit commissary driven QSR – Dosateria – with our brand Café Spice. It is a unique concept, and we plan to take it national in the US. Our first location opened its doors in New York City. Apart from this, I am also writing and working on two more books along wiht working towards releasing my own line of spice blends and another retail product line with a supermarket chain later this year.