Caressed by Curry

Caressed by Curry

Chef Alfred Prasad is the mentor chef at Omya, the Indian speciality restaurant at The Oberoi, New Delhi. In 2002, Alfred earned the honour of being the youngest Indian chef to receive a Michelin star aged just 29. He held a Michelin star for thirteen years, along with several other accolades, and has been highly commended for his original take on traditional Indian cuisine. His delectable seasonal menus put a fabulous 21st century spin on centuries old dishes; delicately balancing creativity and authenticity. He preserves the purity and flavour of ingredients and presents each creation as a complete sensory experience. Edited excerpts...

Tell us about your passion towards cooking and why did you choose to become a chef?

Like for most chefs, mum was the first inspiration and helping her out in the kitchen from an early age definitely made the kitchen seem a fun and natural place to be in. It was mum who filled out the hotel management form, a stream that was very new in India back then. While at hotel school, I gravitated very easily towards the kitchen and knew I wanted to be a chef.  

Tell us about your journey from Wardha to London. How did you get your start in the restaurant industry and what are your main culinary influences? 

On graduating from hotel school, I was fortunate to be selected for a Kitchen Management Training programme and two years later, started off as a Junior Sous Chef. The initial years of training and work were probably the hardest, but coming out of it, I recognise it as one of the best things I had gone through. I was also fortunate to have had solid stints at India’s most iconic restaurants. I moved to London in 1999, joined Tamarind in 2001 and headed the kitchen until 2015 when I left to work on my own projects. 

In terms of influences, thanks to my Anglo-Indian mum and Tamil-Brahmin dad, we had a lot of early exposure to varied cuisines and food cultures, which opened my mind to the immense possibilities of food and cuisine. Thanks to my father’s work; I was fortunate to have lived in many places across the Indian sub-continent including Wardha, Mumbai, Delhi, Kathmandu, Andamans, Hyderabad, Vellore and Chennai, which further aided this learning. The move to London was a major shift in my journey as a chef. I gained exposure into International techniques and operations and could apply that knowledge to our traditional cuisines. 

As a Michelin star chef, what do you think are the key factors in making Indian food ‘authentic’? 

I am known for robust, strong and pure flavours and to me that is sacrosanct. The flavours should remain authentic. Also, I place a huge emphasis on ‘done-ness’ of produce – be it seafood, meats or vegetables. Everything else in terms of visual appeal, condiments, combinations, textures etc can lend itself to a more modern, artistic and creative approach. 

Why do you think Indian food has become such a universally popular cuisine? 

Indian cuisines have all the ingredients to make it universally popular – abundant in healthy or/and comfort foods, addictive spicy flavours, incredible diversity, great stories and legends attached to our dishes. I think a huge turning point was when the Michelin Guide first recognised Indian restaurants. It provided a big boost to the image of Indian cuisine which until then, was mostly considered a bit second class. Since the early 2000s that has changed. Indian fine dining has really helped take the brand value of our cuisines to another level. I also think that internationally the popularity of yoga has renewed interest in Indian concepts of healthy eating like ayurveda. The worldwide trend of vegetarianism and veganism is only going to boost this further. Rightfully, Indian food is being respected a lot more for its historical and very early ideologies of being restorative, nourishing, curative and medicinal. Not just for being delicious.  

What were the main reasons for you to have chosen The Oberoi New Delhi’s—Omya as a project fit for your homecoming? 

After several years of contributing to the Indian dining scene in London, I was hoping to do the same in India. I did receive a few offers over the years but with a full time role managing different restaurant concepts in London, I was very strapped for time. I strongly believe that Omya and the Oberoi collaboration was just meant to be. I have always had such high regard for the group and what it stands for, and my initial meetings with the legend of Indian hospitality, Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi forged that even more.  

As a mentor chef at Omya, what different flavours, concoctions and originality do you bring to the fore?

We were very clear from the outset that our food story would be viewed through the lens of our majestic capital city. Every dish has an Omya signature; balancing authentic flavours with an artistic touch and a focus on visual-appeal. 

As our theme for this issue revolves around the concept of Revival, we would like to ask you how do you revive age old Indian techniques and flavours to your dishes? 

As a chef and stakeholder in our culinary heritage; I feel a responsibility to help the revival process. Documenting ideas and hacks that our grandmothers used as home remedies, reviving ancient knowledge of foraging, pickling, fermentation, knowledge of medicinal plants are all very crucial and we all have to play a part in preserving that knowledge, ensuring we pass it on.

Chitman Kanwar Ahuja

Chitman Kanwar Ahuja is a feature writer at L'Officiel India. She is a silver jewellery hoarder and an aesthete of all arts. You can find her unraveling new stories day in and day out.