Tamarind of London
- Lamb escalopes w/ potato + mango salad
South on the 73 to Newport Coast Dr. and left on PCH (Pacific Coast Hwy. for the non-locals). Pelican Hill to my left and the beautiful Pacific Ocean to my right. Not a bad way to start the morning. Crystal Heights and we make a left, a right, a left and hello sunshine we’re here. Tamarind of London.
We say hi to a passing pooch and some humans, then snap some shots of the gold Tamarind letters, surrounded by shimmering tiles above a fountain near the front door. Hey, Alfred! You home? Nice to meet you! What’s for breakfast?
It’s a cool interior, colorful, with hanging lights that remind me of bird cages. Striped and pattern-backed booths and tables are minimally dressed with glasses waiting for spirits. A large pane of glass and BIG red buckets (Tandoor ovens, we’re told) lead you to the kitchen. Thanks for the coffee, let’s get cooking.
What’s your story? How did you get here? I was one of four children and mom used to teach at the same school we studied, unfortunately. That meant she woke up early, cooked us lunch and packed it for school, then cooked us breakfast, woke us up, and got us ready. It was a hell of a lot of work. Around the age of 10 or 11 my elder sister and I felt we had to pitch in so we started to help around in the kitchen.
On the weekends it was my job to peel prawns, vegetables and do bits and pieces around the kitchen. We were fortunate to live in a house with a very large plot of land around it, so we had our own chickens and ducks and much of the work was hands-on, plucking feathers off the chickens, cooking, and eating them.
My dad’s from a very hardcore vegetarian Southern Indian background and my mom’s a hardcore carnivore. She’s an Anglo-Indian Indian from Hyderabad so the style of cooking I grew up with really helped us understand diversity. Most importantly, my dad was on a transferable job which meant we lived in several parts of India, which exposed us to a diverse range of regional Indian cooking. That early exposure to diversity and hands-on cooking at home set me up for hotel school. I found out that I wasn’t queasy from handling raw meat like most of my classmates in the first year, and all of those things certainly helped inspire me to become a chef.
How will you keep up the superior product of (Michelin star rated) Tamarind between London and Newport Coast? Tamarind has been established for 18 years in London and is known for its consistency and high quality. To bring that same level of consistency here to Newport Beach is my biggest challenge, because we’re primarily training American chefs to cook Indian food. I quite like that as a challenge because they don’t know any other way. You show them once, you teach them a recipe, and they don’t deviate from the recipe at all. It is much easier than finding Indian chefs that have worked for ten years because then you have to make them unlearn, then relearn.
Do you consider Indian food to be exotic food? Yes. India is exotic. It was once labeled the land flowing with milk and honey, the land of kings, kingdoms, princes, forts and palaces. Indian cuisine, at least the royal cuisines of India, certainly seem very exotic. Maybe not your everyday kind of a meal, but certainly the ingredients, as well and the fact that it is such a large country with so much diversity in its cuisine.
Which of the four regions of India do you consider Tamarind of London to fall into? I presume when you say four regions you mean North, South, West and East? India is far too large to be divided into four, but Tamarind in London was actually set out to be North-West Frontier Province. It’s a landlocked region, so seafood is limited. When I joined Tamarind I saw an opportunity to bring the best of London’s abundant seafood, so with my coastal upbringing from the south of India I incorporated seafood recipes into the menu to bring a little bit of balance. We actually adapted local seafood and created signature kabab recipes for the tandoor. Sea bass and scallops are things you wouldn’t generally associate with an Indian restaurant in India, but we use those wonderful products and created recipes at Tamarind that have stood now for about eight years on the menu.
Can you tell me a little about your creative approach to cooking? When I do demonstrations, I always encourage people to smell the spices… feel, touch and try to understand the flavor profile and the role it plays in a dish. Then experiment when they go back home, like going heavy on the pepper, or with ginger. I encourage people to play around with ingredients and arrive at flavors that suit them the best. One question I always get in interviews is to name my three favorite ingredients, which I say are ginger, pepper and cilantro. No garlic? I love garlic but you know, I have been in the UK for 12 years and the Brits don’t like garlic that much. The French love it, but not the Brits. I guess they don’t like it because the French like it [laughing]. Nothing against the garlic, but it starts wars.
Which kitchen tool could you not live without? Definitely the wet and dry grinder because a lot of our cooking is about grinding toasted spices, either dry, or wet grinding for marinades. It goes back to the old days when people used stone-on-stone grinders to extract flavor out of the spices. We are a little spoiled now and we use these electric blender grinders. I couldn’t live without that in my restaurant.
Who is your mentor in the world of cooking? Several, I can not pick one name, but it could be a street vendor in India. It could be this particular gentleman, making the same pot of biryani everyday for 30 years. His ritual starts at four in the morning, buying the baby lamb and all the ingredients, then cooking in this gigantic pot 150 portions of biryani, which is a meat and rice dish with browned onions, spices, rosewater. It’s a one-pot meal and that’s all he does. It’s ready about one in the afternoon and at two it’s sold out. Then he heads home and starts again the next day. He has been doing this for 30 years. It’s hard not to notice the dedication and skill of someone like that.
I seek inspiration from spices, ingredients, places, street hawkers. There are so many unknown superstars that I have come across in my career. My professor of cooking at the hotel school was a huge inspiration, purely in terms of his knowledge and the way he got it across.
As a chef I’ve always considered myself a teacher as well, because it’s part of the daily routine, training the young chefs to do what you do. It would be easy for me to say Marco Pierre White or G ordon Ramsey, names like that, but I’ve actually been more inspired by the lesser known superstars.
Do you use local farmers, fishermen, ranchers? Wherever possible. Certainly in London we use the finest, seasonal local produce we can and we source as close to central London as possible. Our meat comes from farms in Kent, which is 30 miles away. Here in Newport Coast we have fantastic local produce. We work with Santa Monica Seafood, and they are the best in the business. It really helps the Californian seasonal content on the menu, in terms of what we do here at Tamarind of London.
Do you like cooking with seafood? I do. Most of my schooling was in a coastal city in south India, Chennai, formerly Madras, and of course we had plenty of fresh seafood. Growing up, mom loved cooking prawns and crabs and fish, so we really had a great exposure to a huge variety and seafood was a huge part of my childhood. It’s great to be in a place like Newport Coast where there is such an abundant amount of seafood.
Are there risks to take with Indian food? Certainly. Risks could mean playing with ingredients, not following recipes to the T. It’s an understanding of the role each ingredient plays and how to best use them. Combinations of spices is a risky game. Chili is often associated with Indian food, but in reality chili and the tomato only arrived with the Portuguese much later than Indian civilization existed, so that’s one myth busted in terms of the chili. I think using the chili as a flavor, rather than just a blow-your-head-off spice, is an interesting approach.
There are risks of diluting the cuisine, as well. We see a lot of modern Indian restaurants doing fusion Indian food and I say ‘why fix something that ain’t broke?’ We haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of the Indian cuisine repertoire, globally. There are probably a few hundred other regional Indian cuisines yet to be brought overseas, so I see the fusion Indian fad as a risk. There are countless regional cuisines that are probably dying out due to a lack of documentation and secrets being held within families that are probably lost forever. On every visit I make to India, I try to seek those masters of their craft in the hope of understanding what they do, to help preserve their lifetime’s work.
There was recently a book written called Following Fish (Sumanth Subramanian), which is supposed to be roughly a decade’s worth of work following the coastline of India. I can imagine a few thousand coastal cuisines along the way. This author spent a long time and a lot of effort following the coast of India, literally by foot, village to village, picking up recipes and taking photographs, creating a masterpiece collection. Have you read it? No my wife has, I’m not so good with reading [laughs] but I like the concept.
What is your philosophy about cooking? I think my philosophy is inspired by the saying of the Dali Lama: “Enter love and cooking with reckless abandon.” Whenever I teach or do demonstrations I always try to communicate that recipes shouldn’t be followed like it’s the holy grail. OK, sure, when it comes to pastry you have to be a perfectionist with times and weighted ingredients, but most other cooking you can play around with ingredients and experiment. It takes a little understanding of the science, but beyond that you can fine tune recipes to your own taste.
Is it important to keep the Michelin star rating? I wouldn’t want to retain the Michelin just for the sake of retaining the Michelin. What is more important is to be dedicated to your craft and focus on the customers’ experience. Make sure you’re consistently good at what you do and put your best foot forward each day and encourage your team to do their best as well. I think what Michelin looks for is a consistently good product. They would probably visit a restaurant 10 or 12 times a year and what they really pick up on is how consistently good the food is.
I must admit the first year I took over as the executive chef at Tamarind in London, Tamarind already had one star the year before, in 2001. Most often when a chef moves you drop a star, but thankfully hard work paid off and we retained the star, which was probably my most rewarding, most exhilarating feeling.
What does it take for a chef to become successful? I think it takes dedication. The first few years are always tough. The fact that you work late evenings when your friends are out partying and eating at good restaurants, it’s a bit tough, tough to accept. I try to instill that belief in young chefs that what you put in is what you take out. It’s a long, hard way to the top, but it’s so very rewarding and then you look back at the journey and you can only have a smile on your face.
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Pan-grilled lamb escalopes and potato
- 2 lamb, best ends (bone-off)
- 1 tbsp. ginger-garlic paste
- ½ tsp. turmeric powder
- 1 tsp. cumin powder
- ½ tsp. red chili powder
- 1 tsp. coriander powder
- 2 tbsp. malt vinegar
- 1 tsp. crushed peppercorns
- 2 potatoes (peeled)
- 3 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1 onion, ½ cm. julienned
- 1 tomato, sliced
- Few sprigs of cilantro
- Slice the de-boned racks into 1 cm. thick medallions (slices), wash, drain and leave aside.
- Slice the raw, peeled potato into 4 mm. thin rounds, leave aside.
- In a bowl, mix the ginger-garlic paste, half a teaspoon crushed peppercorns, ground spices and malt vinegar, mix well with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil.
- Add the sliced lamb and potato to the marinade, mix well and leave aside for 15 minutes
- Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil (each) in two non-stick pans, place the sliced lamb and sliced potato in a single layer and pan-grill for 5 minutes over medium heat, turn the slices over and cook for a further 3-4 minutes until gently browned.
- Cover with a lid and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Now increase the heat and throw in the julienne of onion and sliced tomato, toss for 30 seconds mix together and serve hot with a sprinkling of crushed peppercorns and cilantro.
- 1 large salad mango, cut into matchsticks
- 1 carrot, cut into julienne
- 1 punnet of mustard cress
- ¼ cup grated fresh-frozen coconut
- 2 tbsp. roasted and crushed walnuts
- For the dressing:
- 1 tsp. honey
- 1 lime, juice only
- 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt
- ½ tsp. crushed black peppercorns
- When ready to serve, toss the mango and carrot in a salad bowl to mix well.
- Portion the salad into the serving plates, sprinkle with walnuts, mustard cress and shredded coconut.
- Sprinkle with sea salt and crushed peppercorns, drizzle with olive oil dressing and serve.