From Langars To Bostonian Restos: The Meteoric Rise Of India's Most Stylish Chef

29/04/2015 10:00 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Ranveer Brar

On meeting Ranveer Brar, it’s hard to imagine that this stylish (he's established a reputation in the country for his sharp dressing) chef hails from humble beginnings: The Punjabi lad’s first experience with cooking was at a Gurudwara’s langar at the age of six, and has gathered most of his culinary education from the old streets in Lucknow. In recent years, Chef Brar has gone on to host five TV shows, is a judge on MasterChef India Season 4, and even launched his own restaurant in Boston.

Yet he has not forgotten his roots, and continues to explore and fuse them with modern cooking styles – something he claims is his true signature style. “My first lesson in bulk cooking was at the langar at Hudson Lines, Lucknow Cantt.,” he remembers. “My grandfather was an ex-army man, and felt at home with the other ex-servicemen, I’d accompany him every Sunday, but would often get bored…until I stumbled upon the kitchens at the back.”

Chef Brar found the best possible way to keep himself busy – he would cut salad, and by the age of nine was making meethe chawal (sweet rice). In fact his sweet rice became so popular at a smaller gurudwara in his neighbourhood, the gyan ji (priest) asked for his recipe (preferring it over his wife's cooking), and his help every weekend instead.

“Not only did I learn how to cook for a large crew (a valuable lesson for any chef) I also understood the importance of a clean kitchen. What also struck me as weird, now that I look back on it, was that no one ever tasted the food, but it still came out consistently tasty - it lead me to believe that there is huge intangible side to cooking.”

Brar’s family was strongly opposed to the idea of a career as a chef.

“It was below our dignity to have a cook in the family. Hence the idea faced outright rejection and was dismissed as another teen infatuation,” says Brar. Instead of giving up, he started working as an apprentice for one of the oldest kebab vendors in Lucknow, and spent six months just drying charcoal, grinding spices, and “bhunoing nihari” (frying Nihari). He also frequented old kaarigars and spent a lot of time exploring Awadhi cuisine. "This time spent eventually made my parents realize that I was married to the profession, and they agreed to send me to culinary school," says Brar, smiling at the memory.

Brar was placed in Goa, where he finally started living his dream, but never forgot his roots: he would spend time with the locals, and days on trawlers, fishing boats and fish markets to “absorb the essence of culture to represent it accurately on a plate.”

It was here that he really developed a versatile signature that allowed him to launch a series of restaurants for reputed hotels - Morisco (a seafood restaurant), II Camino (Italian) and Fishtail in Goa, Machan, Ricks, and Kafe Fontana in Delhi. Insatiable in his quest to explore different foods, Brar also opened Sevilla for Claridges – a restaurant he claims is still the best Spanish restaurant in Delhi. Finally Brar moved to Boston to open Banq – a French Asian resto that won the best new restaurant in the world award by Wallpaper magazine.

Eventually though, he made it back to India to explore traditional cooking secrets. He plans to open more eateries in Boston and Mumbai, but also pushes to creativity beyond cooking: also an artist and sculptor, he thinks it is important as a chef, to express via whatever means possible. Finally, he loves watching his young son, Ishan evolve easily and smoothly as a chef without any of the struggle he faced to find his true calling.

Here are three of his signature recipes inspired from his days as an apprentice with old kebab vendors in Lucknow

  • Jaiutuni Butter Chicken (a healthier version of butter chicken with olives)
    Courtesy Ranveer Brar
    Ingredients Chicken drumsticks: 400 grams Lemon juice: 1 tablespoon Kashmiri red chilli powder: 1 teaspoon Salt : to taste Olive oil: to brush For marinade: Yogurt: 1/2 cup Ginger paste: 2 teaspoons Garlic paste: 2 teaspoons Kashmiri red chilli powder: 1/2 teaspoon Garam masala powder: 1/2 teaspoon Salt: to taste Olive oil: 2 teaspoons For makhni gravy Olive oil: 2 tsp Green cardamom: 2 Clove:2 Black peppercorns: 2-3 Cinnamon: 1 inch piece Ginger paste: 1 teaspoon Garlic paste: 1 teaspoon Tomato puree: 1/2 cup Red chilli powder: 1/2 teaspoon Salt: to taste Sugar or honey: 2 tablespoons Kasoori methi: 1/2 teaspoon Fresh low fat yoghurt: 1/2 cup Method Apply a mixture of red chilli powder, lemon juice and salt to the chicken pieces and set aside for half an hour in the refrigerator. Hang the yogurt in a muslin cloth for fifteen to twenty minutes to remove extra water. Add the ginger and garlic pastes, red chilli and garam masala powders, salt and mustard oil. Apply this marinade to the chicken pieces and place them in the refrigerator for three to four hours. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6. String the chicken pieces onto skewers and cook in the preheated oven or a moderately hot tandoor for ten to twelve minutes or until almost done. Baste with the butter and cook for another two minutes. Remove and set aside. To make the makhni gravy, heat olive oil in a non-stick pan. Add the green cardamoms, cloves, peppercorns and cinnamon. Sauté for two minutes, add the ginger and garlic pastes and sauté for two minutes. Add the tomato puree, red chilli powder, salt and half cup of water. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for ten minutes. Add the sugar or honey and powdered kasoori methi. Add the cooked tandoori chicken pieces. Simmer for five minutes and add the fresh low fat yoghurt. Serve hot with naan or parantha.
  • Lucknawi mutton biryani
    Courtesy Ranveer Brar
    Ingredients For garam masala: 1 cinnamon stick 8-10 cloves 2-3 tsp cumin seeds 1 tsp fennel seeds 2-3 tsp coriander seeds 1 tsp pepper corns 2 star anise 2-3 mace 2-3 brown cardamom 3-4 green cardamom For mutton marination: 1/2 kg mutton 2-3 tsp. ginger-garlic paste 1 tsp turmeric 1 tsp chilli powder Cashew nut paste Pinch of garam masala 4-5 tsp. curd For cooking: 2-3 tsp salt 3 tsp ghee 2-3 tsp oil 2-3 cups milk Saffron Method For garam masala: Dry roast all the spices. Once they are roasted, transfer them to a masala grinder and grind them finely. For mutton marination: To half kg mutton, add ginger-garlic paste, turmeric and chilli powder. Then add cashew nut paste, garam masala, curd and whisk it. Cover it with the lid and put it in the refrigerator for an hour. Final preparation: Let the meat come to room temperature. Season the meat with salt. Grease the handi with some ghee and oil. Transfer the marinated meat from the bowl to the handi. Now stir and cook the meat for a few minutes. Cover with the lid and simmer it for another half an hour. Now layer the mutton with cooked rice and pour a little saffron induced milk over it. Add a little salt, garam masala, roasted onions and ghee over it. Cover the handi with the lid and weight it down with something heavy. Keep the flame low. Cook for about half an hour. Serve it hot.
  • Dorra Kebab
    Courtesy Ranveer Brar
    Ingredients Meat (lamb) - 1 kg Fat (kidney) - 250 gm Vanilla root - 1 Khus root - 1 Sandal powder - 2.5 gm Gondh (Gum Arabica) 1 pinch Flax seeds - 2.5 gm Pistachio powder - 5 gm Kebab chini - 5 gm A few rose petals Saffron - 2.5 gm Method Make a mince of the meat and the fat and pass through the mincer for 10-12 minutes till it becomes a fine paste. Now, add the spices to the mixture and mix well. Skewer onto a rounded wooden stick covered with a silk dorra and cook over a charcoal grill until done. Remove dorra and serve.

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