DUBAI: London’s Michelin-starred Mayfair hotspot Gymkhana opened its first overseas outpost in Riyadh earlier this year and has already found itself a loyal following in the Kingdom.
The restaurant’s Indian-born executive chef Gaurav Kakkar — who was instrumental in the pre-opening of Mövenpick Hotel Riyadh, followed by the pre-opening and rebranding of the 5-star voco Riyadh — is especially excited about the response it has received in Riyadh so far.
“We are blessed in a way that the locals and expats in Riyadh are no strangers to Indian cuisine. The response has been phenomenal. I’m enjoying it,” Kakkar tells Arab News.
Kakkar credits his mother as one of the main inspirations behind his passion for cooking. But not in the way you might expect.
“Honestly, I got into cooking because my mother was a very bad cook,” he says. “So, whenever my mom would cook, I’d eventually end up in the kitchen cooking something for myself. And then my father kind of encouraged me to experiment with a few things. And eventually I developed a knack for it.”
Here, Kakkar talks about learning to cook with meat as a vegetarian, his working style and his love for Thai cuisine.
When you started out, what was the most common mistake you made?
I come from a vegetarian family. So the challenge used to be handling different kinds of meat. Also, back in the day, we didn’t have access to classic European vegetables like asparagus or artichokes, so learning how to work with them was also a challenge; there’s a big difference between knowing it in theory and doing it in the kitchen.
What’s your top tip for amateurs?
First of all, if you’re cooking, don’t just do it to feed yourself. Cook because you’re passionate about it, because you enjoy eating. I also tell people not to be scared of experimenting; there’s no right or wrong.
What one ingredient can instantly approve any dish?
I don’t think there’s any one magic ingredient. It’s about the freshness and the quality. That’s the most important detail, whether it’s a particular vegetable or a particular type of meat. Also, getting the right amount of seasoning, whatever that seasoning is, makes or breaks a dish.
When you go out to eat, do you find yourself critiquing the food? Or can you switch off and just eat?
Honestly, I can eat anything and everything. Anything that’s nice and flavorful works for me; simple or complex doesn’t matter. So I try not to get into critiquing, unless the it’s extremely bad. But if it’s fully prepared decently I’m not someone who goes out and kind of picks on people’s food.
What’s your favorite cuisine?
I actually love Thai food and Thai flavors. In particular, I love the flavors of lemongrass, coconut and galangal. Because I lived in South India, I have an inclination towards South Indian cuisine and South Asian cuisines in general.
What’s your go-to dish if you have to cook something quickly at home?
When I need to make something quick, I love a simple khichdi (a dish of rice and lentils) with some nice Indian homemade pickle. My mom used to make khichdi, but it’s not the typical runny one that’s common in Indian households; it’s cooked for a longer period of time and has this soft, deeply-cooked consistency. We like to keep it very simple and only add cumin, salt and turmeric.
As a head chef, what are you like? Are you a disciplinarian? Do you shout a lot? Or are you more laid back?
I’m not one particular category when it comes to work. When I bring someone into my team, I tell them very clearly what is expected, what is allowed and what is forbidden. So every team member knows all that. I’ve set the ground rules and I also make it very clear that communication is really, really important. So, they should not hide anything and they should be open about everything.
Chef Gaurav’s murgh malai tikka
For the first marinade: 800g fresh boneless chicken breast; 15g salt; 30g ginger garlic paste; 15ml fresh lemon juice
For the second marinade: 40g full fat labneh; 40ml full fat fresh cream; 40g Philadelphia cream cheese;
10g fresh coriander, chopped; 15g fresh Indian green chilis, chopped; 5g green cardamom powder
For the finishing: 20ml corn oil (for basting); 10g chaat masala; 10g ghee
1. Clean the chicken breast to remove any sinew or excess fat, wash and pat dry.
2. Prick the chicken breast with a fork.
3. In a mixing bowl, marinate chicken with salt, lemon juice, ginger garlic paste. Leave for 30 mins.
4. In another mixing bowl, add all the ingredients for the second marinade and mix well.
5. Squeeze off any excess water from the chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces and add to the second marinade. Mix gently until all pieces are evenly coated.
6. Place in a refrigerator for at least six hours.
7. Skewer the chicken pieces on a metal skewer roughly 1 cm apart.
8. Cook in a medium-hot tandoor or on a charcoal barbeque grill for around 5-8 minutes, or until 70 percent cooked.
9. Remove the skewer, baste with the corn oil and allow to rest for 3 minutes, allowing excess water and oil to drip off.
10. Now cook again in the tandoor or BBQ for 3-5 minutes until the chicken is evenly colored and cooked through. Remove the chicken from the skewer and plate.
11. Serve hot, sprinkled with chaat masala and ghee, accompanied by mint and coriander chutney.