Primed for the World Gourmet Festival at the Four Seasons Bangkok, New York–based chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and Indian food expert Hari Nayak talks to T+L
Q: What’s your approach to Indian cuisine? In what way do you modernize and redefine it?
A: Modern Indian cooking is a concept; each chef has a different take on it. Some chefs take Indian cuisine and recreate it by using Western techniques along with a delicious mix of non-Indian ingredients. Some bring traditional Indian cuisine to simplified levels to suit Western tastes. Whatever the approach, I believe as long as we keep the flavors and authenticity intact and create a balance of flavors using Indian spices it can be done successfully. I love to create international twists on the traditional flavors of Indian food.
Q: What inspires you as a chef?
A: The satisfaction when I see a smile on people’s faces when I cook for them. I got interested in food at a very young age (10 to 12). Growing up in India, I was exposed to wide variety of spices and cooking techniques at home. As a kid I was enamored by street-food vendors, watching them cook up simple fare always excited me. I would come home and try to imitate them and cooking and being in the kitchen and entertaining made me happy. And that’s pretty much how I got hooked.
Q: At Orissa, your New York bistro, you infuse contemporary dishes with traditional Indian flavors (cardamom brownies; spice-crusted bay scallops with green-chili reduction). How does where you come from influence your cooking today?
A: I grew up in Udupi, a small town nestled in southwestern coastal region of India. As a child, I was surrounded by aromas, textures, flavors, tastes and colors of the different spices that my mother and grandmother used in the kitchen. Seafood was a big part of our diet. My mother and grandmother often spent several of their afternoon hours preparing the spices to be used for our daily meals. It is from them that I learned the benefit of grinding fresh spices and most importantly how the subtle flavors hidden within the spices are gently released when they are slightly roasted before being ground, which is a key part in Indian cooking. The vivid memories from my youth and my home guide every Indian meal I cook and every ingredient I select.
Q: In 2007, you published Modern Indian Cooking with chef Vikas Khanna, and Daniel Boulud wrote that it gave “a new dimension to food.” Tell us about your latest book, released in August 2011.
A: My Indian Kitchen (Tuttle; myindiankitchen.com) is a guide for easy and delicious Indian food that unlocks the magic behind the cuisine. The recipes are authentic and simple, and designed for those with busy lifestyles. I share the secrets of my family’s own style of southern Indian cooking, including meats and seafood, along with recipes from other part of diverse India.
—INTERVIEWED BY LARA DAY
For Nayak’s tips on the best dishes from southern India and where to try them, buy Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia’s September Food issue, out now. Nayak will be cooking on September 5 and 6 at the 12th Annual World Gourmet Festival at the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok.