Homecoming Across The Arabian Sea: (With) Chef Vineet Bhatia

Esha Aphale | April 9, 2024 | Life

Returning to one’s alma mater is like stepping into a cherished memory, where every corner holds a piece of your past. The familiar sights and sounds stir up emotions, from nostalgia to excitement. For chef Vineet Bhatia, whose culinary journey began at Oberoi, returning to set up his menu at Ziya, Taste of Mumbai, is a full-circle moment. It’s a testament to his growth, a nod to his roots, and a celebration of his success. As he crafts each dish, he imbues it with the same passion and dedication that fueled his early days. Every bite has a taste of his journey, a blend of flavours that tells a story of perseverance and dreams fulfilled.

“Bombay is an exceptional city, it’s a city of dreams,” says Chef Vineet Bhatia, gesturing at the expanse of the Arabian Sea that sits opposite the Oberoi. Masala chai sits steaming on the table, a staple the Chef insists on serving and pouring into our chai cups. Despite his global travels and the establishment of restaurants in the most prestigious hospitality venues, Vineet Bhatia remains imbued with the essence of Indian hospitality. His passion for serving guests and engaging with them is a testament to his roots and commitment to creating memorable dining experiences. After indulging in a delightful food walk at Mohammed Ali Road, Chef Bhatia fondly recalled his youth, strolling the same lanes and savouring the timeless taste of kebabs. His nostalgic reflection illuminated how history has seemingly preserved the essence of those flavours, creating a bridge between past and present through the culinary delights of the area.

Taste of Mumbai tiffin

Born in 1967 in Bombay, India, Vineet Bhatia grew up in a middle-class family with a love for aeroplanes and cooking, inherited from his mother. Failing the physical exam for the Indian Air Force at 17 led him to pursue his passion for food, studying at a catering college in Bombay and earning an economics degree on his parents’ advice. Recruited by The Oberoi Group in 1988, he honed his skills in Indian cuisine for three years before seeking new challenges in London.

Disappointed by the city’s Indian food scene, he revitalised the Star of India’s kitchen, earning acclaim from critics like Fay Maschler. In 1998, he partnered with Iqbal Wahhab to open Cinnamon Club, followed by his restaurant, Rasoi, in 2004. Vineet’s innovative approach to Indian cuisine earned him a Michelin star at Zaika in 2001 and Rasoi in 2006. He continued to expand his culinary empire globally, consulting for restaurants in India, Dubai, Moscow, Saudi Arabia, and the UK. In 2021, he was appointed as the culinary ambassador for Great Britain & Northern Ireland, and in 2023, he was awarded an MBE for his contributions to the culinary world. Now, back at Oberoi, the place that started his journey, Chef Bhatia has curated a menu that pays homage to Mumbai, its culinary map, and the quintessential food served in every household.

Rashima, Chef Bhatia’s wife, entered our conversation, to playfully ask if her husband was answering all my questions, exuding an aura of strength and wisdom. She has been the backbone of their journey, showcasing remarkable business acumen and unwavering support through all their ventures. Her presence is a testament to the invaluable role she plays in their partnership, embodying the true essence of a supportive and visionary leader.

Ziya’s Taste of Mumbai, Chef Bhatia’s latest masterpiece, blends street food and comfort cuisine that epitomises Mumbai’s culinary soul. Served in a brass dabba, it pays homage to the iconic dabbawalas of Mumbai, known for their meticulous delivery of hot meals across the city. “A lot of what you will eat now is based on what you [Mumbaikars] normally eat,” says Chef Bhatia. “We kept the essence of Mumbai intact in this menu.” Chef Bhatia’s menu is inspired by his global travels, its heart lies firmly in Mumbai.

 Modern interpretation of Indian delicacies at Ziya

“You have to respect the land, and what the people like to eat.” While the menu evokes a sense of familiarity for locals, it also extends its flavours to visitors from abroad. For those unfamiliar with the local culinary landscape or unable to visit cultural eating spots like Kayani Bakery and Bademiya, it offers a taste of Mumbai’s essence.

The menu embodies the essence of the region, yet it’s infused with creativity and inspired additions. When the dabba was opened, I savoured naans, parathas, and bhakris with a chicken curry that transported me back to the flavours of home. While the dishes were familiar, Chef Bhatia’s innovative touch was unmistakable. As a dessert enthusiast, I was particularly excited about the sweet offerings. Chef Bhatia shared a story about introducing a puran poli ice cream, which initially met with scepticism but ultimately enjoyed. To conclude the meal, I was served chocolate-filled samosas, accompanied by piping hot masala chai, a Café Noir twist. Despite being a self-described adventurous eater, I was initially wary of the chocolate samosas, having only tried savoury versions before. However, one bite was enough to convince me of Chef Bhatia’s culinary prowess. This experience reinforced my trust in his ability to tantalise and satisfy anyone’s palate.

As the sun glimmers over the Arabian Sea, casting a warm glow over the city of dreams, Chef Vineet Bhatia’s journey comes full circle. Each dish he creates is not just a culinary masterpiece but a testament to his love for Mumbai and its vibrant food culture. With each bite, diners are transported to the bustling streets of Mumbai, where the aroma of spices fills the air and every meal is a celebration. Chef Bhatia’s menu at Ziya is more than just food; it’s a love letter to the city that shaped him and a reminder that no matter where life takes you, home is always where the heart is.

Words by Esha Aphale.
Featured image Chef Vineet Bhatia at Ziya, The Oberoi.
Image courtesy The Oberoi.

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