Being Mindful of What and How We Eat Will Decide How Mother Earth Accomodates Us: Chef Srijith Gopinathan

Srijith Gopinathan, Executive Chef of San Francisco’s Campton Place is only one of two Indian chefs to retain his two Michelin stars and the only one in the US. His imaginative Cal-Indian cuisine twins the abundance of Californian produce with the spices and recipes of India.

The Michelin Guide writes about the Taj group’s Campton Place and Srijith: “The breadth and complexity of Indian cuisine gets its due at this tasteful retreat, tucked into a posh hotel just steps from the luxury boutiques of Union Square. Attired in a soft palette of cream and white, with a striking central glass light fixture, it's a smooth showcase for the freewheeling, colourful food from Chef Srijith Gopinathan. Diners have a choice of vegetarian or omnivorous dishes from the six-course tasting - with an extravagant add-on of white truffle naan for the high rollers in the room. Either way, you’ll be sent on a riotous journey through different textures, flavours and temperatures, along with some truly whimsical plating.”

Srijith with Indic Academy Founder Hari Kiran Vadlamani at Campton Place

He has memories as a six year old, of helping his grandmother cook lentils served with rice to farmers working in their plantations. His first dish created all on his own as a teen was ‘caramel custard’ made not with the usual vanilla but with cardamom.

At Campton place, he has added India’s chaat delicacies to his Michelin menu in the  Spice Route section. He has recreated the dahi puri with food friendly pots, where the yogurt is replaced with yogurt foam, mint chutney with mint ice and tamarind with tamarind gel. Both purists and as well as contemporary foodies have come away singing its praise.

This May, Srijith along with entrepreneur Ayesha Thapar have come together to create Ettan – Cal-Indian cuisine. Ettan which means ‘breath’ in Sanskrit, hopes to “redefine how people experience Indian cuisine; creating a unique confluence of the Indian palette with California fresh ingredients. Our aim is to encourage people to experience the richness and depth of Indian flavours in a vibrant and healthy manner – marrying Eastern sensibilities with Western expression, presented through an international design aesthetic.” Srijith continues with the Taj alongside.

In this interview with CSP Srijith talks about the India food route and more.

How have perceptions of Indian food in the US changed over the last decade, with greater globalisation, more media exposure and more investments in the industry.

In my opinion, last 10 years have been crucial / important time for Indian food overall in US. Indian cuisine is now slowly moving from extreme left (cheap bowl of curry) to the middle of scale closer to mainstream but certainly not mainstream with the likes of Italian, Greek or Californian. Moving away from mom/pop Indian food shops to well thought out restaurants space with educated/travelled Indian chefs, passionate and well informed investors have certainly made things a bit more fluid. Social media certainly is the final cherry on the icing.

The last many years of hard work/glamour has certainly made Indian food a bit more than a cuisine but a culture of enjoying the goodness/ wellness of it.

Has Indian food managed to shrug off the 'ethnic food' tag and become more universally accepted? What needs to be done to avoid this kind of categorization?

Like I mentioned in my first answer, it has been moving towards the middle of the scale but not there yet. This is also because of the uniqueness, complexity and richness of our cuisine. Subcontinent cuisines don't share any resemblance to any advanced nations’ - European or American - cuisines and hence it takes a bit of education to familiarise.

The best way to combat this would be to educate the west with less extreme dishes with regard to spices and chillies which seem to intimidate a good majority. The newer generation seem to comprehend this very quickly, which is a good sign.

In your own personal journey, what are the influences that have shaped your journey to creating an oeuvre that is distinctly Indian and yet having a universal appeal?

My personal story does have something to do with my early exposure to international cuisine along with my being brought up with Indian food as a child. I was a bit of a curious kid even before the days of Google where I believed there was some kind of a synergy in bringing in ideas from different cuisines than from just one. However I do enjoy Indian food as it is since it is one of most spectacular cuisines in the world.

You mention in one of your interviews that it was at the Hyde Park Culinary Institute that you learnt the 'fancier' aspects of food. Could you share how you incorporated this into Indian food?

That was a very short time but yes traveling to New York, time at Hyde Park, dining out and of course networking with the local chef’s fraternity in my early 20s did open my eyes a bit more than it would have in my home town. By fancy I refer to the finer aspects of dining, which has always been emphasized better and very well in the West and was accessible to the common man unlike back home THEN. That certainly translated in to knowledge. I thought those learnings did come handy later in my life when I got back to cook in the US.

The world is getting more concerned now about not just gastronomy but also about food culture and production. Where is the food that is served coming from, about ethical practices, etc. Has that been something you have thought about since you use local ingredients?

Being mindful/careful of what we consume and how we consume is going to be the deciding factor to how much Mother Earth will home us here in this paradise. So that is not a choice but an absolutely imperative factor to prevent the human race from being homeless. Using local food is an absolute necessity and we in the State of California have been in the forefront conducting ourselves with those values as well as advocating the same to the rest of the world. Gastronomy can be created from something as simple as an ‘apple peel’ provided it is a tasty one.

How has Indian food been impacted by exposure to the West

We are not a very gentle, straight forward cuisine to mess around with. I have always believed discipline in cooking is something we could borrow from the western world to avoid ambiguity in recipes. This will make it easier to pass on these rich skills sets to following generation.

Do you think that there are enough skilled people in the industry who are grounded in Indian cooking and food culture in the US?

NO is the simple answer. Harsher immigration policy across the world has only added to the size of the dent. Again, Training locals is harder since it is harder to find people who are interested in learning this complex art in most western local job markets.

How important are international awards and recognitions for you to create and enhance the Indian brand?

Extremely important. Awards and accolades are the warranty and guarantee in our restaurant industry.

How do you think the current crisis is going to impact the hotel industry?

This is unprecedented and unfortunate. I feel crisis could change things in two timescales – short term and long term.

The short term could be harsher and extreme by changes mostly influenced by fear as well as pressure to abide by local/state compliances etc. To combat this, we can have a spread out and well-spaced table set up, a masked server taking orders and serving food/beverages, disposable menus, regulated movements inside the restaurant, in some cases even disposable dining ware. You may have to even have less or no conversations with our bartender while sitting on your bar stool. Long term changes could be behavioural changes like further emphasizing on each other’s space in public areas and the like. All this could go back to normal with vaccines in place. Fortunately as human beings our memories are pretty short and that could affect us both ways.