With all of its spices, its diverse culinary traditions, and its
intensity of flavour, Indian food can be daunting - even to the
most dedicated of foodies. If you find yourself intimidated by its
complexity, you're not alone: Chef Hari Nayak sympathises.
Hari Nayak is a top chef,
cookbook author, and restaurateur © Chef Hari Nayak
Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, an apprentice
under the legendary Alain Ducasse, and an author who's worked
alongside Daniel Boulud, Chef Hari Nayak has impressive fine dining
credentials. The chef and restaurateur is also behind a number of
culinary projects (Utsav in New York and Matt &
Meera in Hoboken, to name but a couple), as well as six
well-regarded cookbooks, including Modern Indian Cooking.
But fundamentally, he understands that Indian food traditions can
be overwhelming for some - and he strives to support a message of
epicurean simplicity. Read on to learn more about Nayak's foodie
past, plus his tips on how best to introduce yourself to India's
Meen Pollichathu, a fish
preparation, is a Keralan delicacy © Chef Hari Nayak
Greaves: What drives you as a chef? How has growing up
in Karnataka influenced your cooking?
Chef Hari Nayak: 'Living in New York now, I am drawn towards
market trends and the local produce available here. I am a
very spontaneous cook - there could be an ingredient, something I
tasted during my travels, or just my childhood memories that get me
Growing up, I was very inspired by the way my grandmother would
cook for the family. She would wake up at 4am to grind
fresh batter, make spice pastes or prep vegetables that would be
cooked during the day. We took it for granted that there would be
freshly cooked food ready for every meal. The happiness she felt
when we sat together and savoured and enjoyed each bite was
incredible - every meal was like a celebration. I draw a lot of
inspiration from this feeling of cooking from your heart, of
bringing people together and celebrating food.'
A poblano pepper stuffed with
paneer cheese exemplifies Nayak's globetrotting approach © Chef
You frequently say that Indian cooking doesn't need to
be complex. Could you give us practical examples of how you've
'I have taken Indian recipes that are known for their long lists
of spices and herbs, and simplified them using ingredients that can
be found in most American grocery stores. Dishes like biryani can
be made easily using minimum ingredients and prep steps, while
recipes like Curry in a Hurry let you make a delicious-tasting
chicken curry in less than 20 minutes. Home cooks can also make
spice mixes and blends ahead of time to make the process faster and
How do you adapt to appeal to a diverse audience without
losing the essence of the original recipes?
'My cookbook, Modern Indian Cooking, is a collection of
easy-to-prepare recipes created for the adventurous home cook. The
recipes are exciting and approachable, while exploring how Indian
cuisine can be fused with other cuisines around the
The cooking techniques have been adapted to the Western styles
quite a bit, and the traditional flavours of Indian cooking are
given an international twist. My dishes are Indian by nature,
but their global flavours help make them appealing to a wide
audience. I want to create a childlike sense of curiosity for the
new and unfamiliar.'
Chef Nayak's food, like this
Keralan uni moilee, is a balance of the modern and traditional ©
Chef Hari Nayak
Which dishes would you recommend a first-time traveller
to India try?
'I'd suggest ordering a thali meal in any region, as it gives
you a variety of dishes to sample. Also, each region has its own
specialty. Pav bhaji in Mumbai; masala dosa in South India;
tandoori chicken, dal makhni and roti from a real Punjabi dhaba in
North India; biryani in Lucknow. The list is
Do you have a signature dish that you are most proud
'I like experimenting with dishes I grew up with in Udupi, and
giving them a contemporary reinvention. Some of my favourites are
roasted beetroot rasam, ghee roast duck, chipotle chilli chicken,
sea bass coconut rasa, coconut crab papdi and octopus varuval, to
name a few.'
Coconut crab papdi is one of
Chef Nayak's signature dishes © Chef Hari Nayak
What challenges have you faced within the fine dining
'There is a gap in educating consumers about the diversity of
our cuisine. It can also be challenging when customers are not
willing to pay for top-quality ingredients and products. Indian
cuisine has a long reputation of being cheap eats. Breaking that
barrier to present an elevated experience and charge the right
price is a challenge.'
Has the perception of Indian food changed globally? Are
there any trends you foresee?
'It is changing rapidly. I believe we have a long way to go, but
I am very positive that someday soon, Indian will be one of the top
three popular cuisines in the world.
There are many young chefs who are part of this trend, of the
elevated Indian dining experience. Some have taken it too far, and
one questions the integrity of the dish - but I do feel it is
necessary that as chefs we challenge ourselves, innovate, and make
the cuisine progressive. Maintaining the right balance between
traditions and innovation is the key. I foresee food going back to
basics with simple ingredients, no-fuss presentation and a new
focus on regional cooking.'