Going global with local

Known for his out-of-the-box interpretations of traditional dishes, Thomas Zacharias believes in celebrating the simplicity of ingredients. Here's his food philosophy

Thomas Zacharias, Chef Partner The Bombay Canteen

Thomas Zacharias is a man on a mission. He wants to celebrate Indian cuisine in a way that no one has ever done before. He’s in love with traditional Indian food. At his popular restaurant, The Bombay Canteen, in Mumbai, he serves traditional Indian dishes, albeit in a modern avatar. But there’s no molecular gastronomy, or fumes or foam involved here. Just simple meals that sing with flavours.

Thomas has always been passionate about cooking. He grew up watching his grandmother light up people’s faces with her food and aspired to do the same one day. He did his hotel management in Manipal, honed his skills at the renowned Culinary Institute of America in New York, worked in the kitchen of the three-star Michelin restaurant, Le Bernardin, and ultimately came back to India to pursue his own path.

In India, he found a mentor in chef Manu Chandra and worked in Olive, Bengaluru, for about five months. He went to Mumbai to work at the Olive restaurant there, but took a sabbatical when he realised he was cooking European food without having travelled to Europe. He set out to learn everything about European cuisine but learnt one of the biggest lessons of Indian cuisine. “During my travels, I was lucky to get a last-minute reservation at Osteria Francescana (adjudged ‘best restaurant in the world’). The restaurant’s chef spoke about how important it is to him to cook and promote local cuisine. I had an epiphany at that point and decided to look at Indian food in a deeper way. So, I travelled to 19 places in India to learn about Indian food. There was an incredible diversity of ingredients that you never saw outside those regions. I found my life’s purpose then,” explains Thomas.

Today, through his restaurant and a seasonally changing menu, Thomas urges people to go back to their roots to fill their tummies. Some of the true-blue Indian dishes to come out from his kitchen include Tamil chicken kothu roti, Meghalayan black sesame duck, chingri bharta vada pao, mutton burra kebab, barley & jowar salad and more.

In an exclusive conversation, Thomas shares insights on his culinary mantras, philosophies and more:

What’s your culinary philosophy?

I feel it’s my responsibility to tell all the untold stories of traditional food and culture around our country. At The Bombay Canteen, the most obvious way I do this is through a seasonally changing menu. Thanks to social media, I am also able to reach out to a wider audience today and shine a light on the different cultures of our country. I see myself as a storyteller. My cooking philosophy is minimalistic. Usually, every dish in The Bombay Canteen won’t have more than a few components on the plate.

What are the challenges of running a seasonal menu?

The main problem with Indian food is that it is not documented. Information is mostly passed down from generation to generation verbally. It’s also ironic that a lot of Western ingredients are more easily accessible than Indian ones in the market today. I found it difficult to source local, seasonal vegetables consistently for the restaurant initially. To change the menu every few months is a positive challenge; it keeps us on our toes. It keeps the restaurant vitalised and evolving.

Has traditional Indian cuisine taken a backseat today?

For the longest time, yes. I also see that in the people that I hire for the restaurant. Many of them would only know how to cook Western cuisine, but not their own. But things are slowly changing. In the last five years, Indian cuisine has got a lot more attention than before. The conversation around regional cuisine and ingredients is not just a trend anymore; it’s more of a change in the outlook. At the restaurant, I try and come up with dishes that are soulful and all the dishes have some context to some part of India or ingredient. It’s the kind of food you crave and want to eat over and over again.

What do you think about the food scene in India today?

Having worked in the US, and travelled across Europe and Asia, I sense that we are a little behind in terms of the standards and consistency of running a restaurant.
Even in things like making kitchens an equal-opportunity workplace, we are lagging.

The best restaurants in other countries are the ones that centre around regional cuisines. But in India, that’s not the case. People here are ashamed to cook and eat their own food. You will find people spending money on Italian cuisine rather than local cuisine.

Do you have pet peeves in the kitchen?

I don’t like people disrespecting each other. For the longest time, many criticised the restaurant industry for being abusive, tough and negative. It’s high time that changed. So, I am particular about creating a great workplace for people. For instance, recently, we began the process of switching the entire team into a five-day week, which is absolutely unheard of in the industry.

What are your favourite ingredients?

I cook instinctively. Even while cooking for family and friends, I just pick up whatever catches my fancy in the market. So, my favourite ingredients are the ones I keep discovering.

Since it’s monsoon, there are a lot of monsoon ingredients I am currently working with. For example, I am currently high on phodshi bhaji; it’s a wild green that’s local to Mumbai during the monsoon. While Maharashtrians cook it with dried shrimp, I have paired it with soft-shell crab and dried shrimp.

Recipes

‘Bhutte ke khees’ (Coconut chutney, roasted corn & ‘moras’ salad)

(Makes 8 portions)

Ingredients

Corn fritters

Red chili-coconut chutney

Charred corn & moras salad

Corn on the cob, shaved or grated: 0.8 kg

Whole fat milk: 0.8 litres

Vegetable oil: ½ cup

Mustard seeds, whole: 1 tsps

Green chillies, chopped: 4-5 tsps

Cumin seeds, whole: ½ tbsp

Hing: ½ tsp

Turmeric powder: ½ tsp

Jeeravan spice mix: ¼ cup

Cornstarch: 4 tbsps 

Refined wheat flour: 1 tbsps

For the coconut chutney

Grated coconut: 1.5 cup

Red chilli paste: ¾ cup 

Vegetable oil: 4 tbsps 

l Cumin powder: 1 tsps
l Jaggery: 1-2 tsps
l Salt to taste
For the salad

l Roasted corn kernels: 1 cup

l Moras bhaji (plucked and washed): 1½ cup

l Hing: ½ tsp

 Toss the salad with hing and a squeeze of lime.

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