The Taste With Vir: The guru-shishya relationship between Manish Mehrotra and Himanshu Saini
I find the bond between Manish Mehrotra and Himanshu Saini so amazing. Mehrotra is India’s greatest chef. And Himanshu Saini is his most celebrated disciple.
India is the land that invented the guru-shishya parampara. In few other societies has there been such a tradition of master and disciple. And yet, somehow, this has never really extended to chefs and food. Yes, there are many senior chefs who are remembered fondly by younger ones. For instance, such ex-Taj chefs as Gaggan Anand and Ranveer Brar have often paid tribute to the late Arvind Saraswat, the iconic Taj chef who trained so many young kitchen newbies.
But this is rare. And while it is true that people in every profession remember their teachers, it isn’t quite the same as the relationship between guru and disciple, which is much more individualistic in nature. That’s why I find the bond between Manish Mehrotra and Himanshu Saini so amazing.
Mehrotra is India’s greatest chef. He re-invented modern Indian cuisine at Delhi’s Indian Accent and along with Gaggan Anand in Bangkok showed Indian chefs that they could choose their own direction. Till that point, modern Indian food had consisted of Frenchifying the cuisine, plating it in individual portions rather than serving it family-style, and focusing on making the plates look good. Manish and Gaggan threw away all those rules and started all over again. Their example inspired Indian chefs all over the world.
Manish has also mentored and encouraged young chefs in his kitchen, many of whom have gone on to find fame in their own right. But what’s unusual is that he keeps in touch with many of them and nearly all of them always acknowledge his role in shaping their careers.
Perhaps the most celebrated of Manish’s disciples is Himanshu Saini. At present, Himanshu is the only Indian-born chef in the world to run a restaurant that has two Michelin stars. Tresind Studio, which seats just 18 people (there is a normal Tresind, also overseen by Saini which is much larger) is one of the most celebrated Indian restaurants in the world. The World’s 50 Best rated it as number 11 in the whole world and it was number two in the same organisation’s list of the best restaurants in the Middle East.
Most foodies I know regard it as the best formal restaurant in Dubai along with Ossiano at Atlantis. (Orfali, which came number one on the Middle East list is less formal and more casual) because nearly every other restaurant of any consequence in Dubai is a branch of a restaurant from somewhere else. (London, mostly).
Saini started his career at Indian Accent --- he was part of Mehrotra’s very first team --- before going to be one of the two founding chefs at Masala Library and Farzi Café. (Saurabh Udinia, the other founding chef is also a Manish protege.) Saini’s breakthrough came when he became chef at Tresind, and with the support of his boss, Bhupender Nath, he has turned Tresind and Tresind Studio into restaurants that are admired all over the world.
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When I first went to Tresind, years ago, a few months after it had opened, I knew, at once that Saini was a chef to watch. But what intrigued me was that one of the dishes on his menu was described as a tribute to Manish Mehrotra. I asked him why this should be so and he answered that not only had he learned everything from Manish, but that this was a classic Manish Mehrotra dish that other chefs had passed off as their own and he wanted to set the record straight.
I was intrigued by his grace and wondered how long it would last, given that he was clearly a chef who was going places. To my surprise, the more successful Saini has become, the more enthusiastic he has got about acknowledging his debt to Manish Mehrotra. Last year, at a Tresind pop-up in Delhi, I took Manish to the kitchen where Himanshu was cooking. Saini stopped what he was doing and rushed to touch Manish’s feat.
While Manish takes enormous pride in Himanshu’s success, he is an essentially modest man who sometimes seems embarrassed by the fervour of Himanshu’s devotion to him.
A month ago, Himanshu asked me if I would ask Manish to do a four- hands dinner (a collaboration) with him. He was too shy, he said, to ask Manish himself. Manish not only agreed to do it in Dubai but both he and his owner Rohit Khattar agreed to do it for nothing. (Indian Accent usually charges a fee for pop-ups) out of their affection for Himanshu. And so, the dinner took place over the last weekend.
But before they cooked, both men agreed to do a live conversation with me in front of an audience of Dubai’s top chefs and foodies. Himanshu was emotional and thrilled, he said, to be on stage with his guru. Manish was more low-key but he did make the surprising (and inaccurate) claim that Himanshu was now a better chef than him.
We spoke for an hour and both men told stories. Himanshu spoke about how scared the kitchen team was of Manish in the early days of Indian Accent because he was such a perfectionist in the kitchen. If anything went wrong, Manish would lose his temper: On one occasion, Himanshu recalled, Manish got so angry that he threw a chicken meatball at him.
I admired Manish for his humility and his grace. As he said, every few years, a new generation of chefs emerges and for an old war horse like himself, the competition gets even more intense. By some measures of global popularity (the 50 Best, for example) Tresind is ahead of Indian Accent. But there was no resentment and no jealousy, just generosity and large-heartedness.
While it is nice to be acknowledged as his guru by the world’s hottest young Indian chef, it requires a huge amount of humility to cook side by side with a man you knew as a trainee and to let your dishes go out along with his to a Dubai audience that is more familiar with Himanshu and his reputation then it is with the legend of Indian Accent.
But Manish did it cheerfully and happily because he had no difficulty in accepting that his one-time trainee is now his equal in the kitchen. What’s more, he didn’t, like some ageing rock star, just play all his greatest hits. Instead he created brilliant new dishes specially for this pop-up.
It is nice to see such grace in a master and so much open admiration in an enormously successful disciple. Perhaps it is because they have so much affection for each other, so much respect for each other’s skills and so much humility that they are both two of the world’s greatest Indian chefs.
There is much to learn from both of them.