For this hardcore Mumbaikar, food means something ever changing and contemporary, much like fashion and music. His comfort with anything related to food makes even daily cooking an experience to remember. Meet Vicky Ratnani, chef consultant, gourmand, food connoisseur and the celebrity chef who today is known for his charm, dedication, and sensuality with food.
For Ratnani, rustling up delicacies out of kitchen leftovers, using fresh and seasonal ingredients, and mixing natural spices is an art in itself. And, he derived this love for food from his mother and grandmother, who he claims, have great culinary skills. “Right from my childhood, there was always a breath of fresh air and food in at home. So, it’s no surprise that I turned out this way,” recalls Ratnani. The first dish he ever cooked was Nilgiri korma, boiled rice and pulp payasam, at college (The Institute of Hospitality Management, Dadar). The Chef at the School was impressed by his skills and he encouraged him to pursue cooking as a profession.
And so, he did. After serving at the Oberoi and the Leela as a trainee for a year each, he started off his journey on-board the ocean liner, Queen Elizabeth 2. Now, a celebrity and a chef, Ratnani also hosted many TV shows such as Gourmet Central on NDTV Good Times, Do it Sweet, and Vicky Goes Veg, where he deconstructed complex dishes (Jamaican jerk marinade for example) and suggested simple, easy ways for home chefs to re-create these recipes.
Today, after travelling the world and donning different chef hats, he is serving as a culinary director at F&B Asia Ventures Ltd, a pan-Asian food and beverage business platform, funded by private equity firm Everstone Capital. The group owns and operates several brands under the name, Cuisine Asia and Blue Foods. Some of them include Spaghetti Kitchen, Noodle Bar, Copper Chimney, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Bombay Blue and Gelato Italiano. The group has also introduced Pind Balluchi and Harry’s to the Indian gastronomes.
In the past
Ratnani spent the majority of his career abroad, being a Chef at land and sea. This experience, he believes, has helped him evolve professionally and as an individual.
He had a 13-year stint with the Cunard group (which specialises in ocean travel), where he undertook different roles such as Chef-Queen Victoria, Executive Sous Chef-Queen Mary I and Chef-de-Cuisine for Brittania Restaurant & Kitchen (the largest restaurant at sea), Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria II. “Thirteen long years of my service onboard various ships taught me how to cope up with stress, anxiety, pressure, discipline, hygiene and such. I would define the ship kitchens as hospital kitchens where cleanliness is mandatory and hence, we had to wipe even the last drop of water,” recalls Ratnani.
Ships are like melting pots, with close to eight to nine restaurants, each hosting a different cuisine, such as European, Italian and Asian, to savor a vast audience base. So, though Ratnani specialized in European cuisine, he learnt that a chef has to know it all, at least the basic cooking philosophy. “Today, it’s easy to put together a menu anywhere in the world by just using the right produce and seasoning. But, it’s not just about cooking any one cuisine. It’s about putting together the right ingredients and using the right technique to create something new and interesting. That’s my cooking philosophy,” explains Ratnani.
The rigorous lessons and the laborious life have not only made him a fine food curator but also an efficient planner, administrator, conceptualizer, collaborator, teacher and above all, a manager. Ratnani says that his earlier avatars gave him the opportunity to meet chefs from diverse cultures and exchange ideas. The experience also strengthened his skills to deal with different people and different situations.
In fact, he believes that, other than kitchen tools and techniques, to cook a perfect dish, a chef should also equip himself with sufficient knowledge about science, microbiology and economics.
While life at sea was rigorous, it was not devoid of fun either. Till today, Ratnani remains nostalgic while narrating his most memorable moments. “Once, my fellow chefs and I placed bets on a live lobster race on kitchen tables. One other time, I actually sprinkled sodium nitrite over meat instead of salt!” he quips.
Jack of all trades
Now, for Ratnani, it’s not just about cooking. It’s a combination of thinking, developing, articulating and presenting. In his new role as a culinary director, Ratnani will be involved in conceptualizing and bringing the Singapore-based brand, Disgruntled Chef, to India, with his own creative expressions. In fact, he will also be lending his creative skills to Pind Balluchi and Burger King’s vegetarian menu in India, and will launch a special bar and brunch menu for Harry’s.
On the television front, Ratnani is planning to host another instructional TV show with ZEE Khana Khazana. Yet another role he has undertaken recently is that of an instructor with Godrej Nature’s Basket.
He is a part of their Fresh Kitchen theatre workshops, where he will demonstrate easy tips to quick and smart cooking, to their food specialists. He has already conducted these workshops at their stores in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai.
Taking on the reins
Ratnani indicates that though techniques and styles of bringing the food to the table have changed today, food will remain food. “Cooking is a skill and cooking good food is an eccentric and timeless dedication” he says, and adds, “It is all about creating dreams and feeding the imagination. That is what I look for when I go to the restaurants with my family and friends”. He has a particular inclination towards South American (fish, citrus, chillis), Peruvian, Korean and south Indian cuisines.
Going forward he wishes to open a couple of signature restaurants and create inexpensive but good food. “I feel food has become very expensive today and the taste is compromised with. So, I want to prove otherwise,” he adds. He sees great potential in bringing in quality, non-fried bar food, which is not essentially diet food but a kind of gastro pub. He also plans to launch his own YouTube channel. “Had I not been a chef, I would have been a food photographer or may be a DJ or a traveller on the go” says Ratnani, on a concluding note.