Indias rich cuisine is a soft power that deserves investment

Indias rich cuisine is a soft power that deserves investment
Indias rich cuisine is a soft power that deserves investment

Chef Sriram is an award-winning Michelin star genius who has been instrumental in popularising Indian flavours in Britain. In this interview, he talks about his passion for cooking and how India can take the lead in skills training in the food industry. How has the face of Indian cuisine changed in the UK over the years In the last 20 years, there has been a complete sea change. The number of authentic Indian restaurants have gone up dramatically, not just in London but across the country. That is a very good sign and reflects the spread of Indian flavours all over. You can find classical Indian food even in the smallest of counties now.

This includes regional cuisine and a greater focus on regional dishes. It has meant great exposure for Indian food and is a perfect way to showcase the country. The stereotypical menus have given way to a lot more broader variety, which is good for the restaurant industry as well as the image of India. London is a melting pot and because of the importance of the city in terms of international business, there could not be a better place to showcase India's exceptional cuisine. People come to London from all over the world and a large majority of the clientele tends to be non-Indians. That helps make our cuisine international in its true sense. It is one of the best soft powers India has to make a lasting impression about the country overseas. Has India successfully harnessed this soft power to enhance the India-UK partnership Absolutely. That is the beauty of this business. Food is just one part because it also helps showcase Indian hospitality. When people walk into a good Indian restaurant, they are experiencing the best aspects of India's culture - from music to hospitality. All your senses are engaged - be it taste, smell or touch. As Indians, we are naturally very hospitable and that sets the tone of the kind of experience we bring to the table. To my mind, there is no better soft power than cuisine. It is eternal and caters to a very basic need of people. If they enjoy it, they will remember everything about it, including the country where the food originates from. I don't think anything else can bring that same kind of experience. What in your mind stands out as a turning point for Indian food as Britain′s favourite India's love for the UK and the UK's love for India has been there for centuries. There may have been ups and downs but for the last 70 years, things have only got better. The quality of Indian food being served in the UK has dramatically improved over this period and has won over global respect. It is in large part down to a clear and concerted effort on India's part to portray different aspects of the country. India opening up for globalisation has given the biggest boost and made the world take India very seriously. Is there a better understanding about the variations offered by different regions of India When we opened Quilon [Flagship Taj restaurant in London] in 1999, guests would come in and still be looking for some very stereotypical dishes that they knew about. Today people know the huge variety of cuisines India has to offer - be it Kerala food, Tamil Nadu food or Punjabi food. As people travel to India more and more, there is an ever-growing tendency to know more about these regional variations. The exposure has increased and we have come a long way today, where everyone is comfortable and open to try new flavours. People realise there is a huge diversity in our cuisine and culture and have learnt to appreciate that with an open mind. Everybody is ready and open to experience what is on offer from India today. How important are aspects such as Quilon′s Michelin star and your string of awards in enhancing that understanding Quilon first got its Michelin star in 2008. Any rewards or recognition you get, especially in a city like London which offers all kinds of cuisines from around the world, bring a great sense of pride. It is a validation that we are being compared to all other cuisines and are able to offer the same standard. It is also a good check for oneself, like a personal score-card for the team. Indian chefs are today winning awards around the world and that is great. It means we are able to meet the high global standards. Just shows that we are able to offer something that is globally acceptable. In the last couple years, even India has been recognising this talent with awards like the Padma Shri for chefs. It is very encouraging that as a nation we are respecting and recognising talent in the field. How should the industry tackle the challenge of skill shortages It has become a challenge to bring in chefs and other hospitality staff from India to the UK. It feels like we went from one extreme to another, from a very open-door approach to a complete shut policy. The solution, to my mind, lies somewhere in between. We can still attract skilled professionals in any field and be stringent with visa rules at the same time to ensure they add value. It is not all about employment and employability, a restaurant adds value to the local economy. The issue of training is important. We need to recruit and train locally but that is a long process. It takes times and there are institutions trying to address this. But they all need far more support, finance and focus. The industry and academia need to work together to develop a model that works. Most restaurants tend to be medium or small enterprises, which cannot afford to support large training infrastructure. We need such training to be formalised for it to work. This is one opportunity India has, where it can create a solid chef training model in India which can then be replicated. It will require state support and a recognition that our cuisine is a soft power that deserves investment. How does being a Global Indian impact your professional life I don't feel like I belong to any one place. I feel I belong to the world, which keeps my mind open to all cultures. I was born and brought up in India and have a strong connect with the country. I get to travel quite a bit, across Europe, America and India, which helps keep me connected with what's happening around the world. The advantage of working with the Taj Group is that we have a large footprint in India and abroad and that exposure also enhances the experience. We also support lots of local charities and work with women, children and health-related issues and try and help them raise funds. In terms of food, I feel Britain is the best country in the world because it offers so much of variety and scope to experiment. And, when we get it right, people really appreciate it. Very simply, I love food. Even when I am at home, my great stress-buster is to cook. I love this whole business, love the whole idea of cuisine and interacting with other chefs and professionals. I truly enjoy the art of cooking and welcome all the experimentation that is happening in the area of raw materials. It is all very exciting. I think I live and dream food all the time; it is a part of me and it's my life.

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