Atelier House Hospitality (AHH), a Dubai-based restaurant group, has come up with a unique restaurant called INJA. Located at the Manor Hotel in Delhi, INJA was born through an idea that struck Chef Adwait Anantwar while living in Dubai. Long mesmerized and captivated by Japanese cuisine in his culinary development, he wanted to explore and bring the flavours and techniques of his home country with the nuances of Japanese cuisine. He imagined boldly amalgamating and creating a beautiful marriage between the complexities of robust Indian ingredients and the delicate nature of Japanese techniques to intrigue the palate.
In an exclusive interview with financialexpress.com’s Eshita Bhargava, INJA’s head Chef Adwait Anantwar talks about Indo-Japanese food, his journey, why there are not many female Chefs in the industry and more. Excerpts from the interview:
You are known for revolutionizing Indian cuisine in the United Arab Emirates. Tell us something about your journey. How did you get interested in food? You were studying technology when you decided to find a career in the food industry. Were your parents supportive? What was it like?
My passion for cooking began at a young age, as I watched my mother entertain guests with her amazing culinary skills. I never realized that cooking could become a profession until I worked at a small restaurant in Nagpur while pursuing my computer application degree, despite my father’s disapproval. This experience changed my perspective, and I decided to enroll in the Culinary Academy of India in Hyderabad. After graduation, I worked for Chef Sujan in Dubai, which had a lasting impact on me. Later, I was fortunate to work with Chef Himanshu, who taught me the value of hard work and creativity in the kitchen. At Trèsind, I learned about the importance of developing a distinct perspective on food. Following my tenure at Trèsind, I joined Atelier House Hospitality to work on MOHALLA, which was the company’s first restaurant in the Middle East, making it a unique association for me. MOHALLA has expanded into KSA over the last two years and is rapidly growing in the Middle East. I am incredibly grateful for the support and confidence of Atelier House Hospitality and the entire team as Chef-Partner at INJA.
How did INJA happen? Tell us something about the unique concept and what made you say yes to it.
The lockdown inspired me to explore new culinary ventures, and I wanted to create something unique that blended my passion for Japanese culture and food with my professional experience in Indian cuisine. This led me to develop the concept for INJA, which potentially became the world’s first restaurant to seamlessly merge Indian and Japanese cuisines. The idea was to keep the simplicity and minimalistic approach of Japanese food while incorporating the robust flavors of Indian cuisine in a way that didn’t overpower each other. Initially, I proposed a tandoori omakase concept, and after extensive research and experimentation, we discovered a thrilling harmony of flavors and realized the potential of the concept is greater than expected, which evolved into INJA.
What made you decide on the menu? What are the things you keep in mind while preparing your menu?
The idea of blending Indian and Japanese cuisine first occurred to me while watching a documentary on Japanese food and enjoying a bowl of rasam. This gave me the confidence to experiment with the two cuisines and create unique dishes at INJA. We use Japanese cooking techniques while infusing Indian flavors to create dishes that are visually Japanese but relatable to the Indian palate. To ensure the quality of our dishes, we use fresh, seasonal ingredients, including locally sourced seafood from West Bengal, Vizag, and the Andamans. For Japanese ingredients, we rely on a local importer who delivers twice a week. The process of crafting a dish entails a precise combination of flavors and textures, and we place great importance on achieving the right balance before considering its presentation. I firmly believe that obtaining the correct mix of ingredients is crucial to ensuring the dish’s flavor and texture. After obtaining the correct mix of ingredients, we turn our attention to the presentation of the dish, carefully considering details such as height, placement, colors, and elements to ensure that it is visually appealing. To make our dishes distinctive, we use custom-made plates created by local artisanal potters.
Tell us something about your experience at Mohalla.
Mohalla was my first-ever experience as a head chef, and admittedly, I had limited experience in the role. In the beginning, I made several mistakes, but working at Mohalla proved to be one of my most significant learning opportunities. I learned about various aspects of running a kitchen, including procurement, supplier management, and building trust with suppliers. Additionally, I learned about cost-saving measures and building strong relationships with guests. These experiences were crucial in honing my skills and helping me develop as a chef.
How are the food choices in India different from that in UAE? How are you adjusting to the changes?
In my experience, there is a remarkable similarity between food choices in India and Dubai. People in both places have a well-traveled palate. Although India has a considerably large number of vegetarians, I have noticed that dietary preferences in Dubai are also diverse. While there may be some regional differences in terms of specific dishes and ingredients, the overall food choices and trends are quite similar in both India and Dubai.
Have you explored the famous food spots in Delhi? Which one is your favourite?
I have recently started visiting Delhi in the last 3-4 months, but my trips have been quite short, and I only go out when I have time. Despite the limited opportunity to explore, I have managed to visit several popular eateries such as Aslam butter chicken, Rajinder da dhaba, Karim’s, and Rajma Chawal at CP. While I haven’t had enough time to explore fully, out of the places I have visited, I would say that Rajinder da dhaba has undoubtedly been my favorite.
What is your go-to food type?
Wraps, dumplings, noodles, and sandwiches.
One thing I found unique about your food was that you add your ‘inspiration and experience’ to the food you serve. Please elaborate.
Being a chef is not just about possessing culinary skills; it is also a highly creative field. Your life experiences, travel experiences, the people you meet, the food you taste, and the sights you see can all serve as sources of inspiration. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and there is no specific process to find it. In my opinion, to create something truly unique, one needs to have passion, dedication, and an open mind. These qualities allow me to explore new ideas and experiment with flavors, leading to the development of innovative dishes that captivate and delight diners.
One Indian chef you look up to?
I have seen Chef Manish Mehrotra on TV, and have always been fascinated by him, and I feel fortunate to work in the same space where he ran ‘The Indian Accent’. During my college days, Chef Gaggan Anand became a significant influence, and I was intrigued by his approach to cooking. I saw him pushing the boundaries of gastronomy and was absolutely inspired. Working with Chef Himanshu was another pivotal moment for me, where I learned that there is no substitute for hard work in this profession, I really admire his passion and perspective.
Which dishes best capture your food philosophy?
Lobster rasam chanmushi, tuna pomelo chaat, papad and achar “okinamsu” and udon khasi curry.
How do you deal with competition?
I think I am not competing with anyone. I am just a chef, who is trying to use food as a medium of expression, hoping that it would resonate with the guests that walk in, and learning through every piece of feedback I receive. We are only focusing on providing a remarkable experience to our diners. I believe there is surely enough room for all the talented and passionate chefs to flourish. Having said that, I am immensely envious and inspired by the work that some of the chefs are doing. It only strengthens my drive to push boundaries and do better.
What are the hardships that you deal with as a Chef?
The only hardship I have ever felt is missing my important family duties. My parents are moving to Bombay, and I can’t really help them, but I am lucky to have a sister who makes up for all the things I am not able to do for my parents.
When you’re not cooking yourself what do you like to eat?
After spending 8 years in Dubai, I love my falafel, shawarmas, Ramen, dumplings, chaat, biryani, steaks, sandwiches, pizzas, burgers, sushi, and Korean BBQ.
Now that you are known to be pushing boundaries, is there pressure to surprise diners with something wilder?
Absolutely, diners are more aware than ever of cuisines around the world. It is not easy to impress, but I feel I thrive on pressure and the challenge really keeps me on my toes. What I have noticed is that any degree of wildness is accepted and appreciated as long as there is a balance between a sense of relevance and a sense of surprise.
What’s your secret ingredient and what’s your USP?
I don’t have any secret ingredients. I am just hungry to learn and deliver better every day.
How do you deal with creativity block? The food industry is evolving and each day there’s something new.
I think reading, trying new restaurants, and watching documentaries have kept me intrigued. I try to distract myself with something else when I feel I have a creative block, and I realize I have an epiphany of some sort that helps me get over the block. As clichéd as it sounds, it really has worked for me, especially for INJA.
What should young chefs look to follow in your footsteps and not do to become as successful as you are?
I don’t consider myself successful yet. There is a long way ahead.
And for the young chef, just one piece of advice: No one has the same success path, it’s your hard work, passion, and how wisely you choose the right opportunities which will lead you to grow. Your aim is to “keep hustling”.
Why don’t we see many female chefs in India? Is there a gender bias in the industry?
Yes, it has been a male dominant industry for a long time, but it is surely changing for the better. I am inspired by the work of so many female chefs like Niyati Rao from Ekaa, and Mythrayie Iyer making waves on an international level. Special mention to Chef Garima Arora for what she has done with GAA in Bangkok.
My boss, Panchali Mahendra, is also one powerhouse of a woman, who has broken perceptions across regions and dominated the F&B space.
What do you splurge on the most?
Dining, traveling, knives, and shoes.
What’s next? What are you treating us with now?
Right now, the focus is completely on INJA, haven’t thought about what is next.