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‘As a chef, knowledge is your only currency’


The Table’s new chef John Solari on working across the globe, one kitchen at a time

The story behind the hiring of the new chef de cuisine at The Table can be summed up in one word: serendipity. For American chef John Solari, who had been in Mumbai for about three weeks, a meal at The Bombay Canteen (TBC) led to a stage (an unpaid internship, that originates from the French word stagiaire meaning trainee, apprentice or intern) there.

It was while working at TBC, that Solari heard about a possible job opening at The Table, and decided to head there for a meal. One thing led to another, and before he knew it Solari had applied for the chef’s position with restaurant owner Gauri Devidayal. A couple of meetings and a tasting later, he was onboard. Solari will work at the restaurant for two months, during what Devidayal dubs, “a trial period”. Following that, Solari is welcome to make a decision to stay on longer if he desires.

Its sunny in ’Frisco

Ever since the departure of chef Alex Sanchez in August, food industry insiders and regulars at the Colaba fine-dine have been waiting to see who Jay Yousef and Gauri Devidayal (the husband and wife duo that run the restaurant) will bring onboard. The Table has always been tied to San Francisco cuisine, as the city in which Devidayal, Yousef and Sanchez once lived and worked.

It’s no surprise then, that Solari has also spent about two-and-a-half years in the American metro. He’s worked at the three-Michelin star Saison, which serves a 22-course tasting menu (the restaurant has also been on the World’s 50 Best List for the last two years). “A lot of my understanding of product or what I think about dishes is related to them,” says Solari of his time at Saison. The 32-year-old Philadelphia native has no formal culinary training but has learned everything the old-fashioned way: on the job, working with his hands.

Hearing Solari describe his culinary career so far, it’s apparent that he has the ability to learn from every chef, restaurant and kitchen that he’s worked and staged at. He’s worked his way up from busboy in kitchens across the US and Europe. “As a chef, really knowledge is your only currency,” explains Solari about his various staging stints. That drive and quest for experience and expertise has led him from the kitchens of chef Iñaki Aizpitarte’s Parisian bistro Le Chateaubriand, to René Redzepi’s Noma, and Rome’s Armando Al Pantheon.

Culinary adventures

Which brings Solari to India. “A lot of chefs want to go to Japan to learn about food, that’s really cool right now, but I feel like India is very slept on,” he says. “People don’t come to India. American, Western chefs don’t come to India and say I want to spend a few months and learn the cuisine. It’s just something that doesn’t happen.” For the past ten months, Solari has been travelling through Europe, and after a brief return home to spend some time with his ailing grandfather, he had plans to travel through Asia. He rattles off travel agenda, “From Delhi I was supposed to go to Calcutta, to Thailand, I had a place in Thailand I wanted to work; and then to Laos, I had a friend there; and then Laos to Singapore.” His plans extended further East, “I was supposed to go Jakarta to Taipei, Taipei to Chengdu (which is my first stop in mainland China), and then to Xi’an, Hong Kong and Tokyo. I was going to Osaka and then back home,” says Solari who had booked all his tickets and had been planning this global food hop for years, knowing where he wanted to work and what he wanted to do in each destination. Of course that grand sojourn has come to stop with the assignment at The Table. But both Solari and Devidayal clearly seem excited about their decision to trust each other.

Solari sums up his India experience, which so far has been limited to Mumbai, “I came from Philadelphia to Bombay [a little over two months ago], and when I got here, I knew very little about Indian food,” he says. “I was eating chaat — sev puri, pani puri, dahi batata puri. Eating golas on the beach…faloodas…anything I could find.”

What’s new on the menu?

At the moment, Solari is busy adding dishes to The Table’s menu, including a carbonara that he perfected in Rome, featuring guanciale, or cured pig cheek, instead of bacon, as it’s served in Rome. For vegetarians, there’s a dried and blistered carrot dish with fromage blanc, spiced sesame butter and carrot juice vierge (sauce). Devidayal’s favourite though, is the slow roasted beet medallions with braised chard and chicken emulsion that is sauced with an intense maroon jus made with beetroot trimmings. The vegetable is slow cooked until it’s the texture of meat, resulting in a form and flavour both utterly familiar and completely new all at once. Then there’s also a raviolo, made to look like a fried egg, that combines acidity (a flavour Solari confesses to loving), with cheese, and more.

Solari’s ambitions for The Table are clear – he wants to pump in all his food knowledge. That is, from the product-driven philosophy of the Le Chateaubriand or Armando Al Pantheon’s home-like ambience; a desire to minimise food waste; and the drive to extract flavour from every part of an ingredient. As they say, the proof is in the pudding or in this case – the carbonara and the raviolo.

Food prepared at The Table restaurant in Mumbai.
Source: The Hindu

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