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Features

Claws and effect

By

on

This is the first time we are at chef Dharshan Munidasa’s Ministry of Crab (MoC) in daylight since their launch in February, as they are only open for dinner. The well-lit space on Easter Sunday morning might make for a picture-perfect setting, but we can see the strain on the face of the famed Sri Lankan chef, as he anxiously steals glances at his phone. A packed, monogrammed luxury suitcase sits quietly in a corner, ready for the chef to fly off to his home country, which has been shaken by serial bomb blasts.

But Munidasa puts on a brave face and greets us warmly. He is currently busy setting up restaurants in the Maldives, and from what we gauge, is also gearing up to bring down Nihonbashi (his award-winning Japanese restaurant) to India. Ramit Mittal and Deepinder Batth of Gourmet Investments Private Ltd, the company that got MoC to India, are tight-lipped about the development when we nudge them to reveal a launch date in the city. Munidasa gives us a knowing smile, and moves to answering our queries.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

You visited Sassoon Dock this morning. How did that turn out?
I head to local markets out of curiosity, and to check out what’s available locally. Internationally, multi-day vessels have means to preserve the fish on board, so it stays impeccable when it reaches the restaurant. I didn’t see that here; it is sad to see how you cannot look after fresh catch. I would like to try pomfret though; it is an amazing fish to work with, and I had never seen so many pomfrets in one place.

How do you stay true to your focus on getting every ingredient right?
I had carried our special double crystallised salt from Sri Lanka for MoC. It’s always a challenge to try and source the best ingredients for your restaurant in your country, [and to convince suppliers that] we are capable of purchasing, and continuing the demand at international prices, but you need to focus on the ingredients to get the dish right.

And how do you ensure that the restaurant runs smoothly despite your absence?
By working with a partner who understands food. Also, when bringing a restaurant to another country, many times, people try to change things, and then the whole purpose is lost. Your [core] idea needs to translate to the team. I was not just trying to go to a foreign country and set up.

So, was it easy opening a restaurant in Mumbai? What are the lessons learnt?
India is tough [laughs]. There are 26 licences to get; Sri Lanka is tough too, but India is tougher. We are not trying to take away from the crab-centric restaurants [that already exist] but we are offering a different concept. There are more crab restaurants in Singapore than Sri Lanka, but we are happy that we made it to the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

But how can one get locals to love the food, without modifying the cuisine?
By saying no [to making changes in the recipe] in a nice way. There is a possibility that you will fail; it depends on your conviction.

How do you seamlessly shift from one cuisine to the other?
By separating the restaurants. Chefs try to put everything they know on one menu. I make this chicken liver pâté that hasn’t found a place in any of my restaurants, as for the last 20 years I have been trying to make a restaurant where that dish can shine. Also, I speak in two languages; when I think in two languages, I also have the ability to have two palates. The knives, how a crab is killed humanely, and the use of dashi in MoC; these techniques come from Japanese cuisine.

How do you hone your skills?
By eating. When I was at my sister’s home in London, I made three steaks in three days, plus ate at steak restaurants. I have a pile of steaks from eight countries at home for trials for my new restaurant. Ingredients are 50 per cent of the reason why your food is good. Concentrating on procuring them, being able to choose the correct ones and just exposure to ingredients is how I hone my skills.

What’s your take on ethical fishing?
There are not enough studies done anywhere [on our region]. India and Sri Lanka’s coastline don’t get priority funding for studies. So, it’s difficult to pinpoint what is ethical fishing in our part of the world.

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