Almost a year ago to this day, Chef Priyam Chatterjee stood in front of a very select audience of family and friends at the French Ambassador’s residence in New Delhi, and accepted the insignia of the Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole from H.E. Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler of France, the only Indian chef to ever be awarded with this accolade. He left for Paris soon after, and the Capital found itself minus this chef with the long wavy hair, tattooed arms, and disarming smile. He’d made a mark on the culinary scene and transformed it with his artistic, precise style of cooking – first as head chef of Pan-European restaurant Qla, and later at Chef Sujan Sarkar’s San Francisco import, Rooh. He was a chef ahead of his times, producing literally art on a plate, the last time I spoke with him, with desserts like A View From my Window (a cloud made of 11 textures of chocolate and coconut-infused cotton candy), and tableaus by Jackson Pollock or Vincent van Gogh coming alive harmoniously in the dishes he produced. But New Delhi’s loss is Paris’s gain, and as Chef Priyam lives out the Covid-19 induced lockdown and beyond in France, we find out, literally, what’s cooking chez Chef Priyam.
“I’ve pretty much done everything just as the rest of the world has – eaten snacks and gotten real fat while staying in my room!” he laughs in a conversation from Paris. “Okay, I’ve actually cooked almost 60 dishes, and finished writing most of my book.” He also speaks to his family every day from France – something he hasn’t done in years. Chef Priyam recalls that sultry August evening at the French Ambassador’s house, when a packed reception area was filled with love, and he made history. “It was a night to remember,” he says. “A lot was going on inside my head, but the most important thing was remembering my father and bringing a look of happiness and pride to my mother’s face. It was a moment of honour and accomplishment that I will always cherish.”
“My mother has played significant roles in my life when it comes to cooking, and more importantly eating,” says Chef Priyam. “She always encouraged strongly rooted regional cuisine at home, and outside food only on weekends or for some special occasion, which really solidified my palate and my understanding of regional Bengali cuisine. And then my Western education shaped my eating habits even further, and the credit goes to my mother for sending me to boarding school in the hills of Kalimpong.” Chef Priyam, who was trained under Chef Jean-Claude Fugier at the Park Hyatt Hyderabad (the latter became his mentor), has always said that while his techniques are French and Italian, he’s “madly in love with France in all its glory” and remains proud of his Bengali culinary heritage. “Both these communities have a common gastronomical thread which is very strong,” he says. “I want to use the techniques and know-how that I’ve learnt and completely elevate and modernize Bengali cuisine – introduce it to the future, so to speak.”Maacher Jhol or Calcutta Fish Curry by Chef Priyam Chatterjee
Chef Priyam, who once played drums in a band, doesn’t like to call himself a chef or a cook. “I’m an artist who uses food as a medium of expressing my thought process with edible brilliance. Every dish for me has a history, origin, evolution, and a story to tell, and as an artist I want to be able to narrate that story while the patron is eating,” he says. “I don’t want to just cook food. I want to ignite a multisensory stimulation every time someone sees my creation on the plate, followed by biting into it. I want them to be transposed to a sense of completion. A picture-perfect frame of perfection in the moment. That’s what I strive to achieve – excellence!”
One look at Chef Priyam’s Instagram account, and you can see the perfection that he speaks of – circular compositions on a plate with beautifully scalloped potatoes or a seafood dish that looks more like a flower in bloom. “The Razor Clam Malai Curry is a stunning and befitting example of the future,” he says. “The dish is originally super fresh, vibrant, and light. We Calcuttans strictly use freshly caught prawns for the dish; I did it with absolutely succulent and sweet raw razor clams, giving it a bit of a Japanese perspective.”Razor Clam Malai Curry by Chef Priyam Chatterjee
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. “A perfume of garam masala is like a pronounced aroma around your lips and nose when you bring a spoonful of this dish closer, which gradually provokes your senses to take a bite, and this resonates throughout the typical malai curry gravy within,” says Chef Priyam. “But it’s cooked as a French sauce, with modern but aligned elements like yuzu and a bit of wasabi replacing the fiery heat of green chilies.”
The other dish that catches my eye is the Calcutta Congée. “This is a name that’s given for the world to connect to the dish, but it’s a plain and simple ‘Fena bhaat’!” he laughs. “It’s a dish that is nostalgia personified, a house staple, a classic full of flavour and aroma, and I want to elevate it to something that’s world class.” Chef Priyam’s special Congée is finished with orange blossom water and browned butter. The sardine is confit first, and then torch-grilled for that burst of umami. “The asparagus pearls are for texture and crunch, and the fresh garlic flowers are for extra flavour and freshness. My mouth is watering!” he laughs.Calcutta Congée by Chef Priyam Chatterjee
And what are Chef Priyam’s favourite dishes as he wanders the (now open) boulevards of Paris? “I have many to list, but I do enjoy a hearty seasonal French soup, a good beef Bourguignon, and well-cooked seasonal fish with some lemon beurre blanc. And not to forget, a good salt-roasted chicken with potatoes, a real classic. And for dessert, I recently had a traditional Mont Blanc that completely mesmerized me.” For Chef Priyam, living in Paris has allowed him to explore the produce of the region, and come closer to what’s available in the season and work with that, since he calls himself a “very, very product-centric cook”. Artistically, he’s currently looking at architects and designers for inspiration, so Bjarke Ingels and Rahul Mishra top that list.
As for the post-Covid scenario, Chef Priyam says that “we will heal and triumph, but will have to rethink our strategies, a lot!”.Volaille de Bresse or Roast Chicken with Lemon and Coriander Sauce by Chef Priyam Chatterjee
A luxuriously humble roast chicken with a sauce of lemon and coriander by Chef Priyam Chatterjee
One Whole Chicken with the skin on
Rosemary (one bunch)
Thyme (one bunch)
Sage (one bunch)
Basil (one bunch)
Toasted Coriander Seeds
Toasted Cumin Seeds
White sesame Seeds
Salt (to taste)
Pepper (to taste)
For the sauce:
Chicken Stock (1.2 litres)
Cream (1 litre)
Fresh Coriander (one bunch)
Salt and Pepper (to taste)
Finely Chopped Onions
Finely Chopped Garlic
60 ml Dry White Wine (optional)
To cook the chicken:
Compile six strands of each of the herbs and makes a bouquet garni. Tie with a string.
Brine the chicken in a salt sugar water solution for 8 hours and then in clean water for one hour, changing the water every 15 minutes.
Completely pat the bird dry.
Massage Dijon mustard first all over the chicken, then inside the cavity.
Now repeat the above step with oil.
Season thoroughly with salt and crushed black pepper.
Sprinkle all the seeds generously and evenly on the bird.
Place two full tablespoons of butter inside the cavity, followed by the bouquet of herbs.
On a piece of aluminium foil place the rest of the herbs and then place the bird on it carefully.
Cover it gently and cook at 180ºC degrees for about 40 minutes, and then 220ºC degrees for 10-15 minutes.
To cook the sauce:
Place a heavy-bottomed pan on the stove on medium heat.
Add the butter.
Sauté the onion and garlic until translucent. Make sure the butter remains foamy.
Deglaze the pan with the white wine.
Add in the stock.
Reduce the mixture slightly.
Add the cream and whisk well until it’s fully incorporated.
Reduce the heat.
Check the seasoning.
After cooking on low heat for about 20 minutes, take the mixture in the pan and pass this through a fine strainer.
Clean the pot, dry it and bring it back to the heat, pouring in the strained sauce.
Take a ladle and add the lemon juice with water and pour this into the sauce, while whisking vigorously. This will ensure your creamy sauce does not curdle.
Add a little bit of sugar to balance the cream.
Now (this is VERY important), bring the cream to a gentle boil and add the coriander bunch (for three minutes). Take the sauce out from the heat completely.
Add the lemon zest and let this infuse for 10-20 minutes.
Strain the sauce and keep it for further use, when the chicken is ready to serve.
Et voila! Bon appétit!
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A luxury and fashion journalist with 25 years of experience in publishing and magazine journalism, I have edited some of India’s top fashion and luxury magazines. I got my BA in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, and went on to receive my Master’s in English and French from the University of Strasbourg, France. I have also studied German and Film. I live in Gurugram, India, and look forward to once again exploring our world with a new-found freedom.
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