(October 29, 2021) As the world was drawing the curtains on the 20th Century, a young chef with a handsome hands-on experience from India landed in UK to explore the London food circuit. To his dismay, what the cultural melting point was sorely missing was authentic Indian food. There were many a restaurant and pubs offering diners chicken tikka masala, but what these London eateries lacked was genuine flavours and diversity. It was then that this chef decided to introduce Britishers to Indian cuisine in a way that no one else had until then. Meet Alfred Prasad, the chef who helped revolutionise Indian food in the UK.
Prasad’s initiation into cooking happened early on in his life, when he’d watch his mother whip up delicacies in the family kitchen. This exposure to authentic Indian cooking held him in good stead, as years later, he went on to become the youngest Indian chef to win a Michelin star.
From home kitchen to five-star chef
Born in Wardha, Maharashtra to a Tamil Brahmin father and an Anglo-Indian mother, Prasad grew up in a household where his mother insisted that everyone should help in the kitchen. At a young age, Prasad fell in love with the aromas wafting out of his family kitchen. With vegetarian cooking being a central part of his father’s side of the family, Prasad would spend hours in his vegetable garden delicately tending to the ingredients before presenting them on the dinner table. His mother, on the other hand, had great skill in preparing meat and Prasad would join her at every opportunity to help with the preparation.
If his parents’ passion for cooking acted as the perfect catalyst in making Prasad don the apron, his exposure to Indian cuisines during his extensive travels around the subcontinent cemented his decision to become a chef. Since his father was an orthopedic surgeon with The Leprosy Mission, Prasad’s family would often travel the length and breadth of the country. It was during these formative years that he was exposed to the wealth of regional Indian cuisines and techniques which he further explored during his training and career.
Seeing his passion for food, his mother prompted him to pursue a hotel management course, something he is forever grateful for. It was during his training at Chennai’s Institute of Hotel Management that he was completely hooked to the science of cooking. Upon his graduation in 1993, he was handpicked to undergo an advanced chef training during which he worked at two of India’s iconic restaurants – Bukhara at Maurya Sheraton in Delhi and Dakshin at Park Sheraton (now Crowne Plaza) in Chennai.
Introducing Indian food in the UK
Over the next six years, Prasad developed a deep appreciation for India’s multicultural and multi-dimensional cuisines. While he enjoyed his time honing his craft in India, the chef realised that the scope for hospitality was limited to just five-star hotels. So, to expand his horizons as a chef, he moved to London in 1999 and joined Tamarind of Mayfair as a sous chef in 2001, only to become the Executive Chef within a year.
When Prasad set foot in London in the early 2000s, Indian cuisine was still in the nascent stages with the majority of the restaurants being owned by Bangladeshi entrepreneurs who altered the flavours to suit the British palate. Back then, Indian food in London lacked authenticity, and Prasad took it upon himself to introduce Londoners to truly genuine Indian flavours and cooking techniques at Tamarind. “I quickly realised that Indian food in London is a bastardised version of what we know as Indian food. This was because most migrants opened Indian restaurants there out of desperation. I give them the credit for popularising the flavours of the subcontinent. Even if they could not do justice to the cuisine, at some level, they introduced new flavours to the British palate, making it easier for chefs such as myself to achieve accolades and glory,” he told Sunday Guardian.
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With signature dishes like the slow-cooked dal makhani, wild mushroom pulao, and roasted rack of lamb that Prasad made Londoners fall slowly but surely in love with Indian food. He’d opened their eyes to the possibilities and varieties food from the subcontinent held. Within a year of his inclusion into Tamarind, he was promoted to the restaurant group’s director of cuisine, and was in charge of four venues – Tamarind, Imli Street, and Zaika in London, as well as Tamarind of London in California. That same year, the 29-year-old Prasad was awarded a Michelin star, making him the youngest Indian chef to achieve the feat. He found his footing in the culinary world map by retaining this accolade at Tamarind for 12 years. “It’s one of the biggest achievements a chef can have. I wanted to tell people in the UK that Indian food is just not the tandoori chicken or murgh makhni, there is a lot more. And I am pleased that people have now discovered regional cuisines,” he told Restaurant India in an interview.
Revolutionising Indian food
Having worked in the food and hospitality sector in the UK for more than a decade, Prasad offered a highly original take on British notions of traditional Indian food by balancing creativity with authenticity. He believes that India has a rich food heritage, and he has been trying to inculcate a lot of it in his kitchen. “I cannot think of any other country that has had a culinary evolution like ours. Right from the ancient food science of Ayurveda, the knowledge of using food as medicine to the many influences we have had by trade or conquest and the many micro cuisines we have — it is truly special. Although the UK is not blessed with a rich culinary legacy, London is now one of the food capitals of the world, being a melting pot of cuisines and cultures from all across the globe. The UK doesn’t grow much in terms of agricultural produce but it sources from all over the world, all year round. So the access to produce and ingredients from any part of the world is at our disposal, which is a huge asset for a chef,” he told DTNext.
Considered one of the pioneers of modern Indian food revolution in London, Prasad returned to India in 2018 to establish his place in the hospitality industry back home with Oberoi’s Omya in the capital, and has been satiating the palates of Delhiites with his menu that’s rich in taste, texture, and flavour.
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In 2016, this Global Indian joined hands with The Akshaya Patra Foundation when he became its Brand Ambassador to raise money for the NGO whose mission is to eliminate classroom hunger in India. He helped the foundation in creating recipes that has culminated in healthy vegetarian meals that are good for kids’ attention spans. ” it is a free meal scheme to children of really backward communities in free government schools. In many cases, what brings the kids to school is the fact that they get that square meal. These families operate what is commonly known as rotational hunger. One person in the family goes hungry every day because there is only so much food that goes around. So, the fact that the kids stay in school for that meal, the by-product is education and the chance to come out of the poverty cycle. It’s the reason they stay at school, the reason they have left with an education, qualifications and able to come out of the cycle of poverty that their parents or grandparents might have been in. [Looking at the] bigger picture, the benefit is exponential. It’s not just providing food,” he added.