Executive chef Hrishikesh Desai was awarded his first Michelin star in 2016 after just one year at the five-star Gilpin Hotel and Lake House in Windermere, Lake District. He tells Eatnorth what spurred him to become a chef having previously trained extensively front of house.
“BLOW-TORCHING crème brûlée during a visit to France: I had never seen that happen before,” Desai says. “I was in awe. I went back to India and told my father that I wanted to be a chef. He asked me 10 times if I was sure. I was very sure.”
It’s hard to imagine that such a basic cooking method alone could have inspired Desai to dedicate his life to the kitchen, but his career seems to be one built on a series of epiphanies.
Desai (37), has a Polish wife and a four-year-old daughter, Eleanor. He grew up in Pune in western India. Food is deeply ingrained in the Indian culture and was a key part of his childhood, from the aromas of spice wafting from his mum’s kitchen to street-food vendors filling the senses on every corner.
Yet, when Desai was just four himself, a visit to Pune’s prestigious five-star Blue Diamond Hotel inspired him to a career into the hospitality industry: “The glass doors, marble, the opulence of the lounge – Indian and continental cuisine – I was amazed,” he says. “I immediately turned to my parents and said:‘When I am big, I want to open a hotel.’ That moment never left me.”
He eventually embarked on a three-year hotel management diploma in Pune training to be front-of-house. At weekends, he would be the first in the queue to work at the Blue Diamond when they required extra staff.
“I got paid 50 rupees a shift,” he says. “But it was at the Blue Diamond that I saw my first asparagus, first smoked salmon, wines from Beaujolais, Champagne, Stilton cheese, and so on. I was fascinated by the huge kitchen split into different cuisines. It was so big, the chefs used a microphone to communicate with their staff.”
As part of his diploma he trained at the Taj Restaurant in the sacred region of Nashik, which is also India’s largest wine-growing area. Here, he was exposed to the Chinese food service, especially the sweet concept. “The combination of sweet, salt and sour flavours is what I remember,” he says. The memory was so poignant; he recreated it at the Gilpin Spice in 2016.
Desai’s life changed again after being advised to learn French as part of his course. Mastery of the language won him a scholarship – still front-of-house – to the Institut Paul Bocuse in Ecully near Lyon in France.
It was there that he saw crème brûlée being caramelised. He stayed to retrain as a chef. While at the Institut, he also discovered a love for wine: “I had a very good teacher, Marie la Roux, one of the top sommeliers in France. Even now I am biased about French wines and that is because of her passion for the way she described the grapes and the geography.”
He went on to win the Roux Scholarship in 2009 and was given the opportunity to train with renowned chef Thomas Keller at the The French Laundry (3*) restaurant in Napa Valley, California. Keller continued Desai’s wine education. “Keller used to take me to different places to learn about everything from the grape to the finished product.” Food-and-wine matching is important to Desai, but he thinks food-and-spirit matching is under-rated.
“Spirits can be paired with a range of desserts,” he says.
“I think all chefs should have a little knowledge about wine and spirits and work with their sommelier or mixologist to find that exact pairing. Personally, I am very fond of whisky – neat whisky. No ice. No water.”
Desai went on to work at Les Maison de Bricourt (2*) and Le Chateau de Bagnol (1*), both in France, and then Lucknam Park (1*) in Bath, part of the Relais & Chateaux group.
He credits Lucknam’s head chef, Hywel Jones, for much of his success: “Hywel has been the backbone of my career. He has given me so much and is a real father figure to me,” he says.
Fame on Telly
Desai’s first flirtation with TV cameras was through winning the Roux scholarship, and he was in the spotlight again in 2010 when he won the coveted Craft Guild of Chef’s National Chef of the Year. He remains one of only a handful of chefs in Britain to have won both.
But taking part in BBC2’s 2015 series Alex Polizzi: Chef on Trial, which helped restaurants find new head chefs, was totally different. “I was reluctant, but I really needed a change. I had been at Lucknam for 10 years and had worked the whole country house – including launching a cookery school. My time had come to move on.
Gilpin, also part of Relais & Châteaux portfolio, is owned and run by the Cunliffe Family.
Does it bother him that the family wants to oversee all the projects? “I think every chef needs to realise that if you want to get something from your boss, you have to prove yourself first. We are all after the same thing, to ensure the guests are happy.”
Desai retains full freedom to change the menu. “Every time I change something the entire family will come in and dine. If they require changes they will come and tell me,” he says.
The Michelin Star
Coming to Gilpin, Desai had one aim: a Michelin star. But even he did not expect to achieve his goal after just 18 months into the job.
In that time, he received eight Michelin inspections. “I am totally honoured that the inspectors described my food as original. Any chef can replicate a dish but to make it unique is something special. It becomes your USP. That was the best part of winning the star.”
The Michelin-winning dishes comprised a first course of salmon with beetroot gazpacho; a second course of venison and dumplings influenced by the galawati kebab, a recipe in the Awadhi culinary tradition of Lucknow in northern India – ‘galawati’ means ‘ melt in the mouth’; and a dessert of rhubarb three ways – poached, sorbet and a jelly served with elderflower bergamot panna cotta and sat on a chocolate biscuit.
The supply chain
Desai plans to source all of his spices personally, not least as a nod to Cumbria’s history as a centre of the spice trade. Local specialities such as Cumberland sausage, potted shrimps and Grasmere gingerbread have long included exotic spices.
“I can get spices in Manchester or London but I don’t know the story behind them and the quality is not always the best,” he says.
Desai sources nutmeg and cloves from a producer in Malaysia. “The farmer is called Eric. We have visited the farm full of nutmeg fruit and clove plants and now have a dish at Rishi’s called Eric’s Malay nutmeg custard. It works perfectly.”
Finding a good supplier is a slow process whatever you are sourcing, Desai says. “Low Foulshaw Farm supply us with brilliant quality eggs and I have built a good relationship with my butchers, so I know exactly where he sources his meat and we both know what to expect from each other,” he says.
“The most important part of the relationship is consistency and honesty. I am not saying I want everything cheap, absolutely not. But I am only willing to pay the price if the product is of the right quality.
“If you bring me bacon and it’s not right, it’s not right. Suppliers soon learn that I am not one of those who accepts whatever they bring to me.”
Brexit has brought problems, too. “Since Brexit, my Irish butter is costing me £48 for 10 kilos which is a ridiculous amount of money. I was paying £26 before the vote and now it’s twice the price, due to the fluctuation of the pound.”
The Desai style
Desai’s cooking is all about reliving those childhood memories. “Every time I think about creating a dish, the first thing I think of is mum’s cooking. My second thought is a flashback to a taste and smell of different foods taking me back to a special memory. I want to replicate those flavours and that is where my process for a master dish starts.”
The Michelin starred Gilpin restaurant Hrishi combines Lake District produce and classic methods to deliver modern British dishes with a twist of Asia, encompassing not just India but also Thailand and China. One example is a lamb dish with shoulder or neck fillets braised in Hyderabadi masala on the right hand side of the plate and Cumbrian Herdwick lamb, simply seasoned and served with lamb jus, on the left. Click on the recipe here.
Gilpin Spice, launched in the autumn of 2016, offers a more relaxed dining experience with an open kitchen, focusing on a more informal menu with sharing dishes spanning the Indian subcontinent from Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, to the Philippines, Japan and China.
And what can we expect in the future? “I will be here a while,” he says. “I gave myself a good three years to simply steady the ship, but that is just the start of it. I also want to open a cookery school here. It’s in the pipeline.”
“I love one-pan meals such as stir fries,” Desai says,” but my favourite is egg bhurji – an Indian dish consisting of egg, green chillies, onions, spices, turmeric, and masala. I used to eat it a lot during my college days. Many Indian visitors to the Gilpin ask for it.”
For Desai, it’s Häagen Dazs Banoffee ice cream: “I hide the tub in the freezer at home so the family can’t find it,” he says. “It’s part of my midnight feast!”
“I am Indian! I love cricket!” Desai says. “When India plays England I always win! If I wasn’t a chef I would aspire to be a cricketer. If you called me at 3am and said: ‘Do you want to play cricket?’ I would say, ‘No problem at all.’
I have indulged myself with tickets for the India, Sri Lanka and final matches for the ICC World Championships 2017. I am taking Eleanor because my wife wants nothing to do with it. Eleanor watches YouTube cricket clips with me and shouts when there is a good shot!”