Interview with Yogesh Upadhyay, Chef & Owner of FLOUR Restaurant, Kuala Lumpur
Yogesh Upadhyay, chef and owner of FLOUR Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, shares some of his learnings from the kitchen and some interesting stories from his travels.
By Monica Tindall
It can’t be an easy task to make it successfully in the chef world. There must be a story behind making it this far. How did you get into the industry to begin?
My papa ran a chain of successful restaurants back in Mumbai, India since the 60’s. In 1989, when my papa opened his last restaurant, he put me in the kitchen to discipline me as I was a 13-year old troublemaker. The training was very tough and I used to hate it so much that I wanted to run away. However, after some time I started to like it. Eventually, I did my Hotel Management training which changed me completely. We learned the French Culinaire in India. It’s a three-years program where we are taken through all the departments of a hotel. By 1999, I had the degree and learning with my papa became intense. I was learning spices from him. He taught me application of every spice; how to use it, in which form and when to use. His restaurants are vegetarian hence my hand on vegetarian food was good. You will see that even at FLOUR, we have more vegetable options. My mummy, on the other hand, taught me how to make a good bread dough and roll out the right bread. My training was with the best – from mummy and papa. Hotel management polished my skills to a great extent, hence you see a strong French influence at FLOUR, from food plating, ambience and music.
Were there ever any moments where you doubted yourself as a chef?
I don’t remember this, however, I had fear in me. I still do. Fear to fail. I think this helped me a lot. Fear made me believe I can never be perfect as a chef. This is the motivation a chef needs, to keep going in search of perfection.
What are your some of the biggest struggles/ joys you find in working in restaurants in Malaysia?
Manpower, ingredients and guests. Three struggles. If you are planning a speciality restaurant like mine, it becomes practically impossible to get staff and the ingredients. Malaysian guests have a very different impression on any cuisine for example, carbonara is made with cream here, Japanese sushi has mayonnaise, the kimchi I eat here is way too different than the Korean, and steaks are ordered well done with expectations of the them being juicy, and a curry or any Indian dish is always expected to be heavily spiced with a massive dose of chilli. These are my daily struggles.
Having had experience around the world, you must have some great stories to share from behind the scenes. What is one of them?
I left papa in 2001 and realised the industry is not going to pay me enough. Those days there weren’t many jobs for chefs. I left cooking and got into corporate life in Dubai for 13 years. Then, I came to Malaysia in 2014 to work for AirAsia X as management. These 16 years would take me around the world learning different cultures, making me see how beautiful people really are and that anywhere I travelled it was only food and drinks that got people together. During these years, I always ended up cooking, either at home, friends parties, making curries at a pub in the UK, pizza shop in Rome (can never forget my Egyptian friend), showing a French chef in Monastir, Tunisia how to make chicken tikka, showing a Czech chef application of saffron while making saffron risotto. My passion for cooking never left me. I had to do something. That is when my wife, Natasha, a Malaysian Chinese, pushed me to reach for my passion, live my dream for once and the result is FLOUR.
Share with us an interesting story from behind the scenes.
We were on a short break to Sydney, Australia and Natasha pushed me to have Indian food at one of the fine dining restaurants. I was apprehensive but she pushed, and it ended a disaster. Everything we had was not Indian. They were all curries but not Indian. The final blow was the biryani, that came like curry rice. I called for the chef, complimented him for a busy restaurant and asked him how he made the biryani? His explanation was bizzare! I then suggested, if he would allow, I would like to make the biryani. We punched an order and I was in his kitchen. They were using boiled rice, instead of a rice preparation required for biryani. Chicken was used from a chicken curry, they would toss both into the pan and the biryani was served! I said NO!
This is what we did instead…
- Took clarified butter in a pan.
- Gave tempering of whole garam masala.
- Added the same boiled rice, tossed it until all flavours mixed nicely. Added very little salt.
- Took the rice off the gas, sprinkled, rose water, saffron water on top.
- Separated the whole garam masala and kept the rice on one side, tightened the lid.
- Then I took another pan, tempered only crushed garlic, added the chicken curry and let it boil.
- I tasted it, added some water to it as it had strong flavours. Let it boil.
- Once the water reduced, I added some cashew nut paste and cream for binding and reducing colour of the dark brown chicken curry.
- Lastly, I added brown onions to it and finally some masala and salt to taste.
- Took the biryani serving bowl, put in the rice prepared, just 2 scoops.
- Garnished this with brown onions, finely chopped mint and coriander leaves.
- Placed only the chicken pieces on top of the rice, the thick sauce remained in the pan.
- Garnished with brown onions and mint leaves.
- I took the remainder of the rice and put it in the curry. Added more brown onions, rose water and saffron water and took it through a high flame heat while tossing the rice with high speed.
- Finally, I placed this rice on top of the chicken pieces, garnished and closed the lid air tight, put it in a micro wave for 5 mins and served!
When the biryani came out, we all tasted it and it had a far better aroma, flavours, layers, colour than what we ate earlier. I told the chef, never to serve food that is not correct. We made the biryani with what he had in his kitchen.
How do you compare job-life elsewhere with work in Malaysia?
As compared to where I came from, Malaysia is fantastic when it comes to living. It’s a melting pot of people, cultures and different kind of food as we cross states.
You lay credit to your father for teaching you everything you know about cooking. What is one of the most important messages that stick with you?
Don’t use brain, use heart to cook. When your hand and heart talk to each other is when magic happens.
You have worked both as a chef employee and as an owner of your own kitchen. What are some of the joys and challenges of each?
Both are very different pressures. As an employee you are only looking at your peers, your food and tasks assigned. Pressure is about delivering the product as required. As the owner of the restaurant, it is everything, ingredients, staffing, preparing recipes, doing food trials, maintaining standards, hygiene, industry regulations, financials, solving daily issues and so on.
You’ve opened a food and beverage concept that is gaining a lot of attention in Malaysia. Tell us a little about the concept.
FLOUR, is more than a concept, it’s a vision for Indian cuisine, our passion to cook and serve. When we were planning FLOUR, the intent was clear – upgrade Indian dining. Tell the world out there, there is so much more to traditional Indian food. My wife, Natasha saw my inclination towards the French and came up with the interiors, I designed the kitchen. Finally, music, I was clear, jazz. We play English and French jazz with a contemporary French interior.
The menu, wifey wanted to tell all the guests about us, people at FLOUR and what went behind to the open doors. We wanted guests to know what they are ordering, the history of the cuisine and so on. This gave birth to our first book, FLOUR, Dip and Eat in 2017. It’s a menu but also a 100 page book! In 2019, we revised the book and it is called, The Next Level, FLOUR. This edition we served the next level in traditional food making. Guests are loving it, we think we are on the right track.
If there was one piece of advice you could go back in time and give yourself as a young chef what would it be?
FEAR failure, it helps. What is inevitable is, you will fail. It is that fear, that motivates you to keep going. Failure is not the final result, failure is the story I will tell to all one day over cha (tea).
If you could make dinner for anyone in the world, who would it be and what would you make?
Mummy and Papa. I would prepare simple vegetarian food – Gujarat and Rajasthan with the right balance.
Starter – Dhokla with raw mango and jaggery pickle
Main course – Flat beans made in clarified butter and green chilli, cluster beans made in watery sauce, baby brinjal with tomatoes and potatoes
Served with Phulka (brown flat bread, very thin), pearl millet gluten free bread
Rice course – Steamed rice with gujarati kadhi (sweet and spiced yoghurt preparation)
Dessert – Strong roasted brown flour with clarified butter, milk and jaggery, garnished with pistachios and almonds.
Drinks – Chilled Chaass (Indian Butter Milk)
Thank you Yogesh!
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