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Nobody knows who Delhi’s best chefs are. All lists are, almost by definition, arbitrary and incomplete. Nobody has eaten everywhere so all ratings are limited by our experience.
But, for what it is worth, here is my list of the best chefs ( in no particular order) I have come across in Delhi. I have excluded chefs who live elsewhere and run restaurants in Delhi, expat chefs and recent arrivals.
I have tried to ignore the publicity hounds, the Instagram-jokers, the journo-cultivators and the Page three types. You will not have heard of many ( most, even) of the guys on the list. In a way, that is a tribute to their determination to work quietly, behind-the-scenes and a mark of the self-respect that keeps them from sucking up to journalists for publicity.
Ritu Dalmia: The absolute Queen! Ever since she opened Mezza Luna in the 1990s, about a decade before the city was ready for it, Ritu has always pushed the boundaries (starting with the original Diva, before all the other little Divas came along) and run the city’s best restaurants. Sadly, we seem to have lost her to the West. Her restaurants flourish but she is always in Europe organising massive super-rich weddings (that’s where the money is!) and tending to her newly-opened Indian restaurant in Milan.
Manish Mehrotra: The King. The most influential chef currently cooking in India, Manish has created his own brand of modern Indian cuisine. Though he is in charge of the Indian Accents in London and New York, his heart remains in Delhi.
Manjit Gill: I always think of him as the guru of Indian cuisine but that may just be because he is my own guru. Few great chefs have done as much to increase our understanding of Indian cuisine or to encourage younger chefs. He will soon start his own school and I am sure people will line up to benefit from Manjit’s wisdom.
Arvind Saraswat: Arvind has retired from the Taj but his legacy lies in the generations of chefs he has trained over the decades. One of the greatest chefs in recent times, he mastered every kind of cuisine, opened such influential restaurants as the Orient Express and the House of Ming, created new dishes and transformed the way Delhi eats.
Bakshish Dean: I have known Dean from his days as Chef at the Orient Express but his finest moment came during his years at The Park Hotel where, a decade before anyone else caught on, he created a modern Indian cuisine menu at Agni/Fire that was way ahead of its time. He has done other things since (Litebite, Johnny Rockets, etc.) but that early achievement is hard to top.
JP Singh: All of Delhi aspires to eat his food but few people know his name. This modest, self-effacing man runs Bukhara and all of ITC’s Peshawari restaurants throughout India. It is a tribute to his perfectionism that even after Madan Jaiswal, the original chef, died Bukhara has maintained its standard. And no matter which branch of Peshawari you go to, the Dal Bukhara will always be perfect.
Jaiywanti (Janti) Dugal: She is one of the most important figures when it comes to the development of Asian food tastes in Delhi but I doubt if you have heard of her --- because that is how she likes it.
Janti started out as the caterer of choice for Delhi’s rich and well-travelled when along with her sister-in-law Meenu she ran the city’s most exclusive catering company in the 1990s. Then, she joined Mamagoto to look after the food and taught Delhi-ites that were Asian flavours beyond Lung Fung Soup. As Mamagato’s success has exploded, so has Janti’s influence. But she still likes to avoid the limelight.
Pradeep Sharma: How do great chefs start out? Gaggan Anand remembers that when he was a trainee at the Taj, it was Pradeep Sharma who taught him how to salt a dish. Other chefs have also learned from Pradeep, right from the time he cooked at Longchamp in the 1990s. Sadly, he has never found the professional success he deserves.
Speaking for myself, I would rather eat European food cooked by Pradeep than by any other chef in Delhi.
Manisha Bhasin: My absolute favourite of ITC’s many talented chefs, Manisha has climbed to the top of a very macho organisation without losing her essential gentleness. As chef of the Maurya for many years now, she has improved the hotel’s many restaurants to the extent that the food at the Maurya is now better than it has ever been.
Arun Sundararaj: An Executive chef is like the conductor of an orchestra. No matter how good the soloists are, it really doesn’t come together without the conductor. If you doubt the analogy, just look at the food at the Delhi Taj, it has improved beyond recognition since Arun took over because he has motivated the kitchen, reworked the menus, sophisticated the recipes and created new dishes. As a chef, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his amazing new menu at Varq and when he cooks himself, he makes an amazing Hyderabadi Biryani.
Gulam Qureshi: It is hard to step out from Imtiaz Qureshi’s shadow, especially when you are the great man’s son-in-law. But Gulam has finally come of age. His food at Dum Pukht is superlative, among the best of its kind and finally, there is a worthy successor to Imtiaz.
Rohit Gambhir: When you run restaurants with famous chefs like Alfred Prasad and Andrew Wong, it is hard for an Executive Chef to let his personality shine through. But little things give a bad Executive Chef away: the quality of the buffets, the banquet food, room service, the coffee shop cuisine etc. Judged on all those standards, Rohit has come out tops with the re-opening of The Oberoi. Even now, my preferred option is to go to Threesixty° and to let Rohit organise simple, home-style North Indian food. It is always brilliant.
Shantanu Mehrotra: Asked who cooked at his restaurant when he was not there, Paul Bocuse famously replied: the same people who cook when I am there.
Even when Manish Mehrotra is in town, the actual cooking at Indian Accent is done by Shantanu Mehrotra (no relation to Manish). As Manish would be the first to admit, when people say they had a great meal at Indian Accent, it is Shantanu’s kitchen they are praising.
Augusto Cabrera: This list has no expats but I am including Augusto because he has made India his home for two decades. That is when he first introduced Delhi to sushi at Threesixty° before branching out (with supportive partners) and opening Town Hall where he took sushi to a new demographic. There will soon be three Town Halls and the group has many other restaurants too.
My idea of heaven is to sit in the Town Hall at Khan Market and eat Augusto’s signature Filipino Barbecued Pork.
Saurabh Udinia: If he plays his cards right, Saurabh is potentially the next Manish Mehrotra. Easily the brightest chef of his generation, he has finally found his own voice (he started out at Indian Accent) at Masala Library and the Farzi Cafe. A phenomenal talent and a man to watch.
Anahita Dhondy: As the success of the SodaBottleOpenerWala all over India demonstrates, even Parsi/Irani food can do with a swift kick up its backside. Anahita has dragged the cuisine out of the museum and into the 21st Century. Now, I am waiting to see what she will do next.
Devender Bungla: I am pretty sure you have never heard of Bungla. But ask any pastry chef and they will tell you that the Hyatt Regency’s Corporate Pastry Chef is a legend. He is the chef’s chef. Everyone who understands pastry will tell you what a master he is.
DN Sharma: I eat at many different restaurants all over the world in the course of my travels but at every birthday and anniversary it is usually the same man who cooks for me: DN Sharma, the mainstay of the Orient Express’s Kitchen from the day it opened.
DN has survived bossy Corporate Chefs, foolish Executive Chefs and idiotic F&B managers because the hotel knows that regulars come back again and again only for DN’s classic French food.
Rahul Gomes Pereira: Rahul or Picu as he called is part of a new generation of chefs who has understood global trends and adapted them to Indian conditions at ATM in Sunder Nagar and now, at the regional Indian restaurant Jamun in Lodi Colony Market.
Anil Khurana: The Hyatt has no Indian restaurant but it has some of Delhi’s best North Indian food. The paradox is explained by the skills of Chef Khurana, the hotel’s secret weapon who makes outstanding food at banquets and if you are lucky, on the coffee shop buffet.
Vikas Vibhuti: Quite simply, the best baker in Delhi. If Vikas did not toil away in The Oberoi kitchens and opened a little shop in a tony area selling cupcakes and macarons, he would be on page three and in food blogs every day.
But he is a serious chef so only those who understand food know of him. And those who do, always get their bread from him.
Abhishek Gupta: A leader of the new generation, he understands ingredients (yes, he was a Noma stagier but don’t hold that against him) and uses that knowledge to devastating effect at The Leela Ambience, Gurgaon. His food is delicious and joyful.
Priyam Chatterjee: Until he cut his hair recently, I used to think of him as the Wild Man of Borneo, a wrestler from my childhood. But Priyam, who cooks at QLA now looks groomed and sober through his passion has not dimmed. He is the most interesting new chef to emerge in Delhi over the last two years and will go far.
Parvinder Bali: Have you ever wondered why the standard of bakery and patisserie at the Oberoi group is so high? Have you been intrigued by the all-around excellence of the young chefs in the group?
I was. Then I went to speak at the Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development (OCLD), where the students cooked for me and I was blown away by how sharp their skills were. This is down to Chef Parvinder Bali who has taught generations of students and laid the foundations for the Oberoi’s cuisine standards. Bali is a chef whom only other chefs know about; but within the community, he is universally admired.