This summer Indian cook Parbhakar Binjola returned to Sakhalin, with the view of spending another cold winter in a warm lot of like-minded professionals. Residents and guests of the island capital arriving in the Indian cuisine restaurant “Taj Mahal” can try chef’s specialty and other culinary delights, and after reading this interview they will get to know their creator – “homo universalis”, as his Sakhalin colleagues call him. More than 20 years employment periods, 15 restaurants opened in different cities around the world, knowledge of Russian, Indian, Japanese and English, operational expertise as restaurant director, chef, manager, production director... We could list track records of Parbhakar for a long time. We were wondering why he liked Sakhalin that much, what he loved being as a kid and why he turned from a hereditary vegetarian into a supertaster of meat dishes.
Parbhakar, tell us how you came to Sakhalin.
I am here for the third time. I first arrived here in 2006, worked here for three years at “Taj Mahal” restaurant. Helped the new restaurateurs to preserve the traditional cuisine, expanded the menu, and introduced about 30 new dishes. Then I came again for three months under commercial visa, introduced Indochinese cuisine into the restaurant, and expanded the boundaries of the menu. Then I went to work to Japan, returned to India next, after that – one more time to Japan and once again to Sakhalin. I mostly cruise around these countries.
Why did you decide to get back to us this summer? Such a classy cook certainly receives many proposals from multiple countries, but you went with Sakhalin.
Yes, I was called throughout the world, but I like it here, I did not want anywhere, only Russia. I got back definitely to Sakhalin, because here I feel myself very comfortable. Our relations grew from professional to friendly ones. I like the team, cooks whom I work with. Besides that, here I only fulfill my core competencies. In other countries, in Japan for example, you work as a chef, and in addition you help waiters, if they fail, you even wash dishes. This is an extra load. A cook is a cook; he needs to be in a kitchen, but not to bounce around. The meals quality depends on that point.
And here don’t they force you to wash dishes?
Of course not! (Laughing)
Please tell about your childhood. Where were you born? How did you become a cook?
I was born in Pauri Garhwal. In my childhood, I dreamt to be a doctor, because my Dad was a doctor. However, it is difficult; you need to study a lot. In my 18, I graduated from school and then worked in a hotel for five years and studied. We’ve got such a system in India – the studies take place in big hotels, there certificate is issued confirming your employment period in that hotel and completion of manager or cook training… This is learning by doing. I’ve been working as a cook since 23 years old. During this period, I opened not less than 15 restaurants in different countries.
What meal did you like best as a kid? Maybe it was something especially tasty cooked by Mom.
In my childhood, I ate peas, some cereals, beans, vegetables. Toor dal, lentils, vegetables… Everything is very fresh in India. Vegetables are sold during one day. If they are not sold, they are donated to poor people. There are many vegans in India. Nobody eats meat in my place. My parents, wife, three children – all of them are vegans. But I was to break abstinence from meat. I am a cook, I cook different meals, and I need to taste it. However, when I come home I don’t eat meat there. Haraam. My wife even gives me a separate dinnerware, because I eat meat. I mean not at home but generally.
What meal do you like to cook most of all?
Biryani. This is Indian pilaf with ghee and many spices. I like not just to cook it but to eat also. The same is kebab – brochettes cooked in tandoor. We have tandoor in “Taj Mahal”. Very tasty meals are cooked there.
Could you remember the very first meal you cooked and served for a guest? Your very first case.
O, a lot of water under the bridge… I’ve been working in the kitchen for more than 20 years, how could I remember? I had cooked a lot along the way… Maybe, it was some salad. Once I remember I had been cooking a whole sheep, I had such an experience. And I cooked for Putin as well. Though that time he was not a president. It was in 1994 or 1995 in Saint Petersburg in Indian restaurant “Tandoor”. There was a banquet for international delegation of Indian prime minister, Vladimir Putin and many VIPs.
You mentioned you had opened 15 restaurants…
Yes. I often was to start kitchen from zero. After that, I had been leaving for work to somewhere else, and my start-up was carried forward by colleagues, companions. Since 1993, I had worked in Moscow; I opened the first Indian restaurant there. Later I had worked in another seven Moscow restaurants, not only with Indian cuisine, but also with European, Chinese ones. I am well acquainted with different cuisines. Also, I worked in Saint Petersburg. In 2005, I left for Japan. I was invited to “Taj Mahal” restaurant there. Formerly Sakhalin’s “Taj Mahal” was incorporated into restaurant chain of the same name – “Taj Mahal Group”. There was one founder. Then he sold Sakhalin restaurant, and new owners wanted to keep as much as possible the traditional cuisine, the atmosphere. I helped to do it, I even consulted them distantly. I had been working for three years in Japan, after that I came back here again …
So is it your “mission” to start from zero, to churn out and then move to another place?
It looks like that. I am interested in it. It is classy, of course, to be just a chef and to cook, this is my lifetime project, but I am really getting into new process. It seems to me, it is already some other level.
Have you ever had a restaurant fully owned by yourself?
Yes. My partner in India and me opened “Haveli” restaurant, means “mansion”. There was home delivery. Then I left for Japan, my partner is still working in that restaurant.
— You came back to Sakhalin in July. Have you already offered something new on our restaurant’s menu?
Yes, I improved the quality of meals. It was tasty before, but I tried to introduce much Indian flavor, to make a cuisine much more traditional.
By dressings, I guess?
Among other things, yes. We have 45 Indian dressings, each is somewhat useful. The main, the queen of dressings, is garam masala. It is such a mix, a blend of black and white peppercorns, cloves, balabar leafs or cassia bark, mace, black and white cumin seeds, cinnamon, black, brown and green cardamom pods, nutmeg, star anise and coriander seeds. Proportions are of high importance, everything is measured by grams.
Chef’s specialty – please tell about it.
It is called “Taj special masala”. It is Indian-style chicken. If the guest desires, it can be cooked more or less spicy. Or mild at all. Indian cuisine is traditionally “chilly”. When you taste it for the first time, it seems spicy to you, but later you get accustomed.
What do you think how much do they love and understand Indian cuisine in Sakhalin and generally in Russia? Is there something close, similar to ours?
These are extremely different cuisines. It is exotic for Russia, specialty, which is interesting, because it differs in everything; it provides opportunity to taste something new. There are Indian restaurants in many Russian cities; it means that there is an interest to Indian cuisine.
Have there been any funny cases during your work? You know, like they show in soap operas about cooks: something always happens, they need to create something in the eleventh hour.
No, I always worked in a relax way, nothing like that. Soap operas are different from real work. However, I had interesting cases in my life. Once when I was 18 and lived in India yet, a tiger attacked me. He lived in our backyard like a dog. I approached to it, but suddenly it attacked me! Everything turned out well, but since that time I have a dread of tigers.
Do you cook when you arrive home? Or you rely on your wife?
I have two sons and a daughter, and they ask me all the time: “Dad, please, you will cook”. One day they want Chinese cuisine, another day they ask for something unusual. Therefore, I cook every evening.
Nobody of them wants to be a cook, do they?
No. Now they study at school in New Delhi. At good school, they study English from the first grade. I would like to educate my children well.
How do you find Sakhalin? What do you like, what is strange to you, unusual?
Everything is fine here. Of course, it is cold in winter, but we need cold too. Having experienced it, you will put more value on the warmth.
What do you like to do here besides work?
I walk about the city. Sometimes I go to restaurant. But generally, I am extremely short of time. A lot of work. One day-off is just for relax, talking to family on Skype. It is my final work year here, and then I am going home. I will retire. (Laughing). I have a house, great land plot; I will grow vegetables, herbs, fruits. I make oils myself. When I am in India, I buy nothing in a store; we have all our own products. So I will have a rest and do gardening.