The Varli Food Festival is coming to New York City on April 7, 2011, and with it comes celebrity chefs, restaurants of note and some of the best Indian cuisine you will ever eat. In anticipation of this groundbreaking Indian culinary event—the first of its kind in the U.S.—I had a tête-è-tête with Chef Hari Nayak, one of the participants at the Varli Food Festival.
While I did not have the pleasure of an in-person meeting, the warm, welcoming and cordial vibe that emanated from Chef Nayak was undeniable. He is enigmatic. He is comforting. He is also a chef with a unique and distinctive style of cooking.
A former pastry chef, Chef Nayak went to culinary school in the U.S. to nurture his professional cooking skills. Prior to preparing Indian food, he cooked French and European food, and everything else but Indian food. When he began cooking Indian food, he adopted a more unique style of cooking.
When asked what attracted him to the Varli Food Festival, his response conveyed a strong sense of loyalty to his Indian culture. “The Varli Food Festival is the first of its kind in the U.S. for Indian chefs and Indian food, and one of my main things is to promote Indian food, Indian culture and cuisine. It’s a great opportunity to showcase that and to be around other chefs under one roof at the same time.”
“Being American Indian myself, I’ve been here for more than fifteen years. I was born in India. I don’t really need to teach or promote Indian food among Indians. It’s always exciting to see other cultures take an interest. That’s what I’m excited about.”
His expectations are not lofty or unattainable. The Varli Food Festival is on the cusp of opening doors in the U.S. for mainstream Americans to walk through and learn more about the vast world of Indian cuisine. It’s so much more than just curry.
So what does Chef Nayak expect to gain from his experience at the Festival? He has an interest in meeting people who are excited and want to know more about the food. “I want to talk to them, interact and know what they like and what they want to see.”
These are the words of someone who cares about the message that he is striving to convey, that message being one of cultural and culinary pride, awareness and dispelling the myth that Indian food is only about creamy curries.
“It’s so much more than that,” he says of the curry falsehood, “and if I can do that, promote Indian food, that is something that I would like to see done. There’s so much to work with in Indian cuisine. There is a common misconception among some that all Indian food is creamy or rich but that’s because that’s what people are used to seeing in restaurants. ”
This brings home the message that Americans are not as savvy in Indian cuisine as we may like to think. How wonderful it would be to see Indian food stay true to its indigenous roots and remain a part of the culture and to have that translate into the food as opposed to dumbing down the fare or giving it the “Americanized” treatment. Surely our palates can handle all of the wonderfully exciting flavors outside of curry.
Indian food is universally appealing because of the phenomenal blend of spices. “There are spices and flavors that no other cuisine in the world uses, nor do they use the number of spices that we do. The different spices that come together in a dish—the freshness and the way they are blended—are what make it so flavorful. People just love it.”
One thing you can count on at the Festival is Chef Nayak’s unique style of cooking. “What I’m bringing is the style of cooking that reflects what I believe in. What I’ve been doing so far is trying to create traditional Indian cooking and trying to make it more accessible to the mainstream market.”
Of course, cooking is where each chef flourishes and it is what they love, as well as having an appreciation of the food. Festival goers can expect to see a range of cooking styles and flavors as each chef will be bringing something different to the table. “Everybody is doing the same thing but everybody has their own little unique way of doing it.”
Chef Nayak will be participating in a signing of his book, Modern Indian Cooking, and, if time permits, possibly a cooking demonstration. He will also have his new book (which is not yet available), My Indian Kitchen, on display and available for pre-ordering.
Just as he is eager about the prospect of promoting Indian cuisine, Chef Nayak is also looking forward to what he thinks will be a highlight of the Festival: the other chefs. “It’s great to have these numerous participating restaurants and the chefs bringing in wonderful food. Just the experience of having all of these restaurants around the region showcasing their best is something that I’m looking forward to.”
His excitement is contagious. While Indian food is one of my favorite cuisines, I openly embrace the opportunity to become educated on the special nuances that make it what it is today. My plan is to eat my way across the Festival and come away with a new awareness and a better understanding of Indian cuisine. Not only do I look forward to being educated on it, but I can’t wait to taste that education.
The Varli Food Festival is coming to NYC’s Altman Building on April 7, 2011 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. For tickets and more information visit www.varlifoodfestival.com.