As Head Chef Evan Gwynne winds down his stint at Olive, he talks to Rishi Majumder on different palates, celebrity clients and acclimatising to India
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
There’s a buzz around Olive’s white-washed and pebbled interiors as it turns over its new leaf. Massimiliano Orlati (alias ‘Max’) taking over as Head Chef and Chef De Cuisine from Evan Gwynne, announced with a brand new menu to boot, marks the end of a three year culinary reign. These three years saw this Briton, Gwynne, take helm at a kitchen which catered to the vortex of Mumbai’s swirling glitterati—an ever growing and changing throng. But has this Manchester boy, who’s just completed his longest stay yet at a restaurant, changed himself? Maybe, for as Max remarks, in inimitably Italian English, on Gwynne arriving late for the interview, “Hees becaame too Eendaayn!”
Melting into India
Beginning as a restaurant chef in Manchester itself, Gwynne moved on to a string of popular restaurants in London, went on to explore Thailand and Laos before working in Australia and then Europe (where he was at West Pacific, a known restaurant-ing name) and finally winding back up at the British capital (where he worked, among other places, at the famous Nobu). All this followed striding through the doors of Sahar International Airport: “Then, the sudden pollution and climate was like a serious attack on the senses. Now, as a Mumbaiite, I look at goras complaining about the same and gawk at their being so regimented!” expresses Gwynne.
But the metamorphosis doesn’t stop there. “When I go back home, I get a lot of people laughing because of the different twangs in my accent and my changed mannerisms—the way I keep moving my head when I speak for instance,” accepts Gwynne, in clipped British tones. He also accepts a change in his attitude: “Earlier, failure was the worst possible outcome. But now I’m more chilled out.” Funny, because when he started work in Olive, it was this same ‘chilled out’ attitude which bothered him: “It’s not that people aren’t hard-working. It’s how they work here that’s very different from how a Londoner would work.” Saying this, he straightens a cigarette packet aligning it with the table rim on his left, places a cup of coffee symmetrically opposite it on the right and the ashtray on the exact centre. “That’s how I’d work, and this…,” he disturbs the positions slightly, shattering the synchrony, “…is what people here would do.” So Gwynne patiently worked on explaining to his chefs “that I wanted a round peg ready to go into a round hole.”
Another thing that he had to contend with was the menu: “The Indian palate is actually quite advanced as opposed to Westerners who aren’t used to tasting strongly different flavours. But Indians get freaked by subtlety sometimes.” Yet, he wanted to present people with the option of cuisine which was not so spice heavy but brought out its ingredients more delicately and simply. “So, I didn’t pull any punches for a while and created and preserved straight subtle dishes,” he recounts. Some of the introductions he prides himself on were the ‘Quail and Morell Pappardelle’ and the ‘Grilled Salmon with Salsa Verde Cream and Braised Fennel’.
But he’s disgruntled by the fact that whenever he did “push the envelope”, he met with some resistance. “People sometimes have a narrow pre-conceived notion of what the dish is going to be like,” he complains, talking about America’s famous Thomas Keller creating his own Caesar Salad with anchovy, parmesan and braised romaine. “But when I presented my spin on the Tiramisu with mascarpone kernel, coffee poured over it and Venetian biscuits, a few customers went, ‘this isn’t what I ordered’,” he remembers. Is this desire to “push the envelope” what’s led Gwynne to move on? “Well, I’ve gotten engaged, and I’ll be married next year. I want a new beginning. There’s a lot more to learn. But I haven’t decided what to do exactly,” says the non-committal 30-yearold who landed in Mumbai listening to Tom Petty’s Free Falling on the flight because he was tired of regurgitating old recipes and loved the “challenge of bringing new food trends to a new country”.
Catering to Celebrities
But the ex-Nobu chef hadn’t come to just any upper class Mumbai restaurant, as any star studded Thursday night at Olive will tell you: “Well, I had an advantage there. I was absolutely unaware of Hindi movies. So Mr Amitabh Bachchan was just a bearded man wearing a suit. No shaking nervousness there…” Used to Nobu’s celebrity list, the difference was that whereas Robert De Niro was a name on the VIP list in the kitchen, being Head Chef here meant that celebrities had to be handled up-front. “But it depends on the people,” he counters. “Preity Zinta was like a friend and asked for me whenever she came in, so I spoke to her often. But Aamir Khan is a very private person, so we left him alone.” Also, Gwynne’s awe of celebrity-dom lies where any lad from Manchester’s would. “I remember seeing Tom Cruise and thinking he was so short. And, funnily, in person, the first thing that struck me about Prince Charles was that he had such a huge head. But if a foot-baller’s eating my cooking, that’s another issue.” Umm, how? “Well, if he’s playing for my country, I’ll grin no-end and congratulate him. If not, I’ll toss the plate on his table.” Very English. Also, very Indian.
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/3ypt