If you relish Indian food, most likely you know your way around samosas, biryanis, rogan josh, chicken tikka masala and daal makhani. But how about calamari ullarthiyathe or appam with stew or malabar shrimp curry? These (and several more) are some of the delicacies from India’s southwestern coast that are regularly featured in Chef KN Vinod’s acclaimed restaurants in Washington, D.C., area.
Chef Vinod, who hails from Kerala, works magic with the quintessential Kerala flavor combinations. The tartness of tamarind, fiery heat of green and red chilies, pungency of fresh ginger and mustard seeds, creaminess of coconut, the comfort of savory shallots and the delicate fragrance of curry leaves all come alive in his varied meat, seafood and vegetable dishes.
In his extensive menus, you will find not only dishes from his home state but other distinctive regional cuisines of India. Some of his new dishes delicately combine French cooking techniques with the mystique of Indian spices, something that is unheard of on Indian restaurant menus — pork belly braised with white wine, shallots and a mild blend of Indian spices and Maryland crabs with shallots, green chilies and coconut served in a roasted pappadum shell.
Vinod is a successful D.C. area restaurateur, executive chef and co-owner of three popular Indian restaurants — Indique of Washington, D.C., Indique Heights of Chevy Chase, Md., and the Bombay Bistro of Rockville, Md. Washingtonian magazine featured both Indique and Indique Heights among the 100 Very Best Restaurants of Washington in the January 2012 issue.
In January he was invited, along with Chef Ris Lacoste of Ris Restaurant, to host one of the Sunday Night Suppers, a fundraising dinner organized by Chef Alice Waters, Chef Jose Andres and cookbook author Joan Nathan to benefit the D.C. Central Kitchen and Martha’s Table.
Before coming to the United States in 1985 Chef Vinod, a graduate of the Institute of Hotel Management, in Chennai, India, trained extensively with various hotels in India. He attended the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y. He further honed his culinary skills under many well-known chefs including Roger Moncourt, the French chef who introduced French cuisine to India. Chef Vinod has represented India at Indian food festivals across the globe. He is also a frequent guest at the Smithsonian Resident Associate Programs. Chef Vinod also volunteers his time to teach at the D.C. Central Kitchen.
In the following interview, Chef Vinod shares why he chose a culinary career, what inspires him in his culinary journey, his thoughts on his nation’s culinary heritage and the future of Indian cuisine in America.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
It was totally accidental. I joined the Institute of Hotel Management in Chennai, India. Cooking was a major subject in the curriculum. In one of the cooking classes, my dish accidentally turned out to be the best. From then onwards, I started taking a lot of interest in cooking and always wanted to stay at the top of the class. At the end of our final year I was selected as a management trainee by a major hotel chain and I was given the choice of specializing in the kitchen or the front office, and I chose to become a chef. There was much more satisfaction, fulfillment and contentment working in the kitchen.
What inspires you?
First, my mom — she is 77 years old and she loves food and loves to cook, experiment and literally play with food. Her way of relaxation is to cook. She is so open to new ideas, new ingredients and loves to experiment. I only wish that I had more time to spend with her cooking and trying out food. Her passion for cooking is amazing. Second, when I see my customers happy after having a meal in my restaurant, particularly those who are tasting Indian food for the first time.
Although Indian cuisine has gained mainstream acceptance in the United States, it still trails other Asian cuisines like Chinese, Japanese and Thai by a wide margin. How do you see the future of Indian cuisine in the U.S.?
I think Indian food is poised to be the next big thing in the U.S. When I came to the U.S. in 1985, there were only five Indian restaurants in the Washington metropolitan area. Today in the Washington, D.C., area itself there are over 200 plus Indian restaurants. New Indian restaurants owned and operated by professionally trained chefs have taken Indian restaurants to a totally different level. Personally, I feel that India is a vast country with such varied cuisine from region to region, there is so much variety to offer and you are already seeing more than the standard Indian fare at several Indian restaurants. Today, there is stronger focus on visual appeal, color palette, and presentation comparable to any top-class American establishment. I see some of the top American chefs embracing Indian spices, from Chef Wolfgang Puck to Chef David Burke, using Indian spices or have Indian-inspired dishes on their menus.
Zester Daily contributor Ammini Ramachandran is a Texas-based author, freelance writer and culinary educator who specializes in the culture, traditions and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India. She is the author of “Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy” (iUniverse 2007), and her website is www.peppertrail.com.
Photo: KN Vinod. Credit: Nisha Vinod