Executive chef Hemant Mathur and executive pastry chef Surbhi Sahni, a husband and wife team, are the talents behind Tulsi New York, the upscale Indian restaurant that earned a Michelin star rating barely a year after its opening in early 2011. Although steeped in tradition, the chefs’ Indian cuisine emphasizes distinctive flavors and a balance between the authentic and the innovative.
Mathur is renowned as one of the top tandoor chefs in America. Although he has built a huge following with his signature specials at Tulsi, including tandoor-grilled lamb chops and savory banana dumplings served over tomato fenugreek sauce, you will also find expert, unfussy preparations of Indian comfort foods, such as home-style chicken curry and rogan josh. Distinctive regional cuisines of India are also found on the menu. Skillfully mixing traditional Indian ingredients with European and American pastry techniques Sahni has crafted a scrumptious dessert menu at Tulsi that includes Chai ice cream affogato and pineapple cake spiced with black pepper served with coconut lemongrass sorbet.
Mathur’s culinary career began at age 17, when he went to work as an apprentice at Taj Hotel’s Rambagh Palace in his native Jaipur. He perfected his tandoor cooking skills at the renowned Bukhara restaurant in the ITC Maurya in New Delhi. He worked in Mexico and Germany before coming to the United States two decades ago.
Sahni was trained in the New York pastry kitchens of Picholine, davidburke & donatella, and Between the Bread. She is also co-owner of Bittersweet NYC, a catering company specializing in wedding cakes and Indian-inspired confections. Her desserts were featured in Oprah Magazine, Esquire and Food Arts. Sahni also holds a bachelor’s degree in hotel management from the School of Hotel Administration, India, as well as a master’s degree in food studies and food management from New York University.
Prior to the opening of their own restaurant Tulsi, Mathur and Sahni contributed to the success of some of New York’s top Indian restaurants such as Devi, Tamarind, Diwan Grill and Amma.
Mathur was a featured chef at The James Beard House. Sahni was also part of the culinary team for several featured dinners at The James Beard House. Both chefs have participated at the Worlds of Flavor conferences at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.
The chefs talked to Zester Daily about why they chose culinary careers, what inspires them and their thoughts on the future of Indian cuisine in America.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
Mathur: When I was 17, I started working as an apprentice at the Rambagh Palace, and once I started working in the kitchen, I found myself really enjoying my work and, that started me on the path to become a chef.
Sahni: I wanted to join a field where I was using my creative abilities. My father encouraged me to join the culinary field although there were very few women at that point working in the kitchens. Once I began working in the kitchens in my college I knew there was no field I would rather be in, I remember spending hours in the kitchen and being the first in the door and the last one to leave.
What inspires you?
Mathur: Great ingredients. I want to provide different textures, colors and flavors; and I continue to learn about new ingredients and techniques. Also other cuisines and my colleagues inspire me.
Sahni: People inspire me, their stories and how they worked against all odds to strive to be better as a person or even in their profession inspires me to be a better person and a chef. I like to revisit the food that I grew up with, and try to stay as authentic as possible in terms of flavors and textures on the plate. I also believe that the best things come out of mistakes; often even the best recipes have come out of it.
How do you see the future of Indian cuisine?
Mathur: Indian cuisine has come a long way in the U.S. over the past 20 years. In New York, we now have three Michelin-starred Indian restaurants, including Tulsi. Indian flavors and spices also play a bigger role in global cuisine. Indian cuisine will continue to evolve and gain popularity around the world as a new generation of chefs begins to offer their own interpretations.
Sahni: Indian food has been rapidly gaining mainstream presence. Chefs around the world are more proficient in using spices in their cooking, and a wide variety of Indian spices are now available in most supermarket aisles. I think Indian food will move more towards regional specialty restaurants and more people will better appreciate the nuances in the cuisine.
Photo: Hemant Mathur and Surbhi Sahni. Credit: Courtesy of Tulsi