Hemant Mathur on Leaving Devi, the Art of the Tandoor, and Rajasthani Food


Chef Hemant Mathur announced last week that he’s leaving Devi, where he has been co-executive chef for all of the six years the restaurant has been open, and co-owner since 2007. Mathur and his wife, Devi pastry chef Surbhi Sahni, are heading up to Midtown, where they will launch Tulsi in September.

Mathur’s menu at the restaurant will be an entirely new creation, but will include some of the dishes that he’s known for, like tandoori lamb chops and giant prawns.

We caught up with Mathur to talk about the foods of his childhood, how he feels about leaving Devi, and the art of the tandoor.

Check back here tomorrow for the second half of the interview, with more details on Tulsi.

What’s your first food memory, the first dish you remember eating?

Actually, I like vegetarian, simple food from my home. Yogurt curry with rice.

You grew up in Rajasthan. How would you describe typical Rajasthani food?

Mainly vegetarian dishes, like daal bati. Goat curry we always make on Sunday. You know, this is homemade goat curry. In the restaurant goat curry is completely different. In the restaurant we make it richer. At home we make it with simple ingredients — nothing too fancy — like tomato, garlic, ginger, that’s it.

When did you start cooking?

When I was 12, I was doing subjects at that time, and I didn’t get good marks. I wanted to do some tech courses, so I joined the Hotel Management Institute in Jaipur. … My first training was at Jaipur Rambagh Palace Hotel, owned by Taj, and I loved cooking.

You’re well-known for your tandoori cooking — was this when you started learning that?

No, I actually started in bakery, confections — pastry. The tandoor, actually, I started after three years at another hotel called Jaimahal Palace. So there I learned for the first time tandoori cooking, but I worked there only one year. I moved to New Delhi, to work at a new restaurant called Pakwan, in Le Meridien Hotel.

Then I got my chance: A restaurant called Bukhara needed staff, so I joined there. And this is where I learned my best tandoori cooking. It is one of the best tandoori restaurants in the world. I worked there for almost two years. Bukhara is my check, I say. I cash it everywhere. [Laughs.] It was the best experience. We did 400 dinners every day. If you go to Delhi you must go there.

What are the cooking techniques most important in tandoori?

The temperature of the tandoor and the marinations are very important. The tandoor is all about experience, and it is very hard — you have to put your hands inside. You have to know the cooking times for meat and fish. If you leave it two or three minutes more, the meat can be overcooked and dry.

How do you feel about leaving Devi?

I’m very excited actually, but I still love Devi. [I’m excited to move to a restaurant that’s] all my creation, that’s going further, using new ingredients a little bit. There are new meats I’m trying in my new place. New York needs more restaurants like Devi and Tamarind. We are very few restaurants.
Why do you think there are so few high-end Indian restaurants in New York?

I think in London they have too many Indian chefs, but New York has very few Indian chefs. Here, normally restaurants are run by Bangladeshis.

Yeah, and I wonder about that. People seem to think that if a restaurant is run by Bangladeshis it’s not as good or as authentic. Why do you think that is?

Not all, but like on 6th Street [where many Bangladeshis happen to own mediocre Indian restaurants]. Then there is a misconception that all Indian food is like this.

And many Bangladeshi-owned restaurants are not cooking Bangladeshi food.

No, they are not cooking Bangladeshi.

Do you think people are hesitant to pay more for high-end Indian food, whereas they don’t mind it at a French or Italian restaurant?

No, it’s Indian also. Even in the recession, people are coming to Devi for my chef tasting menu. It’s $85 and people love it. So they want good Indian food and good presentation.