La Porte Des Indes, a critically acclaimed Indian restaurant concept with successful existing venues in London and Brussels, as opened at The Address Dubai Mall. What sets it apart from other Indian restaurants is its focus on the food of French colonial India, a part of the country’s history not as well knownas British or Portuguese colonisation. Group Executive Chef Mehernosh Mody oversaw the opening, but still found time to talk to us.
Literally meaning ‘Gateway to India’, the inspiration behind La Porte Des Indes reflects the cuisine of the French influenced dishes representative of Pondicherry, a former French colony. Group Executive Chef Mehernosh Mody spent months in Pondicherry, before the first London branch opened in 1996, where he fully immersed himself in the traditional French-Creole communities researching guarded recipes from French, Tamil and Creole families. Last year Chef Mody won the Craft Guild of Chefs Ethnic Chef award, a long way from his Parsi roots in Bombay.
Did you enjoy food as a child?
Yes and there are still dishes my mother made that I love. I entered the profession really via a mistake. I intered a three year diploma course at the Institute of Catering Technology and Applied Technology in Bombay – sorry, it’s always Bombay to me, never Mumbai – and found I loved it! We had the choice between Front of House of the kitchen and I chose to be a chef I loved the passion and the praise you get from diners.
What was your first job?
I joined the Taj Group and worked at the InterContinental at Colaba in Bombay. we were really put through the grind in our first year, starting with the basics, cleaning, scrubbing. After a year, we were judged by other Taj chefs, at which point they’d assign you to a type of cuisine such as Indian or Italian.
Did you know other types of food?
The area we lived meant I was exposed to lots of different foods from Punjabi to Tamil. In fact, I started with pastry and baking. At first, I didn’t want to do it but after about a year, I loved it! Then I got shifted into banqueting for a year and a half, cooking both Indian and continental food. That initial training period exposed me to a lot then, in the late 1980s, I got a completely different perspective working in a high-end French restaurant – different produce, French chefs and the labguage problems.
But that led you to La Porte des Indes?
I had an approach from Blue Elephant (the parent company) and moved to London. They sent me out to eat as a market survey. Maybe we were fools: a French name, in England with Indian food! Initially it was bumpy, but I was able to bring many influences to bear. Indian food is so diverse, just with differences in the tempering I can make you 20 different dhals.
I always though the venue in a side street near Marble Arch was a strange choice…
It was luck. The property, an ex-ballroom, had been empty for two decades and was such a good size that we got 300 covers in.
With a concept that relies on a small region of India, is it a challenge to keep the menu fresh?
Yes, that’s a constant battle. We have a food concept that works, but we’re adding dishes. It’s strange to say but I don’t believe in fusion at all? There are some dishes that we just can’t take off the menu because of customer demand, like poulet rouge. I’d say that the core menu remains, but we’re constantly evolving with new regional specialities also appearing.
How was Pondicherry when you went there the first time to research the cuisine?
It was a revelation – one of those parts of Indian history I’d never been aware of. But it was beautiful to see the French presence and influence. We worked with more than 60 old ladies who cooked for us, showing us the food. Really interesting to see the difference in the way they cooked and we have credited recipes to them as their essence is in the dishes. It took about a year to get the first menu ready, with modernised versions and so on. But whatever we changed, the flavour of Pondicherry is there.
Many people would say that the best Indian food is street food and that Indian fine dining is an odd concept. Your thoughts?
I think people are interested in Indian food from a fine dining perspective. It’s a great opportunity to showcase this food in Dubai and, before this, customers from Dubai who ate in our restaurant in London loved the food.
The French colonies
The last of the major European powers to trade in India through the French East India Company from the middle of the 16th century. At the creation of the Union of India, there were still five districts: Pondicherry, Karaikal and Yanam on the Bay of Bengal, Mahé on the Arabian Sea and Chandernagor in Bengal. The first four of these now make up the union territory of Pondicherry, now known by many by the Tamil version of the name, Puducherry or ‘New Town’.
Pondicherry and Karaikal are the largest sections in terms of territory and population, both being enclaves of Tamil Nadu, whilst Yanam and Mahé are enclaves of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala respectively.