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How a trip to India led to food inspiration and a new exhibition for Hrishikesh Desai, head chef of Gilpin Hotel

PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 May 2018

Hrishikesh Desai cooked in many different places in Kerala, including on this beautiful hillside at Sinna Dorai tea plantation (c) Freda Hocking

Hrishikesh Desai cooked in many different places in Kerala, including on this beautiful hillside at Sinna Dorai tea plantation (c) Freda Hocking

© 2018 Hocking Photographic

Michelin star chef Hrishikesh Desai has been in search of the best spices and foods in India. Now he is shining a light on these special ingredients as part of a special project. Emma Mayoh reports.

Scallop ceviche with  carrot and cumin purée - a typical creation of Hrishikesh Desai (c) Freda HockingScallop ceviche with carrot and cumin purée - a typical creation of Hrishikesh Desai (c) Freda Hocking

Hrishikesh Desai was just four when he decided hotel ownership was his dream. He was at a wedding held in the five star Blue Diamond Hotel – the only one of this standard in his hometown of Pune in India.

‘I was so young but I remember it so clearly,’ said Hrishikesh, now executive head chef at the much lauded Gilpin Hotel and Lake House in Windermere. ‘It was very very posh, with its beautiful marble and lovely lights.

‘But what really amazed me was the staff – how crisply and cleanly they were dressed, the way they spoke to us. It was perfect. I told my parents right then that I wanted to open a hotel.’

Hrishikesh harboured that dream for almost 15 years. But when he turned 18, a creme brulee changed everything. It was the classic French dessert that made him want to be a chef. He was on a month-long scholarship to Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon when it happened. He was there as part of a three-year hospitality diploma he was studying at college in India.

Films and photography will be used to tell the story of the trip to India (c) Freda HockingFilms and photography will be used to tell the story of the trip to India (c) Freda Hocking

‘I saw one of the tutors, Alain le Cossec, make a creme brulee,’ recalled Hrishikesh, now 38. ‘It blew my mind. It was the whole experience. When he sprinkled the sugar on the cream and blowtorched it, it suddenly opened my eyes.

‘I thought “wow, this is what I have to do”. It was probably to do with the blowtorch if I’m honest! What young man wouldn’t want to use one to cook? It was very manly.’

Those early experiences will always leave an impression on the talented chef, who now leads the kitchens at the Michelin star HRiSHi and the casual dining two AA Rosette restaurant, Gilpin Spice. But there have been many that have followed it. He returned to India after his time in Lyon and was keen to get back as quickly as he could. He didn’t have to wait long. That same tutor invited him to study a two-year degree in culinary arts back at the Institut Paul Bocuse.

‘France was a huge eye-opener; it still is,’ he said. ‘They believe in good food and good flavour. You take a baguette, you take cheese, you take red wine, you sit in the garden and just eat and drink and be happy.

An unlikely dining companion in Kerala. You wouldnt know Hrishikesh has a fear of elephants  (c) Freda HockingAn unlikely dining companion in Kerala. You wouldnt know Hrishikesh has a fear of elephants (c) Freda Hocking

‘I spent most of my spare time travelling. It was amazing. I went everywhere, just to taste food. Provence, Nîmes, Paris. There were farmers’ markets that were two, three, even four kilometres long.’

Since then he has worked at the two star Les Maison de Bricourt as well as Le Chateau de Bagnol and Lucknam Park, which both have one star. He became a Roux Scholar in 2009 and was named National Chef of the Year in 2010. He got the top job at Gilpin after the Cunliffe family, which has owned and developed the hotel since 1987, took part in the BBC2 series Alex Polizzi: Chefs on Trial to find their new executive chef.

His latest culinary journey is not only something that has taken him back to India but one that is going to make a big impression on Gilpin. Hrishikesh traveled with Barney and Zoe Cunliffe to Kerala. The region is the hub of the spice trade and the trio were introduced to some of the top merchants.

‘It was a busy and wonderful trip, we took 14 flights in seven days,’ said Hrishikesh, who lives in Kendal with wife, Aga and daughters, Eleanor, six and five month old, Erin. ‘The spices we saw and tasted were absolutely incredible. We met many wonderful people and I also got to cook in many different places like a fort, a ginger factory, in the markets, in the tea and spice plantations and one time with the help of an elephant.

A colourful line-up of spices (c) Freda HockingA colourful line-up of spices (c) Freda Hocking

‘I’m quite scared of elephants so that was an interesting experience for me. To hear the noise of it approaching behind you was quite incredible. But also to be so close to an animal like that and to feel its skin was amazing. I might not do it again though.

‘I cooked on a boat too and didn’t have all the ingredients I needed. I was missing fish. We were able to get them off the side of the boat. In less than 30 minutes it was on plates and people were eating it. To work like that was fantastic.’

Hrishikesh also learned about undiscovered foods that are produced on a small scale and are responsible for providing the livelihoods to many families. These included top quality oysters and pokkali rice that is grown in waterlogged coastal regions.

‘The Indian chefs just aren’t using these ingredients,’ said the talented chef. ‘But it’s important people know about them. The oysters were better than any I’ve ever tasted and the rice was grown in the most interesting way. Shrimp swim about among the plants. It costs the equivalent of about 80 pence and it’s not being used. Pokkali rice is a 3,000 year-old tradition and it is dying out. I don’t want this to happen.’

Hrishikesh cooks a feast on a boat where the fish were caught minutes before he served them up (c) Freda HockingHrishikesh cooks a feast on a boat where the fish were caught minutes before he served them up (c) Freda Hocking

Hrishikesh, Barney and former journalist Zoe travelled with video team The View South and photographers, Denis and Freda Hocking, to document the fascinating trip. They will now create exciting stories, photographs and films to create a magazine, a short film and an art exhibition of the photographs in London. Hrishikesh will also host a private dinner in the capital to tie in with the exhibition.

‘It is important we share what we saw and experienced on the trip,’ said Hrishikesh. ‘We need to carry on telling the stories of these people working hard to keep these traditions going. These are also people whose livelihoods are completely reliant on them continuing too.

‘We had the most amazing experiences and met the most interesting people. We want to tell lots of people about it.’

During the trip the party stayed at Malabar House, a fellow Relais & Chateaux hotel. The trip was such a success that Barney is hoping it will kick-start other hotels in the group to work together internationally. The visit to India also connects with Cumbria’s spice heritage. In the 1700s, Whitehaven was the second largest spice port in the UK, trading spice for English wool. Traditional English dishes, such as Cumberland sausage, sticky toffee pudding, ginger biscuits and potted shrimps, were reinvented using these exotic spices.

Hrishikesh is following that tradition, marrying the best local produce with the very best spices from Kerala.

He will be using them to create stunning dishes for HRiSHi as well as in Gilpin Spice, working with its head chef Rohan Wadke, who studied at the same college as Hrishikesh in Pune. The Cunliffe family are proud to have the talented chef on board and are looking forward to seeing what he creates.

Barney said: ‘I think Hrishikesh is becoming a huge ambassador for Cumbria. His culinary style is different and very much in vogue given the huge Asian scene in London.

‘More importantly, he has the talent to go even further - he has huge support from all the greats chefs such as Michel Roux, Sat Bains, Andrew Fairlie and Heston Blumenthal.’

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