Chef of the Week: Munayam Khan, Chef Patron at Raja Monkey in Birmingham
How long have you worked at your current restaurant?
I’m the chef patron at Raja Monkey, so I have been there from its inception since 2013 as Birmingham’s first Indian street food concept. Which I actually bought to fruition drawing on my childhood nostalgia of Indian roadside shacks that are not aesthetically appealing but provide moreish and tasty daily sustenance to the bustling community bazaars.
Where did your passion for cooking come from and where did you learn your skills?
I’m what one may describe as a late bloomer although I have been working in the industry for 26 years and learnt on the job. The passion grew on me subconsciously and if it wasn’t for Lasan, coupled with our win of Gordon Ramsay’s fword, I would not have pursued working in an Indian restaurant kitchen. As I have concurrently trained as a management accountant, partly to do with the stigma in our community with being a “restaurant worker” and as an insurance policy.
What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
It’s a cliché but I love the buzz! You can say I’m an addict, the immeasurable satisfaction that comes with delivering and expediting a perfect service. The synchronisation between so many variable elements that can potentially go wrong yet we must maintain consistency and not buckle under the pressures of a busy kitchen.
Name three ingredients you couldn’t cook without.
The three ingredients which are the basics of cooking and not to be underestimated, it will serve you well are butter, salt and lime juice.
Which piece of kitchen equipment couldn’t you live without?
I love working on the griddle, it’s so satisfying to cook on, which we primarily use for cooking Dosas. The caramelisation reaction that can be achieved is wonderful.
What food trends are you spotting at the moment?
Unfortunately too many are imitators rather than trend setters, so we end-up with a saturation of gimmicks and many “have a go chefs”, working to satiate social media followers.
On a positive I can sense an emerging new generation of chefs that are not constraint with the baggage of hard grit to get to the top or shy of what some may call cultural appropriation.
As there is a global economic shift to the East, chefs are not dissimilar also in their adaptation. For example using Japanese techniques and ingredients is now almost synonymous across kitchens in the U.K.
What do you think is a common mistake that lets chefs down?
Chefs that too frequently we observe, emphasise on presentation over flavour and not giving enough consideration to the paying diners because of their unjustified egos.
Also when not grasping the concept of patience and timing in the kitchen.
What is your favourite time of year for food, and why?
I love summer as it reminds me of the Indian subcontinent and enables me to cook light tropical fish dishes.
However being in Britain we cannot avoid the cold dreary weather so I normally would slow cook spicy braised meat dishes that satisfy and comforts our souls.
Which of your dishes are you most proud of?
It’s probably a dish I did using the technique of three staged spicing, grilled Pomfret on herb marinated Carpaccio of heirloom tomatoes and squash blossom tempura. It’s an example of a simple and naturally effortless fusion of East and West.
How do you come up with new dishes?
Mostly I follow my instinct and let my intuition lead me. It is usually guided by flavour memories and inspiration from certain ingredients or fresh produce.
Who was your greatest influence?
One of my influences is Massimo Bottura for his inspiration to challenge the status quo, when it comes to food traditionalists that frown on anything that is progressive as sacrilege. I see a parallel in the cultural resistance by Italians not too dissimilar to Indians, when it comes to food and his triumph in proving them wrong that no cuisine needs to remain rigid.
Tell us three chefs you admire.
Marcus Wareing because he just oozes modesty and style. Closer to home is Chef Brad Carter and Chef Adam Stokes again they exude humility.
What is your favourite cookbook?
How to cook the perfect… by Marcus Wareing. Due to the fact I love anything that aspires towards excellence.
Who do you think are the chefs to watch over the next few months?
Chef Chet Sharma, who will head the kitchen of the new restaurant Bibi by the JKS group. Also Sameer Taneja from Benares both seems to be of good pedigree and with contemporary styles of cooking.
What’s been your favourite new restaurant opening of the last year?
Estado da India by Lasan Group, haha. With the pandemic dampening the dining scene, I was looking rather forward to Stu Deeley opening his first restaurant.