People 6 minutes 28 July 2022

The First Day We Got Our Stars: Himanshu Saini Of Trèsind Studio

Chef Himanshu Saini of Dubai’s one-MICHELIN-starred restaurant Trèsind Studio tells us how he’s challenging common perceptions of Indian cuisine

Food is art, whereby one expresses themselves, celebrates their culture, and showcases their creativity. In a country as vast as India, numerous sub-cultures come into play, resulting in a myriad of sub-cuisines that makes the country a cradle of diversity.

“It's difficult to describe Indian cuisine, because it feels like describing the cuisine of a whole continent,” says Chef Himanshu Saini of one-MICHELIN-starred Trèsind Studio. “In India, there are about 19,600 dialects and over 121 spoken languages. In every state, the language, food, and culture change, and each of them has its own recipe to the same dish. We’re talking about different cuisines of different people, yet they all form Indian gastronomy,” he adds.

In Old Delhi’s Sui Walan, known for its 100-year-old shops and markets, historical Mughal landmarks, and authentic street food, Himanshu spent much of his childhood at the house of his maternal grandparents. It was there where he took an interest in cooking, by being his mother’s little helper in the kitchen.

“We used to live together with our extended family of about 50 people, for whom we had to prepare three meals a day. My grandmother would assign tasks in the kitchen to everyone in the house, similar to the way we work in a professional kitchen. I used to see my mother working there, and that has stuck with me. I always spent my time with her in the kitchen and gave her a helping hand,” he explains.

Influenced by his time in the family kitchen, the young chef eventually enrolled in culinary school and then kicked off his culinary career at the New Delhi restaurant Indian Accent, renowned as one of the first modern Indian restaurants in the world. There, under the mentorship and guidance of its chef Manish Mehrotra, he would hone his skills and cement his inclination towards modern Indian cuisine and ultimately shape his culinary philosophy into what it is today. “What I learned at Indian Accent formed the basis of what I'm doing right now. My chef at Indian Accent, Manish Mehrotra, is the one to whom I always look up and who probably guided my career. From an early age, I was seeing things that were never done in the Indian kitchen,” he affirms.

Aided by his active imagination and his ability to view things from different perspectives, Saini leveraged his learnings to envision his own original, modern take on Indian food, which also became his career mission.

“The term ‘modern’ can be confusing. There are countless modern approaches to Indian food, but sometimes the cuisine’s essence is lost in this whole modernisation process. ”

“I'm creative in how I see things. My definition of ‘modern cuisine’ is very different. I perceive my cuisine as more than just modern: it's an evolution of Indian food, since Indian cuisine was modernised about 50 years ago as a result of the British colonisation, as it was introduced to alien ingredients such as potatoes and tomatoes,” he elaborates.

At some point in his journey, Saini found himself at a crossroads: to either move to New York or to Dubai. While both cities promised him career opportunities, he chose to go to New York, or “the City of Dreams” as he describes it, but things took a different turn. Soon after, he decided that New York wasn’t convenient for him and he eventually flew to Dubai to open Trèsind, a modern Indian fine dining restaurant, in 2014. “My route to Dubai was via New York,” he jokingly says.

This would be a turning point in his career. “In this city, I’ve been able to show the world what Indian food can be, because everyone crossed Dubai when travelling around, and it’s also a city that welcomes people with arms wide open,” Saini explains.

A few years later in 2018, Saini opened Trèsind Studio, a sister restaurant to and a concentrated version of Trèsind, with the aim to offer a more experimental approach to food with its tasting menu concept and exclusive capacity of 20 guests per seating. At first, Trèsind Studio was annexed to Trèsind and tucked behind a door in the latter at voco Hotel, then later moved to its current location in the East wing rooftop at Nakheel Mall, The Palm Jumeirah.

Located on the Rooftop East of Palm Jumeirah's Nakheel Mall, Trèsind Studio serves Indian cuisine through a creative and progressive lens
Located on the Rooftop East of Palm Jumeirah's Nakheel Mall, Trèsind Studio serves Indian cuisine through a creative and progressive lens

Besides the two restaurants, Saini also presides over Carnival, a restaurant serving modern Indian cuisine, and Avatara, a vegetarian fine dining restaurant

The newly one-MICHELIN-starred Trèsind Studio takes the butterfly as a symbol to represent the evolution of the Indian cuisine, all while remaining “Trèsind”, a play on the French phrase “très indien”, which means very Indian. Trèsind Studio only operates at dinner time, offering a seasonal tasting menu that changes every four months but featuring the same five or six classic dishes.

At Trèsind Studio, Himanshu continues to unlock the potential of the Indian gastronomy, while reflecting its true identity with an element of surprise and explosive flavours.

“My agenda is to make people understand what Indian food is. It's a very underrated cuisine that has great potential. I’m trying to simplify a complex cuisine booming with diversity, while telling stories that have never been told before. I want to challenge common perceptions of Indian food by showcasing flavours, both new and familiar, in an unconventional way,” he concludes.

Blossom chaat, pumpkin mash, trio of chutney
Blossom chaat, pumpkin mash, trio of chutney

He sat down with the MICHELIN Guide to tell us how he feels about Trèsind Studio’s MICHELIN Star accolade and other interesting facts about himself.

What was your first encounter with the MICHELIN Guide?
I think it was probably during my first few days at the culinary school. The teachers were explaining how prestigious the MICHELIN Guide was – that was when we first heard of it. The school had a few London chefs working for MICHELIN-starred restaurants come and give speeches during the annual ceremonies. That’s how we started learning about the story of the Guide and how it works. That was also a time when there were many misconceptions about it, like having to do things in a certain way and an amazing wine list to earn a MICHELIN star, or that MICHELIN inspectors would throw their napkins on the floor. But now we know that all of this isn’t true.

How do you feel about earning this MICHELIN star as a young chef?
It was on my bucket list. It's what every young chef aspires to be associated with. Sometimes, when I was stuck in the process of creating a certain dish or a pairing of ingredients, the MICHELIN Guide was my reference point. I would type, for example, “chocolate and blue cheese dessert MICHELIN Guide”, just to see if anyone else had thought about this combination. It’s something I was attached to, even without being associated with, so much that it became part of my life. The night before the MICHELIN Star Revelation, I couldn’t sleep or stop thinking about it. And now I’m officially a member of the MICHELIN Guide family. What a feeling! It's something that still feels like a dream.

How would you describe your cooking philosophy?
I follow many approaches, but most importantly I always put plant-based cooking before cooking with animal products. When we serve animal protein in our menu, it's always served as a side to the vegetarian dish. For example, in a dish of corn curry served with lobster, the hero of the recipe is the corn curry, which showcases vegetarian cooking. The charred lobster tail is only used to support the flavours of the corn and achieve those smoky flavours.

The philosophy is also to bring street food into the restaurant setup, without disrupting the harmony of the flavours. In our Kebab Scarpetta, we talk about the leftovers of the kebab, rather than the kebab itself. It’s about that part of the kebab which is always thrown away or becomes burnt out when you keep on cooking it on the pan. We explore these flavours to which we’re really hooked and which we never really expect to experience in a restaurant setup. Our approach is out of the box, yet we serve recognisable flavours that you don't expect to experience in a restaurant like this.

Charred lobster tail, pickled tomato, corn curry
Charred lobster tail, pickled tomato, corn curry

What do you enjoy about being a chef?
We cook here for different people from different nationalities. I try to serve them the dishes myself as much as possible. It brings me great satisfaction to see people’s reactions and how they’re enjoying my dishes. There have been moments in the restaurant when people started crying out of joy, when they have tasted some dishes or learned the story behind them, and this is something that just motivates me even more. I always look forward to moments when I get the chance to tell the guests what we want to do, what Indian food is all about, and what the story behind the dish is. I feel it's my responsibility to convey my message to the guests through my food.

What do you think is the most important quality that a chef should have?
A chef without his team is nothing. The experience and the team are extremely important. It's a collective game, in which you can't win by yourself. If my staff and I are happy with the working conditions and what we’re achieving at work, and if the work is interesting, that's what will eventually produce what you aim to offer.

Good service can save bad food, but bad service can't be saved by good food. In a restaurant, service is sometimes more important than the kitchen. It can change the whole complexion of the dish you are serving. We can serve the tastiest dish ever, but if the server is not happy and at their best, you won’t feel the dish the same way. It's very important to be a team leader who can keep the team together. I have some guys at Trèsind Studio who have been with me since day one. The team is what lifts you up.

What’s your advice to young chefs?
Learn to work for someone so you’d know how people can work for you. I know how much dedication and hard work I've given to my chef, so I know what to expect from my staff. As a young chef, you’re in a position where you should give your best to your head chef, so that, one day, when you become the chef, you can expect the best out of your team. In this world, we all want to run, but we should first learn to walk. If you’re humble, honest with your work and enjoy what you're doing, then the sky's the limit. Patience and perseverance are key, then one day someone will come and appreciate that. It’s simple yet so complex, but that's the beauty of it.

What's something that you'd like the world to know about you?
I was, and of course still am, a huge football fan. My favourite team is Manchester United. During my time at Indian Accent circa 2012, I was offered a sports journalist job in India to report about Manchester United, and I almost took it. For me, that's probably my “butterfly effect”, where things could’ve been much more different in my life, had I explored that direction.


Keep Exploring - Stories we think you will enjoy reading