Sipping some ice water, Vikram Sunderam smiles as he discusses what he calls the great achievement of his cooking career: winning the Chef of the Year award from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington this June. "This is a great recognition," he says, "especially from one's own fraternity where you work. It's a testimony to all the hard work we, the team, put in ... I am part of a big group."
Sunderam is a great chef, as patrons at either Rasika or Rasika West End understand. Sunderam takes classic Indian fare, and respecting a recipe's authenticity, adds a depth of flavor and one or two contemporary twists.
It's easy to wonder how this super chef came to be so, well, super. Like many of his colleagues, Sunderam admits that as a teen, a culinary career was about the farthest goal on his mind. Instead, he aimed to become an engineer or doctor. "I never thought I would do this," he said.
|If you go|
|Rasika West End|
|Where: 1190 New Hampshire Ave.|
|Hours: Lunch, Mon - Fri., 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Mon.-Thur., 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Fri., Sat., 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.|
What changed his life's ambition might have been in mother's cooking genes. She herself has a reputation as a fine home cook, and was delighted when her son chose a culinary career. After graduating from a rigorous training program, Sunderam started working at the Taj Mahal Bombay, and eventually moved to London with the Taj group.
After about three years into his career, Sunderam began to specialize in Indian cuisine, and has become a shining star amongst Indian chefs. Thanks to Ashok Bajaj, owner of the two Rasikas, Sunderam moved to Washington six years ago to work at the Rasika restaurant in Penn Quarter.
Now overseeing two complementary restaurants, he admits that perhaps some of his recipe innovations may come from his mother's example. "She liked to try new things," he said. But like every worthy chef, Sunderam does his research as well. "When we develop menus," he said, "I always do research in two or three books. We come up with new dishes, not run-of-the-mill ones. We like to be distinctive."
And, of course, Sunderam structures the menus of the two sister restaurants so that each presents both familiar and unknown dishes. While the menus may seem similar, Rasika West End is more contemporary, whereas the original Rasika in Penn Quarter is more traditional. "We have based the style on traditional recipes," he said. "The main twist [at Rasika West End] is in the plating. For example, a traditional dish may be served in bowls ... such as lamb rogan josh ... here it will be plated. The flavors are the same."
What is your comfort food?
Home-cooked vegetarian prepared by my wife.
What is your most memorable dish?
What is the key to cooking success?
Passion, hard work, dedication and consistency.
What do you do in your leisure time?
Spend quality time with my family. Read, watch movies, play music.
Where is your favorite restaurant?
I have no single favorite. I love trying out different restaurants and cuisines.
Makes about 2 cups
1 pound tamarind pulp
1/2 pound pitted dated
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons minced garlic
4 tablespoons jaggery or dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
5 whole red chilies
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon roasted ground cumin
1 teaspoon Indian red chili powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon black salt
Salt to taste.
Put all the ingredients from 1 to 9 in a heavy bottom pan. Add enough water to cover the ingredients. Let the mixture boil, reduce the heat to low, and cook till the dates and tamarind are soft and mashed. Pass the mixture through a fine strainer. Season the extract with the roasted ground cumin, red chili powder, ground ginger, black salt and salt. Cool and keep aside.