Chef of the Week: Pastry Chef Ruchit Harneja, Musaafer, Houston, TX
We are very excited to showcase this week Ruchit Harneja, a super-talented Indian chef who has wowed us over and over again with his incredible creations.
Ruchit is Pastry Chef at Musaafer, a massive, show-stopping neo-Indian restaurant in Houston, featuring seven unique dining areas and a lot of glam. But the real attraction of Musaafer is (obviously) the food, presented in an equally lavish fashion.
Let’s hear it from Ruchit.
1. What inspired you to become a pastry chef?
Ever since the day I stepped into the culinary field, I had a constant hunger in me to explore and experiment the nature of ingredients and cooking styles.
All this gave me an opportunity to challenge myself at every stage to strive for better, which created a place for me on the gastronomy path.
I started my culinary journey from Japanese cuisine at one of the India’s finest Modern Japanese restaurant, Wasabi by Morimoto, where I used to be a teppanyaki chef. But inside me, I always had an inclination toward pastry arts, which is a different world in itself. It is all about meticulous art, creatively balancing flavors, and skill-based techniques.
I have been diligently working to eradicate the misconception which says eating desserts is unhealthy.
Ever since then, I have been diligently working to eradicate the misconception which says eating desserts is unhealthy. Through all my desserts, I have always said that eating sweets “in moderation” after your meal always aids digestion.
It is scientifically proven that eating sweets triggers the release of saliva, which loosens stomach muscles to make the food we’ve eaten settle easily.
2. Where did you train to cook?
I am a graduate of Institute of Hotel Management, Bangalore. I began my career with the Taj group of hotels as a trainee chef, where I took over the pastry operations of the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi.
Prior to joining Musaafer by the Spice, I worked as a sous chef at Andaz Delhi – A concept by Hyatt.
An avid traveler, I have travelled across the world to take master classes with some of the world’s most renowned pastry chefs – Chef Antonio Bachour, Chef Carles Mampel, Chef Marike van Beurden to name a few.
I have also travelled to France and Belgium to undergo extensive training on chocolate arts; to Italy to learn the art of ice cream, gelato, and frozen desserts; and to Spain to study the deep science of molecular gastro art at SOSA Spain.
Following in the footsteps of Chef Mayank Istwal, I also embarked on a culinary journey throughout India to explore varied Indian desserts and pastries and learn ancient and traditional recipes from each region.
The knowledge I gathered from this journey has not only added depth to my expertise, but also to the dessert menu at Musaafer.
3. Tell us about your work at the Musaafer? How would you describe your desserts and style?
At Musaafer, we promote intense brainstorming within the team for each and every dish which comes out on the menu. Our menu changes every season, depending on the seasonal produce, health aspects, authenticity, and soul of the dish.
With my style of desserts, I always make sure to control the amount of sugar and carbohydrate level and also to incorporate appropriate digestive spices like fennel, caraway, ginger, anise, etc, which turns out to be beneficial in terms of health.
Spices have been fostered in Indian cuisine since ancient times and I’m extremely zealous to assimilate my own spice blends, differentiating them by their cooling, warming, baking, and digestive nature. Each and every spice blend has a different note and reaction when it comes to pairing with ingredients and cooking technique.
I’m doing thorough research on the nature of spices along with Chef Mayank Istwal and so far we’ve become very notorious for our unique style of incorporating our phenomenal and unusual spice blends in desserts.
In my opinion, the latest trend I see is to go heterodox. I work a lot beyond the food pairing parameters and most of the time succeed with my experiments on the concept of negative food pairing in desserts. For example, pairing ingredients like fresh green chilies with Indian desserts is something for which the orthodox side of food pairing would always be against. You’ll find such “Not to do” food pairings in a lot of my desserts in the most entrancing way.
4. What’s the most popular dessert item on the menu?
One of the most captivating creations on our dessert menu is Nimish, which I urge every diner to experience because of the complexity and attention to detail we’ve put in to unfold this creation.
As I was born and brought up in Jaipur, Rajasthan, I have very fond memories of enjoying Ghewar. This is a very famous Rajasthani sweet, enjoyed during the festivals of teej and gangaur. The pastry is very crispy and porous, textured like a honeycomb. Another well known sweet snack from that region is Gajak, which is made of sesame seeds, peanuts, and jaggery.
When I was visiting Lucknow during my culinary journey, I came across a sweet snack called Makhan Malai, also known as Nimish or Daulat ki chaat. It is a typical winter delicacy enjoyed in the streets of Lucknow, Kanpur and Varanasi.
It’s a frothy, foamy treat traditionally made by boiling fresh buffalo milk and cream. Once cooled, it is continuously churned early morning under the sky so that it gets mixed with dew drops, which helps in aeration and lightness.
I really wanted to do something fascinating with these treats, hence, a modern day model of this dessert was unfolded at Musaafer by making a light airy bar of Nimish, ghewar fried like a rustic honeycomb tuile, married with pistachio brittle, cardamom air, and Gajak soil.
5. Where do you find inspiration?
Every new challenge inspires me, and the inspiration gets stronger everyday, which proves the penchant in me to give something very valuable to the chef fraternity and the world of gastronomy.
And not to forget, Chef Ashish Bhasin. Calling him anything like a mentor would be an understatement. He has always pushed me toward excellence and understands the depth of my thought process.
6. What’s your favorite ingredient to work with?
Millet has become my treasured ingredient to work with. After thorough research about the engrossing facts about this Indian super food, I have been working with great dedication to bring back the long lost indigenous Indian grains like Bajra (pearl millet), Jowar (sorghum), Ragi (finger millet), Kangni (foxtail millet), and the list goes on.
They all are categorized under high nutrient density grains, conferring with a lot of health benefits.
7. You moved three years ago to the United States from your home-country India. Did you need to adapt the desserts to American taste and how did you find the transition?
Honestly, I never thought of a need for transition to American taste. In fact, the concept of Musaafer is an educational tour for American diners. We are here to set a benchmark for Neoteric Indian cuisine in the United States. Our own Indian cuisine has a lot to give back to the community.
The concept of Musaafer is a (culinary) educational tour for American diners.
Being one of the oldest civilizations, there are plenty of beautiful, mind-blowing ancient dishes, ingredients and techniques that are long lost or not in the mainstream. These dishes have always had a significant existence with nature and health.
8. India is a huge country with a very diverse gastronomy. What would you say are the most striking regional differences when it comes to food?
Indian cuisine is heavily influenced by history, conquerors, trade partners, and the religious and cultural practices of its populace.
Perhaps, the most defining characteristic of Indian cuisine is its diverse use of spices and spice blends. Geographic and topographic diversity is another major influence.
9. What are the top Indian desserts we absolutely need to try out?
The list for Indian desserts is endless. And names would be region and season specific. Gulab jamun is a good old delight and festive favorite.
Gajar Halwa and Jalebi are typical winter treats. Sandesh is one of the easiest ways to please your sweet tooth if you’re visiting Bengal. Innumerable varieties of payasams from South India are deliciously creamy, rice and milk pudding.
Phirni is another variety of milk pudding from North India prepared during festive occasions. Kulfi is a delectable summer dessert to relish.
10. What sets a top chef apart from the pack?
I would say it’s not just about cooking. We as chefs think much beyond it. Chefs are an amalgamation of artist/scientist/doctor/nutritionist/hygienist and a lot more.
This industry lands us in such situations everyday where we have to deal with new challenges and we learn from all these instances.
11. Best dessert you’ve ever had…
Mom-made food would be the favorite for every person on this planet and not just me. For me, it has always been Badam Halwa (Warm Almond pudding) made by mom. It is a typical winter delicacy and one thing I could live on for the rest of my life.
It seems simple, but it is a very delicate preparation of soaked almonds cooked with a liberal amount of ghee and a hint of green cardamom and saffron.
I picked up the recipe from my mom, and plan to launch a spellbinding version of it in our upcoming winter menu at Musaafer.
12. What advice would you give someone who wants to become a successful pastry chef?
Patience and passion is the key! Being a pastry chef is not just about creating fancy plates with top notch ingredients. There is a lot behind the flashy scenes.
The prerequisites to be a successful pastry chef is the passion, desire, and love toward your work. Thrive toward growth in knowledge, fame will automatically follow.
13. Please provide a tip for home cooks that could help them improve their cooking.
Home cooked meals are always full of love and passion. The only aperture I see with home-cooks is the precision in measuring out ingredients and seasonings, even cuts of vegetables plays a vital role in the end product.