On paper, Chet Sharma’s journey into food looks like a complex one. Much has been written about Sharma’s academic background - he has a masters degree in clinical and experimental medicine from UCL, and a physics PhD from Oxford. How does someone with a budding career in the high echelons of scholarship end up in kitchens? The answer is a simple one - food has always been in his blood.
‘I think culturally as a Punjabi north Indian, we’re surrounded by food,’ he explains. ‘As a baby, the first thing you taste is honey, off the finger of the eldest male in the family - normally your dad or your oldest uncle. The first thing you experience in the world is food, which I think is a good place to start in terms of explaining how I ended up doing what I do.’
The truth is, Sharma never really loved academia, but he always loved food. That realisation crystallised when Sharma was in the last throes of his Oxford doctorate. ‘There was a point when I looked at my supervisor at Oxford, doing his grant applications and I thought, I can’t do that,’ he says. ‘As soon as I finished my PhD I went to work at Mugaritz.’
This wasn’t as rogue as it sounds. Chet had spent the vast majority of his young adult years working in kitchens, whilst simultaneously holding down a promising DJ career - 'I DJed with Kanye West and Sean Paul!' he laughs - and undertaking the minor task of completing his undergraduate, masters and doctorate degrees. As a teenager he found himself knocking on the door of Benares, hoping to learn more about Indian food. ‘I had no idea what I was doing,’ he laughs. ‘I didn’t have knives. I didn’t know what a stage was. I just asked if I could watch and they said, “no, but you can peel some onions!”’
By the time he reached two Michelin starred Mugaritz in Spain he was a seasoned cook, honed in the fires of Benares, Locanda Locatelli and Dabbous. Mugaritz signalled the start of his journey into development kitchens - he returned to the UK and worked in consultancy and development for the likes of The Ledbury, L’Enclume and Moor Hall, which he helped to launch. Around this time he popped on the radar of JKS Restaurants, who charmed him away from Moor Hall with the goal of having Chet head up his own restaurant for the group. ‘The plan was always to open a restaurant, but there was a queue,’ he explains. ‘I joined before Brigadiers, Berenjak and Sabor were open, so I had to do my service before I could start doing my own thing.’
'What is fusion, anyway? It's all perspective.'
Chet’s restaurant, BiBi, opened in September 2021 and promptly bagged top spot in our 2022 Top 100 London restaurants list. BiBi is the latest in a great lineage of Indian restaurants in Mayfair - Chet admits that his restaurant only exists because of the platform provided by restaurants like Benares and Gymkhana, but he is also keen to blaze a new trail for Indian food. ‘Honestly, I don't like that BiBi is called an Indian restaurant,' he says. 'I came to the realisation that I can’t look at Indian food as a restraint.'
'Let’s say I want to make dashi - we don’t have bonito or kombu in India, but we do have Maldive fish and dried fenugreek, which has similar qualities to kombu, so we can use those to make our own version of dashi.’ In this sense, Chet’s extensive experience at restaurants like L’Enclume and Moor Hall feeds into a new style of Indian food, which repurposes techniques from all over the world to generate unique dishes that still taste recognisably Indian. ‘That dashi goes into our bream dish but it just provides umami, it doesn’t taste Japanese,’ he continues. ‘It also looks Mexican, because it’s essentially a raw fish tostada. But the bream is tossed in tamarind, Indian lemon juice, lime and cold-pressed mustard oil, which is replicating the flavours of a jhal muri (a Bengali street food snack).
‘Sometimes we top it with caviar - that’s not Indian, but when you eat that dish, it’ll immediately take you to a place in India.’
Ultimately, everything that goes on the menu at BiBi has to satisfy three criteria, says Chet: ‘It has to be delicious. It has to be sustainable. And thirdly, if my grandmother was still alive and she ate it, she would have to recognise it as Indian.’ Beyond that, almost everything is fair game, and Sharma is quite magpie-like in where he draws inspiration, not just from his old haunts but also from as far afield as white-hot New York restaurant Contra and Pujol in Mexico City.
The result is a restaurant that isn’t easy to pigeon hole, and BiBi is often tagged as a fusion restaurant by people looking to simplify this complex concoction of influences. ‘I find it interesting that people call us a fusion restaurant,’ Chet muses. ‘When people think of Indian food they think of butter chicken and garlic naan, but that’s not actually Indian food. No-one ate chicken in India until after the British Raj, and it became a staple because they wanted to make people stronger so they could join the army. My family would have had access to a village tandoor, but before the British came you’d never cook protein in it, just bread.
‘What is fusion, anyway? When you see black pepper on the table in your local pub, that’s fusion - black pepper isn’t from England! We’re studying Indian ingredients, we’re just doing it in a different way. It’s all perspective.’
Who or what have been your biggest influences?
Giorgio Locatelli, Ollie Dabbous, Mark Birchall, Brett Graham. And Dani Lasa at Mugaritz - the most human person I’ve ever worked with. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him use a knife! He looks great in chef whites though.
They all taught me different things. I learnt so much about meat and butchery from Brett. Giorgio taught me about produce - how to respect it and let it do its job so that you can do less. From Ollie, just how to make food beautiful and delicate. And Mark changed the way I think about creating dishes. At BiBi we often take inspiration from other cuisines but repurpose that to create something that still fundamentally tastes Indian - that philosophy comes from Moor Hall.
What are your favourite restaurants in the UK?
Sabor, without fail. Not just because I get staff discount! I love Sabor, it reminds me of my time in Spain, which was an amazing period of my life. They’ve nailed service, it’s so warm and friendly. They make you feel wanted in that restaurant and that’s really important.
I think Jeremy Chan’s food at Ikoyi is the most interesting in London. No-one has his brain - the food he puts on a plate is completely unique. No-one in the world can do what he is doing, and that’s a big statement.
Overall, what’s the best restaurant in the UK? It’s probably Moor Hall. What Mark’s doing there is exceptional, not just the food but the whole experience. He has facilities that no other chef in the country has - he has a brewery, distillation, cheese making, a bakery, he has everything a chef would want. You can give anyone all the tools and gadgets, but if you don’t have the ability it doesn’t mean anything. Mark has all the ability.
What was the last great meal you had?
The last great restaurant I ate at was Helene Darroze, a couple of years ago, just before it won the third star.
I recently ate at Hawksmoor too. It was just perfect! It was unbelievable how good it was. I was there with my wife - we had a couple of glasses of wine, cocktails, and a big sharer with chips. Everything was seasoned properly, it was just really good.