"Pulapaka, what kind of name is that? It sounds Hawaiian." "So, what kind of food do you serve at Cress?" Now, that's a fair question and my response is always one of two. "Good Food", but when that doesn't suffice for an answer, I elaborate, "Well, we draw flavor inspirations from around the world and are driven by high quality, minimally processed, seasonal, and local ingredients."
For every time someone asks me if I'm from India (as if I couldn't be from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or even Trinidad), I am also asked if we serve Indian food at Cress. Actually, we don't serve any Indian food. No curry I make is authentically Indian or from anywhere for that matter. I use French techniques and am inspired by a general vibe and knowledge about a region of the world. It helps that I have a sound knowledge of spices. Consequently, a small portion of our menu consists of a few stews which can be called curries. I have not been trained in classical Indian cuisine. My brother Gopal, on the other hand, has. So, when a guest from the UK gets upset that the chicken tikka masala (a British invention) has roasted vegetables and chicken and not just chicken and maybe some capsicum, I really don't apologize. Of course, growing up in India and having lived there for 21 years before coming to America, I ate a lot of Indian food. But the food we ate at home was modest, simply prepared, and culturally steeped.
Even among my peers in Central Florida, there is a perception that my flavors are over-the-top, bold, and that I use spices in all my creations. The fact of the matter is that my central focus as a creative chef is to use good ingredients, proper cooking techniques and layered flavors. And sometimes, that leads to very complex (some might even say "muddled") flavors. However, at home, my comfort food is one of two: spaghetti with basil, garlic, extra virgin olive, salt & pepper or steamed rice with plain yogurt and simple Indian mango pickle. Not many spices here.
For example, when faced with eggplant, simply grilling it and serving with a salsa fresca of ripe, in-season tomatoes and drizzled with a fruity extra virgin olive oil and sea salt may be as close to culinary heaven as it gets. There is nothing Indian about such a preparation of eggplant. And, I think Indian cuisine, more than any other, knows how to treat eggplant creatively and deliciously.
Sometimes, I hear someone from the little town of 28,000 we live in (DeLand, FL) who has obviously never been to our restaurant say "I don't like Indian food." To which I say, "Great, then you must visit Cress because we don't have any Indian food." It doesn't explain how for three years in a row, one publication chose us as the "Best Indian Restaurant" in the region. I am tempted to even take the papadums off the garnish menu.
The point of all this is that chefs are inspired by a myriad of factors like: ingredients, the seasons, training, other chefs, demand, technique, etc. I am inspired by all of those things, but I think some of my best work happens when I am inspired to dispel a stereotype about our cuisine or my cooking preference. I suspect this is a metaphor for life in general. Adversity is a great motivator and when we are able to dig in deep to find that inner strength, the result can be gratifying because it dispels the very myths and stereotypes which bug us as well as inspires us (to prove them wrong).
So, to anyone who is looking for authentic Indian food at Cress, I say "No curry for you. Come back one year!" Now, I just need to justify the title of my upcoming book, Dreaming In Spice.