We chat with Vikram Sunderam, Executive Chef at Rasika, about his James Beard Foundation award, Taste America, the inspiration behind his cuisine, and more.
Executive Chef of DC’s acclaimed Rasika and Rasika West End, Vikram Sunderam is a busy guy. Yet, even after claiming some of the food industry’s highest honors, Sunderam is supremely grounded and unaffectedly humble. “It’s always a team effort,” he says of his success. “It’s impossible to do it single-handedly.” Our conversation zooms in on Taste America, the James Beard Foundation’s national epicurean tour, which will kick off its weekend in DC on Friday, October 17, with bites and libations from local chefs as well as an elegant multi-course dinner that Sunderam will prepare alongside chef Charles Phan. We talk to the chef about high standards, happy diners, and hungry teens.
In May, after three previous nominations, the James Beard Foundation named you Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic. What did it mean to finally bring home that trophy?
Vikram Sunderam: As they say, the James Beard Award is the Oscar of the industry. But it’s [also] a recognition by my peers. That gives me the greater satisfaction, that my peers are recognizing, not just me, but the whole restaurant, the whole team for the effort that they put in.
What’s changed for you since winning the award, besides a more crowded reservation book?
VS: Obviously, it’s a national recognition so, yes, people look at us with a different perspective. We’re lucky that, as far as business goes, we’ve been busy right through. Now the pressure is on us to perform better and maintain an even higher standard of quality.
How did you get involved with Taste America? Did the Foundation reach out to you?
VS: Yes, they did. I did it last year, too. It’s a great way to give back to the Foundation in whatever way we can, any little way. Because, at the end of the day, the Foundation represents the industry.
You’ve been collaborating with Charles Phan [executive chef and owner of The Slanted Door in San Francisco] on a multi-course menu for Friday’s event. Can you give us any spoilers or have you been sworn to secrecy?
VS: Yeah, I can tell you what the menu is. For the first course, Charles is doing pork and shrimp tapioca dumplings in banana leaves. For the second course, [my team is] doing black cod, which is one of our most popular dishes.
How’s that prepared?
VS: The black cod is basically marinated with honey, dill, cheese, star anise, fennel seeds. Then, it’s baked. For the third course, Charles is doing a braised duck leg with shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and Chinese dates.
I ask about dessert—we deliberate and decide to let it remain a mystery.
Mr. Phan says his expertise is in Vietnamese home cooking. You, on the other hand, work with fine Indian cuisine. Will it be difficult to marry the two?
VS: No, not really. I mean, both the cuisines are, well, not similar but they use similar spices. In Vietnamese cuisine, there’s a lot of chili that is used. They use coconut, which is used in Indian cuisine too. Some of the taste profiles are the same. In a way, it’s good if they’re different because, what happens from the guests’ point of view is that they’re getting to experience two different cuisines.
About your background… You almost studied engineering and medicine, right?
VS: [Laughs] You know, in India the schooling system is very different. It’s not that in the same college you can study the culinary [arts] and engineering and medicine. You have to apply to different colleges. So I did. And eventually what happened was, I got a response from the culinary institute. They were the first to respond, so I just took it up. In hindsight, I think it’s worked out pretty well.
Where did you train?
VS: I started my career in India. I started working in Mumbai with the Taj Group of hotels, it’s one of the premiere hotel groups in India. I worked with them for about 20 years. Out of the 20 years, I was in London for 14, and then I came here. So I’ve been here nine years now.
Where do you look for inspiration when putting together a menu?
VS: Some things just come to you. We try to keep it seasonal.
What's your favorite ingredient to work with?
VS: Definitely cilantro. [It's] one of [the] most versatile ingredients.
What is one cooking skill that all chefs, experts and neophytes, should master?
VS: Temperature control…and seasoning!
Fact or fiction: chilling onions before cutting them can prevent tears.
What's the hardest part about being a chef? And the most rewarding?
VS: The most difficult thing is maintaining the standard and the quality of the food and being consistent. The most rewarding, of course, is when you have a full restaurant and you see the satisfaction on everyone’s face.
Getting personal: With a wife and two teenage kids, what does mealtime look like at the Sunderam house? Do you do the cooking, or do you try not to bring work home?
VS: I’m never home. Mostly I’m at the restaurant. So, if they depend on me to cook, they’ll starve! [Laughs] It’s my wife who generally does the cooking.
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