Jocelyn Morse: The title of your book is Raji Cuisine: Indian Flavors, French Passion. Are you specifically trying to avoid the word 'fusion'?
Raji Jallepalli: That's exactly right, 'fusion' is a politically incorrect word. That's why we phrased the title like that. When I started about 11 years ago, chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz were incorporating different cultural influences into their dishes and it was chic to refer to this as 'fusion'. Now it has become passé and I'm a little squeamish about using the word.
However, when I read the intro, I saw you use 'fusion' to describe your
cuisine. What was fusion cuisine's original intention?
RJ: Fusion is so widespread now. It has become associated with cooking that mixes a hundred things in the same recipe. Customers are starting to question the concept because it seems more like confusion than fusion. Those of us who started this style of cooking have to be very careful. It's a subtle combination of ingredients, technique and philosophy. It's challenging because you want to build a certain complexity of flavors without having them compete. Balance is essential - you want to bring in a symphony of different flavors, but at the same time maintain harmony between the different ingredients and spices.
JM: What is your typical process when creating a new dish?
RJ: Most often, I have an idea for a recipe first. However, sometimes I will start making a dish from a great wine I tasted. Then the idea goes through a lot of testing before I feel that I can send it out and expect the consumer to pay for it. Once I know it's a combination that's tried and true, I'll put it on my menu. If I don't feel comfortable with it, I won't serve it.
JM: Other chefs who cook Indian fusion argue that it is most difficult to combine Indian flavors with Western cooking. Do you agree with this?
RJ: I disagree. Actually, it is easy. Indian food benefits from lots and lots of spices. My philosophy is to use just one spice and a couple of herbs, because I still want to maintain that delicate backbone, on the same octave with French cuisine. The dish should benefit from a few Indian accents here and there, without being Indian food. For example, I created a bisque with ajowan because it's one of my favorite Indian spices and tends to have a bite to it. Indian spices tend to be very potent, so you have to think about how you want to use them.
JM: What was the first French dish you tasted and realized that it could be bettered by Indian seasoning?
RJ: A beurre blanc sauce that I tasted in Paris. I thought it could benefit from some cumin or ajowan...I also tasted very fresh mussels in Bordeaux that were overpowered by a fumet sauce, so I mentally redesigned the dish. When a fumet (fish stock) sauce is refrigerated, it tends to become very potent. I thought the dish needed some type of a tomato topping as well, so when I got back home I tried a tomato confit with a little bit of cumin. In fact, I sent the recipe to The Atlanta Journal and last year it was chosen in a book as one of the best recipes of 1999! Every time I make a dish I think about how I can improve and fine tune it. I am happy that my cooking is recognized and awarded, but I can't rest on my laurels. You have to prove yourself every single day with every single dish.
JM: Besides ajowan, what are other staples in your spice cabinet?
RJ: I can't do without cumin, saffron, coriander, cardamom or fenugreek.
JM: Do you use mustard oil? I read an article about how it has harming effects on the heart.
RJ: I love to read about all of these controversies, whether it's about genetic engineering or organic products. I have been eating mustard oil all my life; I can't imagine that it has any bad effects on the body. I do use it. I think it's a matter of creating a balance.
JM: What is your position on genetic modification versus organic produce?
RJ: I believe that if genetic modification manages to make a better product, I have no problem with it. However, if the technology is just used for kicks, it is completely different. As far as organic produce goes, I have no problem with the use of fertilizers. Obviously you should wash your product. If there's a difference of $9.00 for a pound of potatoes or tomatoes, you can't pass the cost on to your customers. It makes the dining experience too expensive and inaccessible. At the same time, I question my purveyors as to where the product comes from, how the fish is caught, how it's preserved and how much time has passed between that time and its delivery to me.
JM: Who are your best purveyors or specialty stores?
RJ: For Indian spices here in New York City, Sinha Trading Company* on Lexington Avenue. The owner is such a nice guy and everything is very reasonable priced.
JM: What tools do you rely on most?
RJ: My knife, my stove and my oven...I'm not much into gadgets. Of course, I use a stainless steel mandolin and a Japanese vegetable turner to make mounds and mounds of sweet potato 'pasta' or to make deep fried nests and things like that. Not having gone through the traditional, structured education, my knife skills are not very good, so I cheat and use a very small meat-slicer to make thin slices of everything.
JM: Is healthy cooking one of your goals?
RJ: My challenge has been to provide sensible, comfortable, tasty, fresh food at a reasonable price.
JM: Your presentations are very feminine.
RJ: I have no problem with my femininity showing through my food. I am very proud to be a woman and I cherish it, yet I am not about cute, baby vegetables. They don't do anything for me. Presentation should look like a walk through the garden as opposed to an elaborate sculpture. Sculpturesque presentations really don't turn me on; you just take your fork and knock it down! If your product is fresh and bright, there are so may beautiful colors on the plate as they are. I use all white china at the restaurant so that the ingredients speak for themselves.
JM: Is it difficult to balance everything in your life, being a wife and a mother?
RJ: I think one of the greatest achievements in life is personal and professional balance because they play off of each other. If you have a great personal life it shows in your professional life and, of course, if you have a great professional life that means you go home happy. I have not always had this. Right now I am really enjoying the best of both worlds and I am a happy woman. My friends who know about my recent marriage and my book coming out have compared my life to the book "Like Water For Chocolate" - only the Indian version. A lot of wonderful things are happening in my life. My work and my book are really influenced by my energy and passion for both cooking and my personal life.
JM: Are you still the only cook in the kitchen at your restaurant?
RJ: We have a very small kitchen. All I have is a dishwasher, and on busy nights I have an assistant. In Memphis it is still difficult to get people who feel as seriously about the kitchen as I do. I have a 32 seat restaurant and we do one seating, with a prix fixe menu, reservations only, five nights a week. I have broken many rules! Lou, my husband, is a physician by trade, but he is my sous chef on weekends.
JM: How does your husband-wife team work?
RJ: Lou is very meticulous and serious about food. We work together and our relationship has grown because of it. He is fascinated by the business and has taken responsibility in the restaurant. He enjoys helping make it how I want it to be and is the first to say when he is not comfortable doing one thing or another. If it's not done with my two hands, I usually don't trust anybody. I'm paranoid, I'm obsessive, and he appreciates that certain things need to be done in a certain way. I don't have to worry about the things that he does and this trust enhances our relationship. It's an expression of his confidence and our mutual trust.
JM: Your mentor is Jean-Louis Palladin. Now that you are an accomplished chef and have a beautiful cookbook, what is your relationship?
RJ: He has been very influential in molding my culinary career. He is a fantastic man. He is very happy for me and enjoys reading about me and watching me grow in this business. I always have his blessing. When he first noticed me and recommended me to his friends, I asked him 'Are you really sure I'm that talented? Maybe you're overselling me to these people?' He said, 'Why don't you shut up and pack your suitcase? Go there and just be yourself. The rest of it will happen on its own.'
At first I was totally horrified, this was 11 years ago and it was still rare to see women in the kitchen. As soon as I went into a kitchen, I used to toast Indian spices whether I needed to or not, and they would inquire, 'What's that smell?' So I decided to make little snacks for the kitchen staff and leave it on the table. When people came by, they would ask if they could taste it, and pretty soon they warmed up and asked if I needed any help with anything...the rapport began.
JM: Being yourself is very good advice for new cooks intimidated by all of the food trends.
RJ: I think that I have set certain standards and broken more rules than anybody else. I was, at first, intimidated by all of the elements necessary for a successful restaurant, and then I realized that all I want to do is good, sensible food and wine, and the rest has to go. However, the service is very important to me too. I always make sure that the staff eats before service to ensure that they are relaxed when the customers arrive. Everyday I emphasize that the sophistication of my restaurant is a combination of the food, décor and the small personal relationships between my staff and the guests.
*Sinha Trading Company
is located at 121 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016.