Chef Arun Kumar On Local Ingredients, Fireless-Cooking And More
Image Credit: Executive Chef Arun Kumar

The usual perception about innovations is that they occur at the most advanced urbanscape. But is it really the case? We needn't travel far to fetch the answers. India, the land of novel inventions and creations, has several stories tucked in its remote and less frequented corners. Thanks to a few geniuses who have been revolutionizing several industries and sectors, the food or culinary space is one of them. Bringing one such unheard story, we make you meet Chef Arun Kumar, Executive Chef, Araiya Palampur. After spending extensive years in regular cooking practices and norms in a commercial kitchen set-up, Executive Chef Arun has been working around some innovative and exquisite methods. Some noteworthy endeavours are going absolutely local with ingredients, recipes, and ancient cooking practices in a region, especially in the Himalayans' human habitats. Another fascinating realm is fireless cooking. He doesn't follow his culinary style going just by the books. A lot of it is intuitive and experiential.  

With him at the helm of gastronomic creations, Araiya Palampur has turned into that perfect sanctuary of pure peace, flavours, local experiences and a melting pot of cultural nuances of the region. For Chef Arun, cooking has been an incessant commitment to learning as much and intensely as and when life gives him a scope. Thus, he had practiced with one of the renowned chefs of India, the Late Dr Chef Soundararajan for Southern American Cuisine. He has also been working with Chef Sabyasachi Gorai for Asian cuisine and a few international chefs. "From Switzerland, Chef Jerome Boules helped me learn all I know today about French Cuisine," he shares candidly.  

As he continued narrating, the more it nudged my curiosity to learn from this seasoned professional. In an exclusive interview with Slurrp, he articulated his work, novel innovations, passion, pride and the F&B industry in general. 

Q. Can you tell us about your culinary background? What sparked that inspiration to enter this industry? 

I always had an inclination towards culinary art as one of my hobbies. I admired exploring different cultures, places and foods. I completed my studies at Himachal Pradesh University and followed my way back to explore the culinary world after pursuing a Culinary Arts degree with MSR Bangalore University. I ventured into this field and worked with big hotels like ITC Windsor Manor, Taj West End and Ashoka Hotel. Getting opportunities to work with such mega brands in the initial year convinced me that this was the career meant for me.  

Q. What inspired you to focus on local ingredients and traditional cuisine in your cooking? 

Having worked across India for over 13 years in cooking different cuisines. Araiya Palampur Hotel has provided me with a platform to research and develop local ingredients into beautiful dishes, while mountain ingredients are magic in their appearance and derivatives or dishes made out of those. A few of the ingredients are as below:  

a) Dried whole wheat milk – it turns out into a beautiful dish, 'Nashashta' - a quick meal can be savoury or sweet. It has been featured in our Himachali Culinary Sampler. 

b) Fiddlehead ferns- lungadu ki sabzi( local cuisine) is a white wine braised Fiddlehead ferns served as European appetizers 

c) Himalayan watercress- We use it as salad greens for making Dhauladhar Masculine, a salad with watercress and Himalayan cheese with walnut oil vinaigrette. 

d) Charred walnut zest- a natural dye to food that enhances the flavours of certain native dishes with pungent flavours. e.g. Khatta Maans. 

Q. How do you balance the desire for healthy and sustainable cooking with creating a memorable gastronomic experience for your guests? 

I learn each day the varying nature of the ingredients I keep on my inventory list and develop recipes after meeting our guests to cater to their needs and wants. The trick that has always helped in such situations is balancing the dish with different nutritional components and tasty and known elements. For example - Sous vide trout with wakame- The fresh Himalayan trout is cooked in a sac at a temperature of 52 degrees Celsius for 70 minutes. This cooking method saves all the dish's micronutrients (zero loss). But while serving it to guests, I moderately present it my way: "Smoked and basil braised trout with wakame, fried garlic" Feedback from every guest so far has been excellent.   

Slow-cooked kebabs, Image Credit: Araiya Palampur

Q. Could you explain how fireless cooking works and how it alters the taste and texture of the food? 

Well, we've been practising this concept for more than two years. It's one of the classical and ancient ways of presenting flavours with their raw nature and 100% unchanged nutrients. The taste is not as you expect, but a wholesome bouquet of original flavours to experience nature. Presently we are experimenting few vegan diet samplers of three courses. The prototype goes like this: Macerated red clover water, Walnut and Apple blend (no sugar), Sundried Himalayan prunes, Spanish hazelnut, Indian sunflower seed, and Mamara giri. Likewise, Buckthorn berry Salute has replaced our welcome drink.       

Q. What challenges do you face in practising zero-waste cooking, and how do you overcome them? 

Indeed, it has its challenges to curate dishes while practising zero-waste cooking. But our guests are pleased that lessening this planet's waste and carbon footprint is the need of the hour. Some cases to cite here are onion and garlic peels boiled in bulk, stained and used as pest spray in our gardens. Potato peels are used for roasting meat beds and later processed as roast gravy. 

Q. Can you tell us about a particularly recent memorable culinary experience? 

Each day working with Araiya Palampur is a joyful and superlative experience. There are plenty of experiences, and I have shared a few. Firstly, the reinvention of the Himachali Culinary Sampler depicts almost all the districts of Himachal Pradesh. They are mindfully paired, and their success is dedicated to our culinary team. Next, it was around cooking meals and curating menus with local ingredients like Himalayan Trout, country rooster, Chambyali lamb, Himalayan garlic mint, our own garden-grown strawberries and apricots, Himalayan cheese, local morel, sweet violet or Gulbanapsa.  

Executive Chef Arun Kumar working on a dish, Image Credit: Araiya Palampur

Q. What impact do you observe the pandemic has had on the hospitality business? 

The hospitality trade as a whole was affected due to the pandemic. Those who quickly adapted to the new normals and brought innovation have survived and thrived. Araiya Palampur, after the pandemic, strived for daily research and development to present unique epicurean experiences in the culinary industry. We are committed to following the food safety laws. Our safe service practices give us a leading edge among other hospitality chains.  

Q. How do you keep up your pace with the dynamic world of food, and how do you incorporate new ideas into your cooking?

We embrace Indian gastronomic ideology, expressing authenticity, local cuisine, and ingredients. We present gastronomy and mixology pop-ups in our own way. There are continuous initiatives to follow and learn from a few of the world's leading chefs like Chef Joan Roca and his approach towards modern gastronomy-inspired food with traditional thoughts. To mention our COO, Mr Murlidhar Rao is a culinary resource himself. He is always inspiring and enlightens our way forward. Our static menu set follows the annual availability of ingredients, but we practice Araiya concepts on heirloom recipes, slow cooking, and authentic Himachal food.   

Visually appealing plating, Image Credit: Araiya Palampur

 Q. What is your secret ingredient in cooking?  

To sense joy and passion is a self-driven ingredient. I do extensive research on each ingredient before incorporating it into our menus. Pairing with other ingredients is another area we look into before curating the concept. Every dish is made keeping preferences, and their intolerances are well studied to present the best food to our guests. 

 Q. Any speciality in Palampur cuisine? What are those? 

This month we have lasoda or glue berries on our menu to serve as a local speciality. Hog plums Pickle is one of my favourites from Palampur. Patrode is another speciality in the rainy season- it's a roulade of Colocasia leaves with the season. The list also includes Kulakadi ki sabzi (Hop shoots), Dheu ki sabzi during rainy (Monkey Jack), Trayamblu ki sabzi(raw figs), and Kachnar ki sabzi (Month of April) mountain ebony. 

Q. A dish that you prepare the best! 

Well, I see myself learning every day in the kitchen. But if I choose one dish, it would be my first recipe as a commercial chef, "Fillet de Boeuf en croute, " generally known as Beef Wellington in the hospitality industry.  

Q. Is there any lost cuisine or recipe you want to revive, and if yes, what and why have you chosen that? 

We are working on heirloom recipes native to Himachal Pradesh. Our assignment here is to bring local cuisine to the global podium. Our team of Chefs primarily choose rare ingredients like akhrot ki syahi, five spice to salvik cuisine, harad fresh and powder to use with beverage and food, e.g., pickling, and wood apple desserts. 

Q. How do you keep yourself aligned with the changing eating preferences of epicureans?

I keep reading culinary books and journals for updates in the culinary market, and we constantly innovate based on global and local trends. Eating preferences are noted during the pre-arrival call at Araiya, and our chefs or artisans actively participate in understanding each guest's needs. And we serve the best dish to the guests based on their history with a brand and preferences. 

Q. Your thoughts on upcoming trends!

I see a great scope with traditional cuisine. The organic culinary market shall be trendsetting. Superfoods shall make their presence prevalent and would be valued. Synthetic ingredients will lose their sheen and use with modern cooking trends because of customers' belief in the future. 

Q. Please provide any words of wisdom you have for budding chefs. 

Aspiring chefs ought to showcase perseverance, be self-driven, passionate and hustle in their journey. I would always appreciate it if one learns the ingredients and their pairing. Modern-age chefs are urged to grasp the concept of farm-to-plate to support society.