‘Family influences my cooking in major ways’

Pooja Pillai

The Toronto-born Cheung cemented his reputation as a chef with One Street Over and, then Bastian, which quickly became the city’s hottest restaurant and Bollywood’s favourite hangout.

A few years ago, when Kelvin Cheung reversed the fortunes of the floundering American fine dining restaurant Ellipsis in Mumbai, he became a name to reckon with in a city that is not short of talented chefs.

The Toronto-born Cheung cemented his reputation as a chef with One Street Over and, then Bastian, which quickly became the city’s hottest restaurant and Bollywood’s favourite hangout. After the demise of his father last year, Cheung left Bastian and returned to Canada.

He’s now back in India, working with two new ventures in Delhi — restaurant Kiko-Ba and cocktail bar Dadel. Excerpts from an email interview:

What drew you to Delhi? Is the Mumbai chapter over?

At the end of July, I packed up from Mumbai with full intentions to move back to North America. And then Delhi chose me. Actually Arjun Jain and Aman Kumar, the duo behind Grub Fest, chose me.

They already had an amazing space and a clear vision of the design, but were lacking in the food department. When they asked me if I’d take on this project, I knew it was time to take on a new challenge.

While my heart belongs to Mumbai, especially after the birth of (son) Bodhi, my family and I have settled in Delhi quickly, met tons of friends, and are excited to start feeding everyone at Dadel and Kiko-Ba. I have no idea what the future holds, and as much as we can try to plan, extraordinary things change our path. For now, my focus is only on Delhi.

You’ve said that Kiko-Ba harks back to a ‘bygone era of cooking’. You’ve also stated that this is your tribute to your father. Could you elaborate?

Eddy was known for his modern Hong Kong style Cantonese food, like black pepper lobster and young ginger fried rice. His ‘buns’ were worth their weight in gold.

Just like my previous two stints in Mumbai in Bandra and Colaba, everything was completely different, but everything also stayed the same, if that makes sense. While my plating style has changed with age, you can always expect a focus on exhibiting the diversity of Asian food, highlighting traditional cooking techniques and contemporary globally-inspired flavours, along with native, sustainably sourced ingredients.

The popularisation of gluten-free pancakes, the invention of Kel Cakes — your family seems very much a part of your creative process. Could you talk about how they influence your cooking?

My family influences my cooking in major ways, but so do many other things — best bites I’ve eaten when traveling, the smell of my mother’s congee, the sound of the utensils hitting a plate when a diner is eating, the list goes on.

Gluten-free pancakes were created for (wife) Andrea (who is gluten intolerant), but what you don’t know is that I used gluten-free cupcakes that I was “testing” for Ellipsis as a way to woo her before we were dating. Kel Cakes were created while my wife was pregnant with our son and I had hit a bit of a ‘writer’s block’ when it came to creativity.

Andrea challenged me to bake something I loved, rather than something that was beautiful for Instagram or that we knew would sell, and that’s where Kel Cakes started from.

They were messy and fun. You’ll see Andrea and Bodhi’s influence on both of these menus, too, like the sweet potato gnocchi in broccoli cheddar sauce at Dadel and the heirloom baby corn at the robota grill at Kiko-Ba.

You’ve spoken about the excitement of using fresh seafood to create dishes unlike anything that Mumbai had seen until then. What are the ingredients that have excited you in this part of the country?

One of my favourite things about cooking in Delhi is the proximity to so many incredible farms and farmers doing fantastic work. Everyone seems to be oozing with passion and it’s infectious. I’m a massive fan of building long-term relationships with farmers and working towards a product that they are proud of, is purchased at a fair price, and that is, sometimes, even customised for my menu.

In the past, I’ve worked with cheesemakers to perfect burrata, helped hydroponic green growers perfect their salad, and persuaded a farmer that picking vegetables at their peak was better for him than waiting for them to grow to their largest. If we’re willing to pay a fair price, we will get a higher quality product.

While I’ve been working on the Kiko-Ba menu, I’ve been scouring local farms for ingredients I haven’t cooked with before or that weren’t easily available in Mumbai. I’m currently very excited about baby heirloom corn supplied in the husk. It takes me back to this summer, picking corn at the farms in Toronto, where we spent many summers.