Spotlight: Rishim Sachdeva on flavour-first, flexitarian food that lets the vegetables do the talking
With the aim of promoting a food industry that is sustainable and diverse, The Upcoming has launched a Spotlight series, a monthly feature to give space to people, often unsung, who are changing things for hospitality.
This month, we speak with Rishim Sachdeva, whose current residency at the Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho showcases the sheer versatility of plant-based cooking. The chef launched Tendril – “a (mostly) vegan kitchen” – back in late 2019, just five months before the first lockdown transformed the hospitality landscape. Undeterred, Sachdeva reached out to loyal customers with a delivery service, tiding his team over until their recent reopening at the iconic central London pub. Their current meatless menu offers up a diverse discovery of global cuisine, a testament to the chef’s international training at locations including the Fat Duck, The Olive Bar & Kitchen in Mumbai and Chiltern Firehouse, as well as his belief in food without boundaries. Sachdeva tells us about his transition from hardcore carnivore, the dangers of cultural stereotypes and the importance of knowing the limitations of our planet.
Thanks so much for speaking with us! You have just launched your own six-month residency at The Sun and 13 Cantons, a kick-starter for many great chefs including the legendary Asma Khan of The Darjeeling Express. How has the opening week been and what are your aspirations for Tendril?
This opening week was an amazing rollercoaster ride: from a blocked drain (due to six months of non-operations) to a self-isolating restaurant manager. Along with a sold-out room full of guests every lunch and dinner, it has been perhaps one of Tendril’s most challenging yet rewarding weeks!
Tendril first launched in October 2019 with a series of pop-ups and supper clubs not too long before the pandemic hit. What have you learnt from the process of having to adapt your service for delivery and was it harder without a permanent restaurant as a base?
With bags full of confidence and clear plans in sight (and no clue as to the looming pandemic!), we launched our first residency in October 2019. Fast forward to March 17th 2020, where we had a fully stocked pantry and packed fridges for a “potentially” busy week, and then suddenly found ourselves thrown into a lockdown. Within a couple of days, we started reaching out to our regulars and promising them customised, personally delivered meals, thrice a week. In a week’s time, we maxed out our capacity of 55 families and started driving about 90 miles every other day. It was shocking how quickly we – and our guests – adapted to the “new normal” and collaborated to keep Tendril alive and kicking through was have been without a doubt unprecedented times.
You went from being a self-proclaimed hardcore carnivore to a champion of plant-based cookery. What was the main catalyst for this change?
A challenge! I practically challenged myself to cook plant-based meals for all of Veganuary 2019, and it turned out to be one of the most fun and thought-provoking tasks of my life. As a chef, it was always easy to cook and present a beautiful piece of meat or fish, but finding ways to champion vegetables in a plant-based meal was time-consuming and often nerve-wracking.
When it comes to sustainability, do you believe that cutting out our meat consumption entirely is the answer, or as someone with a “mostly vegan” menu, do you believe a flexitarian diet could be enough to create significant change in the hospitality industry?
I personally believe in a flexitarian diet. The household I grew up in has always been big on food and no stones were left unturned when it came to feeding and being fed. However, meat wasn’t the most important component on the table. It was always mostly vegetables that were lovingly prepared with a lot of flavour and technique. For a lot of people, cutting down meat entirely from their diet is perhaps the most difficult task ever. But finding the right balance is the need of the hour. We need to understand the limitations of our planet and our body in order to leave a healthy mark for the generations to come.
How else can chefs – and amateur cooks – be more eco-friendly with their cooking?
Know your ingredients and work with local seasonal produce. Think your recipes through and don’t be afraid to be creative. And be thoughtful of your actions: a lentil parfait is way healthier, tastier and cleaner than chicken liver parfait. And just as tasty, in my opinion!
Your flavours draw from many different global cuisines – your Discovery Menu touches on British, Mexican and Greek, to name a few. How would you describe your style of cooking and where do you find your inspiration?
My memories definitely come into play while writing and testing menus out. For instance, a particular flavour may have evoked a memory. It could be a marinade I tried a couple of years ago or a new herb I came across last week. Now how can I recreate those memories in a bite and be consistent with it. How can I put different flavours on the same plate and make it work? For me, food never has boundaries, and with Tendril’s discovery menu we are able to showcase flavour-first, eclectic dishes from across the world.
You have spent time working at some world-class establishments, perhaps most notably the Fat Duck. How has this shaped your approach to food?
Working at these restaurants has instilled a strong foundation of consistency and habit. This has led me to create an outstanding team and to keep moving forward with every step.
Which chef has most influenced your journey so far?
My old boss at Chiltern Firehouse, Nuno Mendez.
You went back to India for a period to work with the legendary AD Singh at Olive Bar & Kitchen. What drew you to Mumbai, and what inspired your return to the UK?
I grew up in India and moved to the UK when I was 17 to study and work. After more than a decade here, I was excited by the challenge of working in a place like India. My five years there, especially at Olive, were very rewarding. Returning to the UK was always on the cards though, and with two babies (including Tendril!) on the horizon, I thought it was about time and made the move back in 2019 with my beautiful family – my wife and now two-year-old son.
Do you think there are enough platforms for chefs of colour in the UK hospitality industry? How might we better create a more diverse and accessible space?
Like every industry, there are platforms for people from ethnic backgrounds and colours. But in some cases (quite often!), they do come with stereotypical baggage. As a chef, your nationality doesn’t define your passion, skill and understanding of a cuisine. Training and speciality does. My ratatouille will taste better than my curry, because I’m professionally trained in the former. I do intrinsically understand flavours in a curry, but not better then I would in a smoked aubergine on puff pastry.
Talking about and addressing this head-on is a very important first step. Understanding rather than judging is a sensible way to approach it. I think it’s good that the conversation is live today, more than it’s ever been. It might raise some awkward questions, but they are questions that need to be discussed to make the hospitality sector a more inclusive space.
What would you say to any foodies who are cynical about vegan dishes? Why should they come to Tendril?
Come for some great-tasting, thought-through dishes pulled off with precision! All of this just happens to be (mostly) vegan. What we have managed to create at Tendril is an incredible experience where you just won’t miss meat. Flavours always take front-seat and vegetables do the talking!
What do you think will be next for you after your residency?
I genuinely cannot wait to tell you! Ask me this question when you come and eat at Tendril – I’m pretty sure there’ll be a little clue slipped in somehow. We are very, very, VERY excited for what’s ahead. Soon to be revealed…