Chet Sharma is apologising for his press photograph, the one just above. It was taken to announce his debut restaurant Bibi, which is opening on Mayfair’s Audley Street this summer.
“I really hate that photo,” the 33-year-old chef says, apologising that there isn’t another. “My wife suggested we Photoshop a smile in there. We did – and I looked like the Joker from the Dark Knight... We decided against it.”
This is not a kitchen ego clouding an interview. While the world tosses and turns in this collective Covid nightmare, Sharma recently endured another: “One Monday I was playing football, and then on the Tuesday I ended up in A&E with something called Ramsay Hunt syndrome. Half of my face is still paralysed; I can’t blink properly and I get really bad vertigo. But that’s better than before – for a while, I couldn’t bite and everything tasted like metal. I mean, going into a restaurant opening and losing your palate…?”
There’s a thing with chefs, where taste blurs from being a sense into a personality trait. After more than a year of delays – Bibi was being weighed and measured before the pandemic found its way onto the nightly news – did this feel like one thing too far? “It felt like one big f*** you from the universe,” he says, “It hurt. It hurt, definitely. But it didn’t make me question doing this. Before, I knew I wanted this. Now I know I need it.”
His sense of taste has returned in full, even if the muscles in his face are taking their time. But Sharma is used to change. Bibi will see him team up with JKS, the astonishingly successful group who have a hand in Bao, Brigadiers, Hoppers, Trishna, Lyle’s, Sabor and more. The partnership is a logical step; Sharma had been the group’s development chef for three years before the pandemic, helping refine recipes and test new plates, setting the JKS house style – “until last April. Jyo [Jyotin Sethi, JKS CEO] said to me: ‘Look, we don’t really need a development chef right now because, well, there aren’t any restaurants open.’ But he asked, how would I like to head up the retail office?”
Sharma liked it ok, and helped launch and oversee the Ambassador’s General Store delivery service. “A lot of us were quite hesitant at first, but then… well, we did 3,000 meal kits the week before Valentine’s. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it really did save the business.”
Stepping from the kitchen to retail seems to be another hard swerve in a series of them for Sharma. He came to restaurants late, at “17, 18, basically because I wanted to learn more about food.” Afterwards, a PhD in physics from Oxford followed “and then the realisation hit. My supervisor – and this guy is hugely, hugely impressive, one of the youngest professors at Oxford – instead of spending that Sunday night with his young family, he was writing grant applications. And what that crystallised for me was: if you’re going to be really successful at anything, you’re going to have to put the hours in. And if you’d asked me where I’d rather be, in a kitchen or writing grant applications, it was a no-brainer. And that was it.”
The physics still helps, he says – “it gives you a working model in terms of approaching issues” – but hospitality was in the blood. “My uncle had a hotel, there’s a videos of me as a four-year-old sat on his lap saying: ‘I want to own a hotel.’”
While Bibi will serve “impactful” Indian food, Sharma built a career consulting in food and drink, cooking alongside the likes of Brett Graham at The Ledbury and Mark Birchall at Moor Hall, which he helped launch. Both have two Michelin stars and serve the kind of delicate, sculptural food that can often astonish and amaze, but rarely comforts.
“The interesting thing about working at those places – as much as I loved working there, and I loved their constant drive and aspiration – you do your six day, 100-hour weeks, whatever it is. But the realisation I had was: on my day off, where I wanted to go and eat was a completely different style of restaurant.
“I think it took a bit of growing up to realise that the kind of place that I wanted to call my own, with my name on the door, would be somewhere with an ever-changing menu, a really fluid approach to how people can dine, somewhere that’s not prescriptive and that really celebrates the kind of flavours that I grew up loving so much.
“I guess it took it took me a little while working in restaurants to really understand that the food style I really craved was actually that spicy, punchy flavour of my youth.”
There was a long time where I really turned my back on Indian food because it wasn’t fashionable, but I didn’t really know how complex it actually is, how much India has
That realisation led Sharma to JKS, known when he joined mostly for their Indian restaurants. This was 2017; hadn’t he been tempted to cook like that before? “I think the food industry has changed massively since I started working with referencing back in 2005. London alone has changed. If I’m honest, brutally honest, I was a little embarrassed of Indian food at the time. Bear in mind, this is a time before the Gymkhanas, Trishnas and the Dishrooms of the world. A lot of Indian food back then, it was deconstructed, broken down, it had lost its soul, lost its flavour. And actually, any decent Indian chef in that time was leaning so hard into the French style of cooking that it was almost like: if you want to be considered a really great chef, you have to go and work in France and train in French kitchens.”
What changed? “It was my own naivety. There was a long time where I really turned my back on Indian food because it wasn’t fashionable, but I didn’t really know how complex it actually is, how much India has.”
Both his exploration of Indian cooking and his classic-European training will be in Bibi: “My cooking style comes from the Ledburys of the world, but my flavour profiles come from the Gymkhanas and Brigadiers.”
A hell of a mix, I say. A hell of an experience, he counters. “My first service at Gymkhana, they tried to get me to guess the spices in the garam masalas, which can have 21 ingredients…” How did he do? “I wasn’t there yet. But with enough practice, with eating enough delicious food, you can train your palate up pretty quickly.”
And so Sharma began dreaming up Bibi. Like everything else in the past 18 months, it has had its plans derailed, reshaped. The delay, though, has helped: originally Bibi was set to be something extremely high-end, a chef’s table, the works. Now? Not so much. “I guess a big challenge of Indian food generally is the tasting menu format. I don’t think we’ve cracked the code for it yet, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve changed what we’re doing with this restaurant. How can you deliver that impact of flavour over 20 courses? Your palate gets taxed.
My cooking style comes from the Ledburys of the world, but my flavour profiles come from the Gymkhanas and Brigadiers
“We want guests to walk in and feel welcomed and feel wanted. We definitely want people to feel like they can call this their regular haunt… We want to build a really nice space, almost like a cosy blanket for people.”
That idea – of comfort, of a welcome – seems tied to the name. “Bibi” is an affectionate name for a grandmother in parts of India; Sharma wants to conjure some of that fondness for his restaurant. Have his grandmothers influenced him? Both inspired his cooking, he says, in different ways. On his father’s side is a story of a woman married at 15, widowed at 18, who came to Britain in 1966 just after the World Cup. “No education, she could barely speak English, two boys with her. Obviously no husband, and no money because you were restricted what you could bring into the country at the time. She used to work at the Mars factory in Slough and what that meant was, she was incredibly resourceful. She would make Indian vegetable dishes using butternut squash peels, and she used to tell me you couldn’t get ginger, you couldn’t get chillis – but she’d find a way to cook. She always found a way.”
On his mother’s side, a woman “who was so product obsessed – because she never had to do that ‘being scrappy’ part. When they were living in Mumbai, she would have the wheat sent daily from her farm in Haryana to make her flatbreads. You’d go for a walk with her at four o’clock in the afternoon and she’d need some tomatoes, and she’d say: ‘No, no, wait till six, till the next round of tomatoes come in, because these have been sat in the sun. too long.’ She was very obsessed with quality and the provenance of an ingredient.”
The idea of provenance has passed onto Sharma – “take our seafood: I’ll be able to tell you, not only the name of the boat, but the name of the fisherman who caught each and every piece” – and for his menu, he will draw on his family’s history from across India, which covers both north and south.
He won’t be drawn on signature dishes – “because, really, if we don’t get the quality of product that we need, we shouldn’t be serving it” – but mentions one he’s particularly fond of for its Bibi tie. “We’re using two really great scallops from Scotland, pairing it with the Indian equivalent of lemonade, Nimbu Pani it’s called. It’s something that everybody who’s even just been to India will have drunk at some point. So we take that flavour profile, we apply it to really great raw scallops, chef them up a little bit. But the idea is that if an Indian grandma tasted that dish, wouldn’t recognise the raw scallop as Indian, but she definitely would recognise that flavour profile of Nimbu Pani.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise Sharma was once in the business of consultancy, helping restaurants come up with ideas that last. If Bibi is about bringing his technique to familiar Indian flavours, he’ll never be short of inspiration.
“You really start to realise India’s a country that spans some 1800 miles across and nearly 2000 miles from tip to toe. There’s a lot to learn. And I think I’ll probably spend the next 60 years trying to get my head around it,” he laughs. In other words, long live Bibi.
Bibi will open this summer at 42 North Audley Street, W1K 6ZR, bibirestaurants.com