Pujan Sarkar is a chef de cuisine at Rooh in San Francisco and, with the brand-new opening of another restaurant in January 2020, in Palo Alto. During his career, Chef Pujan has worked in the first artisanal cocktail bar in India and traveled around the world to bring new flavors to his recipes. What he calls “progressive Indian cuisine” is the unique twist he gives to Indian food at his restaurant by mixing it with new ingredients and preparation styles.
When did your passion for food start?
It all started back in my childhood. I grew up in a community in the Eastern part of India, in Kolkata, a city that has a very rich culture of arts, music, and food. I remember the day when I realized that I needed to learn more about the basics of cooking. That day I came back from school and my mom wasn’t at home. Usually, she’d make an omelet for me. But as she was not there, I thought: maybe I can make a nice omelet by myself, right? So I went to the kitchen, switched on the stove, started breaking the eggs…and the shell was going all inside. So I ended up with a messy omelet. And that’s when I realized that, whatever you do in your life, you need to know some basics of cooking in order to survive.
And after that, how was your path into the restaurant world?
My first job was in a cruise line, in an Italian restaurant called Sabatin. I did it for four years. At that time, I wanted to explore food culture around the world, and you know, with this job, you can do it for free, kind of. This was a great learning opportunity and I got exposed to so many different cultures and nationalities. From there, I went back to India and realized that I had learned a lot about Western food. I wanted to use this knowledge to develop my own cooking style. I started working at Club Mahindra, a resort chain with many locations around the country. With them, I took part in the opening of seven different new resorts, which was the greatest experience to learn about Indian cuisine– going from North to South, West to East, understanding and documenting the flavors, tastes, and techniques. Then, when I took part in the opening of Ek Bar in New Delhi, our team came up with the idea of the first artisanal cocktail bar in India (the name of the place means “for the first time” in Hindi). We were serving Indian food paired with artisanal cocktails. I was curious to understand more about our alcoholic beverages and how to combine them with the spiciness of the food.
And what about your journey to moving to the U.S.?
When I got the opportunity to come to the United States in 2017 for the first Rooh in San Francisco, it was like a dream for me. I was in love with the city, the people, the culture, the produce— you know, I always say that ingredients are the real star of a dish. After the set-up of Rhoo, we also opened a gastropub concept in Manhattan called Baar Baar— this time meaning “come again”. And from there we opened fine-dining spots of Rhoo in Chicago and in Columbus, as well as in Palo Alto.
What’s the meaning of the word “Rhoo”?
It means soul in Urdu– the soul that we put in doing what we do here at the restaurant, as well as the “soul & heart” my mom used to cook for me with.
What makes Rhoo a progressive Indian restaurant?
We call it progressive because it’s not just Indian. For example, we work with Californian products, based on seasonal availability and we involved other styles of cuisines, as well as a lot of grilled food.
Which country inspired your cooking style the most?
Out of all the countries I’ve been to, I’d say somewhere around South America, Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, or the French Polynesian Islands. Their cuisines are very unique, but I was also able to spot many similarities with Indian food. For example, in the way we tend to synchronize the spices…however, as a chef, I can’t barricade myself into one style.
If you had to pick three favorite ingredients, which ones would you choose?
I’m gonna put this very simple: salty, acid, and spicy. There are so many different types of salt that I use in my dishes, such as Himalayan salt from India. Same for the different types of chili– I also make my own fermented chili sauce mixing Habanero with Bhut jolokia. And acidity is something that you always need in my opinion, not only from lime or lemon though…I’d choose more something like rhubarb, green mango, green apple, or tamarind.
What’s the hardest dish you have ever cooked?
Dahl. I would say it’s challenging to reach that kind of flavor my mom is able to reach. Even with four simple ingredients (lentils, salt, turmeric, and water), she reaches such a level of delicacy, that I still can’t achieve.
What’s your other big passion, other than cooking?
Spending quality time with my family, playing soccer and guitar, or staying with my daughter…she’s just turning five– and by the way, we also cook together a lot and she is already doing a phenomenal job!