Meet Indian, Chicago’s first Michelin-starred Indian restaurant

Meet Indian, Chicago’s first Michelin-starred Indian restaurant

Did you know that Indienne is the first Indian restaurant in Chicago to receive a Michelin star? Designed by Chef/Owner Sujan Sarkar, this fine dining Indian restaurant was created with one goal in mind – to showcase the beauty of Indian cuisine. How does he do it? By infusing classic Indian dishes with finesse, presentation and technique.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this restaurant is its unique tasting menu (Indienne is one of the only Indian restaurants to offer a tasting menu) with an emphasis on indicating traditional food names through the use of parentheses. “I want to put Indian cuisine on the global map,” explains Sarkar. “I want to proudly display its diverse potential and magic.”

And with Restaurant Indienne earning its first Michelin star, it might be possible to do just that.

Below, the Kolkata native talks all things Indian cuisine, and his culinary journey that took him from his hometown to London, back to India, then crossing the Atlantic to Dubai to open India’s first craft cocktail bar, and finally landing in San Francisco.

What is the idea behind Indyne?

I always wanted to open a fine Indian restaurant so I could bring a new perspective of Indian cuisine to America. I’ve been in Chicago for several years and realized that it was missing a restaurant like Inden. Indian cuisine has a lot of diversity and depth of flavours, and I intend to reinterpret those flavours, ingredients and dishes rooted in India with new ingenuity, presentation, technique and form.

How do you describe Indian?

Indienne is a progressive Indian restaurant serving fine cuisine. However, it is affordable compared to other fine dining restaurants that offer tasting menus. I wanted to make sure we were accessible to more people. That’s why we offer vegetarian, non-vegetarian, vegetarian, as well as a la carte menus – to attract more people to come and try our food. My goal is, and has always been, to showcase the beauty of Indian cuisine.

Who came up with the name?

I did! I found the “les indiennes” fabric while browsing design patterns for the restaurant. After further exploration, I found that the word “Indienne” refers to a type of textile design originally founded in India and spreading to Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries. It’s also a way of saying “Indian” in French.

It seemed like the perfect name to fit the concept, Indian cuisine presented through a progressive lens drawing on decades of my modern European training.

Sujan Sarkar/Indian

Sujan Sarkar/Indian

What is the most difficult part of opening a restaurant that focuses on Indian cuisine mixed with European techniques?

First, I would say skill set and knowledge. We are mixing two very different and equally complex styles, and that in itself can be very difficult to get right. I’m grateful to have a skilled team in my kitchen who are able to execute such an ambitious menu and continue to innovate again and again.

The other piece attracts an audience that may not be familiar with Indian cuisine in general. When a guest comes to our restaurant, we want to make sure that we surprise them with delicious food and unparalleled hospitality, but also to educate them and allow them to appreciate Indian cuisine in a new light.

Indian is one of the only Indian restaurants in Chicago that offers a tasting menu, what does that mean to you?

In fact, it’s not just in Chicago, it’s all over the country. I don’t think anyone prepares a full tasting menu with this style and cuisine. When I first started building the Indienne concept, some of my well-wishers thought I was crazy! They weren’t sure how to do that. The love and success we have experienced so far has been amazing and has made it all worth it.

What do you think of the Indian food scene in Chicago?

I think it’s still lagging behind New York and the Bay Area, but there are definitely some promising signs. I helped open the ROOH location in Chicago four years ago. Looking back from then until now, the city’s Indian food scene is definitely making some progress. I would say casual Indian dining is on the rise more than fine dining for sure.

Neil John Berger/Indian

Neil John Berger/Indian

What have been the initial reactions to the menu/concept? How often do you plan to change the menu?

She was very positive and welcoming from the beginning. For my Indian guests, it was very different from what they had seen or known, and it was exciting for them. For those who have no background or knowledge of Indian food, it was fresh and enjoyable.

Our guests have given us every reason to feel grateful and confident in what we do here. We’ve been in business for a little over a year, and we’ve changed the menu three times. We plan to change the menu one last time before the end of the year, and I’m very excited about the next menus.

The menu uses tags indicating traditional food names – what was the decision behind this?

Our concept is based on extracting traditional stories and flavours. The introduction highlights the main inspiration, which is what it’s known for in India, and what follows is our take on the traditional dish.

Desert island must have restaurant?

I would say yogurt chat (chat means “lick” in Hindi). This dish is the perfect combination of flavour, texture and nostalgia. Simple street food rises to the level of fine dining.

Neil John Berger/Indian

Neil John Berger/Indian

What inspired you to become a chef?

I never thought I would become a professional chef. My dream at first was to become a fashion designer! But that didn’t work out, so my start in the food and beverage industry was a fluke. But after I completed my initial training, there was no looking back.

Talk about your journey from Calcutta to London, India and then the US. How has your relationship with cooking changed as you progressed in your career?

I hail from a suburb of Kolkata. After graduating from culinary school, she started working as a chef at the JW Marriott Hotel in Mumbai. From there, I moved to London in 2004 and began working at Galvin at Windows at the London Hilton. Things got interesting when I got my first job as head chef at Automat restaurant, then at Almada in Mayfair, which was a destination for celebrities. After spending a decade in the UK and various parts of Europe – working with top chefs and culinary minds – I returned to India and joined the famous Olive Bar & Kitchen as Executive Chef. Before crossing the Atlantic, I organized and launched TRESIND in Dubai and opened India’s first craft cocktail bar called Ek Bar in Delhi.

My first restaurant in the US was ROOH, which opened in 2017. After gaining popularity on the West Coast, I followed that up with a modern Indian restaurant called Bar Bar in New York City. Since then, I have opened three ROOH locations in the US and one in New Delhi. At the end of 2022, she opened Indienne restaurant in Chicago. This year, I opened a second location of Bar Bar in Los Angeles, as well as a traditional Punjabi restaurant called Gulabo in New York City.

What challenges did it bring?

There are always challenges, the biggest of which is testing the limits of innovation. What I envision may not always work out, so I have to be realistic too. I also find it difficult to always strive for perfection, but I want to make sure that what we deliver is as close to perfect as possible. Finally, the price point is a challenge, which I credit to inflation. Regardless, we are committed to making Indian a sustainable, affordable experience worth appreciating.

Neil John Berger/Indian

Neil John Berger/Indian

How difficult is it to balance your culture while living in another country?

I’ve been living abroad for many years, so it’s no longer a challenge. However, I found early on that some cities were more cosmopolitan than others, more welcoming in taste and culture.

What advice would you give to immigrants/people of color trying to make their mark in the culinary world?

Proudly represent your culture and cuisine with passion, honesty and without apology.

Why is it important for you guys to put Indian cuisine on the global map?

For a long time, Indian cuisine has been popularized and accepted, but it has also carried the burden of stereotype. This is because the world has often only seen one version of itself and in a one-dimensional light. But India is a country where the food, the cooking style, and even the utensils and ingredients used, can change every few kilometres. The Indian subcontinent has a lot to offer: amazing flavours, rich stories, unique ingredients, and unparalleled diversity when it comes to its food. It’s a unique experience, so why wouldn’t we want to proudly share that experience with a global audience in new and innovative formats?

I’ve spent my career trying to break those stereotypes, and I believe it’s finally time to redefine and explore the limitless potential of Indian cuisine and take it to the world.

What about the restaurant are you most proud of?

For example, we converted a 19th century printing press into a warm and welcoming fine dining restaurant (which was in the works in the middle of a global pandemic!). Designing and building that space from scratch, and then seeing my vision come to life, is so rewarding.

I’m also proud of how inclusive we are in our offerings. We offer tasting menus for vegetarians, non-vegetarians and vegetarians. We also offer an à la carte menu, wines from every corner of the world and an impressive cocktail program. I’m also very proud of my incredibly dedicated and passionate team.

Hero image: Neil John Berger/Indian

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