The Indian-born Agarwal has really filled up his passport, having lived and worked in Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka, California, Jamaica and China before coming to Phoenix last fall to take over Rita's. Now Agarwal is re-vamping Rita's menu and adding his own spicy flavor, incorporating nontraditional and fresh, local ingredients into Southwestern classics.
The former Army brat, who has 15 years experience as a professional chef, let us in on what his philosophies are as a chef.
What's your first memory involving food? My mom would cook specials every Sunday. I'm from north India, and she would cook south Indian and eastern and western Indian cuisine.
When did you decide you wanted to be a chef? After high school, I did hotel training in India. In India, we have a program where you study everything, including service, and then you get to choose in which direction you want to go. The kitchen always attracted me. I have an understanding of flavors, and my instructors would encourage me to taste and try new things, and automatically, I would lead the teams. It was just natural.
What made you go to culinary school? I wanted to do something different. Coming out of India, there are a lot of doctors and engineers, and that's how my family is.
What's your favorite food? Northern Indian. I like samosas because you can change them to the way you want.
What's your least favorite food? In general, what doesn't really appeal to me is bland food. If it doesn't have any spice or surprises to me, it doesn't interest me. In my personal cooking, people should leave with surprises.
What's the weirdest thing you've ever eaten? A bird's nest. When this particular bird makes its nest, it spits on it so the branches stick to each other. After some time, after it keeps spitting, it starts to bleed, so the blood of this bird covers the whole nest. Then it's boiled and all the flavor comes out of the nest into the water, and that's what they use for some soups in China. It's a delicacy, and it's very, very, very expensive. It makes white truffle look like potatoes. I like the flavor of it, but when I found out what it was, I couldn't eat it.
What are your favorite three ingredients? Cardamon, star anise and dried ginger.
What's the most overrated ingredient? Truffles. They have good flavor, but it's tough to find why people pay so much money for them.
What's your favorite music to cook to? I mostly listen to classic rock, like U2, Guns N' Roses, Aerosmith. I listen to The Beatles and Def Leppard. On the other side, I listen to house/progressive music like Chemical Brothers and Moby.
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What's your favorite thing to cook at home? My wife cooks at home, and she normally pushes me out of the kitchen because I start giving her instructions. She makes really great Indian desserts.
What advice do you have for at-home cooks? I know people follow the recipes, but it's better if you learn the basics and follow your heart. If you ask anybody who their favorite cook is, I think 99.9 percent of people would say their mom. If you ask them why, they wouldn't have any answer. I think the real answer is not what or how she cooks, it's the love she puts into there. When you cook from your heart, whatever comes out is always good. If you give passion and love to the food, you will have happy guests, too. You will come out with dishes you never thought of.
Check back on Chow Bella tomorrow for a recipe from Agarwal.