Hari Pulapaka

F&W Star Chef

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Experience: Canoe in (Toronto), Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge (Alaska)

Mumbai-born Hari Pulapaka was a successful academic, teaching computer science and math at DeLand, Florida’s Stetson University, when a midlife crisis struck. “I wasn’t sure if I would be happy teaching for the rest of my life,” says Pulapaka, “and then I saw an infomercial for Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando.” He wound up attending classes at night and garnering kitchen experience during summer breaks, and in 2008 he and his wife Jenneffer, a podiatric surgeon, opened Cress. The acclaimed restaurant’s menu is boldly international, serving exceptional shrimp and grits alongside the intensely flavored curries of Pulapaka’s youth in India.

Between fish deliveries at Cress and office hours at Stetson, Pulapaka found a moment to talk with Food & Wine about his lamb obsession, the importance of good soy sauce and why Thomas Keller should make haste for Mumbai.

What recipe are you most famous for?
My vegetarian take on the classic Moroccan bisteeya, which is typically made with squab. It’s a mix of sweet and savory flavors: roasted vegetables like eggplant, onion and squash; fresh ginger sautéed with garlic, parsley, mint and cilantro; and then lots of dried fruits like prunes, cranberries and roasted grapes. The spices are cumin, coriander, cinnamon, smoked paprika and cardamom. It all gets folded into puff pastry and it sits on a bed of heirloom grains.

What two dishes really tell us your story as a chef?
I like the extremes: low-and-slow cooking versus a quick showcase of a fantastic ingredient. On the low-and-slow side, I always gravitate toward braised meat. I do a domestic, grass-fed leg of lamb braised with mirepoix, rosemary, good red wine and homemade stock. That sits on stone-ground grits and seasonal roasted vegetables. It’s a great winter dish.

On the other end would be my ceviche. When an ingredient is super-fresh, you don’t want to do much to it, and fresh seafood is abundant year-round in Florida. I do a grouper ceviche with lots of fresh ginger, a touch of coconut milk, some mint, cilantro and a combination of lemon, lime and orange juices. There’s some zest in there, a great finishing olive oil, and some freshly fried sweet potato chips.

What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
My favorite ingredient is fresh ginger. It’s comforting to me and it seems to surprise people here in the US. Ginger can take a dish that’s very Western and pull it to the East a bit, but not in a contrived way. It’s definitely an Asian ingredient that’s compatible with Western cooking.

Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
High-quality soy sauce. You can use it as part of a dipping sauce or a salad dressing, or just add it to rice and soups. You can create a glaze for fish or marinate meat. It’s quite versatile.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Goat. It’s sustainable, lean, flavorful and versatile. It’s not appreciated as much as pork or beef in this part of the world, but it’s embraced in Latin America and Asia.

What is your current food obsession?
I am obsessed with lamb. Whether it’s the belly, the loin, the head or the leg, I like to find new ways of using it every day. The way it’s traditionally done in casual restaurants here in Florida is either as a chop—which is boring as hell to me—or as roasted leg of lamb. But I come from a country of stews. On our menu we have three that incorporate braised lamb: an Ethiopian doro wat, an Indian tikka masala and an Indonesian rendang.

If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would you take him and why?
The Copper Chimney in Mumbai. As a child, whenever I had any amount of money at all I would sneak out and eat there—it’s been around for probably 40 years. I’m a sucker for simple vegetarian dishes like the baingan bharta stew with eggplant, ginger, tomatoes, garlic and cilantro. I’d take Thomas there because I’m sure he’s eaten everywhere he could possibly eat, and he can cook just about anything he could possibly imagine—but the people at the Copper Chimney make a better baingan bharta than he ever could.