"Why we're doing this and what the beauty is about it ... when people and cuisines travel to different places and get exposed to that, they get a new idea," Tyagi says. "We are looking to find some similar points and join them together to make something new."
Working in the hospitality industry was meant to be, Tyagi says. When Tyagi was a child, his father worked in government services in northern India, and his family often invited guests to their home in Dehradun.
"My mother used to end up cooking alone for them. When we were growing up, we started helping. My brother and I did the odd jobs of serving the guests," Tyagi recalled. "That's how this cooking started."
Tyagi kept with it. More so than the theoretical, Tyagi enjoyed the practical applications of math and physics in the kitchen.
"When I was doing my college, I was not very sure about what I was going to do. I wasn't a brilliant student — I was an average student," says Tyagi, who studied for a bachelor of science degree. "Given all the entrance examinations for professional studies, the hotel management entrance exam came my way. It was in my destiny, so I completed that."
After graduating, Tyagi worked with numerous luxury hospitality establishments and went on to join the Taj Hotels and Resorts, where he became a regional and executive chef.
Then, at the age of 30, Tyagi was presented with an opportunity to move to the United States as a chef de cuisine. The move to be part of a global opening team was a jump from his work as a regional chef.
"I always had this in mind — how the industry works in the U.S.," Tyagi says. "It was kind of a challenge to open a fine-dining restaurant in a world you hadn't been to."
It was a high-pressure start. Tyagi made his U.S. debut at the high-profile Rasika West End restaurant in Washington, D.C., before joining Amber India restaurants in the Bay Area, initially at Amber Dhara in San Francisco. Former San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer had previously issued the restaurant a one-star review, indicating that Bauer thought the restaurant was "fair." One star was better than no stars, Bauer's rating for "poor" — but far from what Tyagi was satisfied with when he arrived.
"When a person like Michael Bauer from the San Francisco Chronicle (writes a review), it can make your career. If they write bad about you, it can break your career," Tyagi says. "All these things matter a lot when you open a business. Somebody puts (out) a review of you and judges you on your skills and your offerings and quality, (and) people actually follow him."
Tyagi set out to turn negative perceptions around.
"You have to do an amazing job in terms of cuisine, standards, techniques, service. It should show that you really care for it — it's not just a business for you. It's a passion for you. That drives you every day to give your best, and bring out your cuisine," Tyagi says. "That's the whole driving force to me."
A few years later, Tyagi joined August 1 Five. In a review of that restaurant, Bauer gave an overall rating of three and a half stars — between Bauer's assessments of "excellent" and "extraordinary." About Tyagi, Bauer wrote, "It wasn't until he stepped into the August 1 Five kitchen that his immense talent and creativity emerged, blending influences of his native and adopted lands. The menu looks very different from what you'll find at most places, and any familiar classics have been artfully re-imagined."
"That relationship, our understanding of my food with Bauer, actually helped me kind of get to this level where I am today," Tyagi says.
After that, Tyagi went on to appear on "Beat Bobby Flay" in Season 16's "Eye of the Tiger" episode. Now, Tyagi is the chef and chief operating officer at Aurum, the name of which takes inspiration from "gold" in Latin. The restaurant made current San Francisco food critic Soleil Ho's list of top South Asian restaurants. And in the fall of 2021, the most recent Michelin Guide included Aurum. Tyagi says that carries weight.
"How much it brings a difference to your establishment, when you've been mentioned by such a prestigious organization. If such kind of an organization recognizes you, that separates you from unheard of restaurants," Tyagi says. "People give value to that. They start appreciating your things, whereas before, nobody knows where you are or what you're doing. That makes a difference."
But it's not just prominent publications that Tyagi is cognizant of. Customers also hold power. "In today's world, you see how much influence people have through Yelp or OpenTable or Google," Tyagi says. "Whenever someone goes to try a new place, first thing they do is go to reviews from other customers."
Interacting with different audiences, Tyagi has a point to make: "We're trying to change the mindset of people that Indian food is greasy, that it's sauce-drenched."
You'll see that throughout the menu, including with dishes like the Barley-Kachumber salad with hung curd, cucumber, grape tomato, radish and dill, and the La La Lamb-Tandoori Lamb Chop with cashews, roasted carrot puree, beet gel and roasted Romanesco. There are desserts too. Save room for ghevar cardamom-dusted cream and cake, or a tipple from the beverage menu like the low-proof Pomelo Paani with Lillet Blanc, orange vermouth and chaat masala tincture.
Tyagi says he's "an ambassador of Indian cuisine," working not only as a chef, but also as a storyteller as he develops and writes menus.
"I take this opportunity with all my abilities and knowledge to bring the right representation and knowledge to my guests here," Tyagi says.
That's no small task, given that India includes more than a billion people, dozens of states, hundreds of cultures and countless culinary traditions. Tyagi started to learn as he worked across the different states, and has continued since.
"If you go to the Himalayas, the place is cold. The language is different, their food habits are different than the guy who's living in the coastal area ... They have some similarities but also their own styles. The use of coconut, the use of mustard, the use of chiles and peppers, it's so interesting," Tyagi says. "I can't tell you in words, but when you see the representation through your eyes (of) the versatility — the same ingredients, but the (differences in the) techniques they use — it's so mesmerizing.
"When you learn different techniques, you get influenced, and you kind of create your own styles after that," Tyagi says.
These influences and variations present endless culinary possibilities.
"One idea is to make my country's cuisine appreciated by people, giving them the right knowledge about different cuisines. India itself is a very multi-language, multicultural country. There's a lot more to offer that's not even reached to the table yet."
On the table now: I'm Not Pasta-Spinach & Paneer Lasagne. This is Tyagi's iteration of the iconic dish that gained renown on the Food Network reality show "Beat Bobby Flay." Leading up to Tyagi's big moment facing off against Flay, Tyagi imagined something out of the box, and rehearsed the dish.
"I have to make things different," Tyagi remembers thinking. "If I'm going to make it this way, it's going to catch the eyes of the people."
On set, there was absolute focus as Flay and Tyagi went toe-to-toe, each with their own take on palak paneer.
"I see some tension on Bobby's face," Tyagi said in the heat of competition.
"Don't worry about my face. Look in your sauté pan over there," Flay responded.
"Thanks for the hint, Bobby," Tyagi quipped.
In the end, Tyagi successfully made his own winning creation, flavoring spinach with cumin, coriander and turmeric. He layered it with paneer slices, taking inspiration from lasagne, and topped it all with grated cheddar cheese. Tyagi served the dish with a tomato-cashew sauce made with onions, cumin seeds, turmeric and garlic, as well as roti on the side.
"It's a playful dish," Tyagi says.
You can get a variation of the dish at Aurum, where Tyagi uses brown garlic, fenugreek leaves and mozzarella.
On the table coming up: Italoindianmisu. This is one course out of five as part of a special menu in a collaboration between Aurum and Pausa.
Tyagi and Pausa chef and owner Andrea Giuliani decided against independently developing dishes and alternating them throughout their prix-fixe menu. Instead, they decided to combine their skills and styles throughout.
"I was excited, because I love the diversity between the two countries and the two cuisines, but there's a lot of ingredients and techniques that we share," Giuliani says, "The base, the technique, the seasonality and the freshness, it (all) comes together, that's for sure."
Taking inspiration from tiramisu, Tyagi and Giuliani's dessert has espresso gel, coffee sponge cake, saffron and mascarpone cheese mousse, ghevar, white chocolate soil, coffee cream and fior di sale.
Also on the menu is hamachi tartare with pani poori, cilantro and mint water; slow-cooked pork belly; smoked lamb leg; and roasted quail.
For the lamb dish, Tyagi suggested smoking it and adding spices. When Tyagi and Giuliani tast-tested together, "We looked at each other and said, 'Maybe we need some acidity,'" Giuliani recalls. "So we added some stracchino cheese." The result introduced a creaminess that delighted both of them.
'You can tell the passion we both have for our food," Giuliani says.
The special menu will be available on Jan. 27 at Aurum in Los Altos, and Feb. 3 at Pausa in San Mateo. Make reservations in advance for the event at Aurum on Resy, or at Pausa on OpenTable (be sure to add a note that says the reservation is for the "collaboration dinner").
Aurum: aurumca.com; 132 State St., Los Altos; 650-383-5221.
Pausa: pausasanmateo.com; 223 E. 4th Ave., San Mateo; 650-375-0818.
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