x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

On the spice trail: Indian food celebrated in New York

We talk to the UAE-based food critic and host of Weekend Out Gauvan Tandon as he prepares to receive and honour at the first Varli Culinary Awards in New York.

The food critic and host of Weekend Out, Gaurav Tandon. Jeff Topping / The National
The food critic and host of Weekend Out, Gaurav Tandon. Jeff Topping / The National

Varli magazine, a publication dedicated to Indian food and restaurants, launched a few years ago with a view to showcasing the complexity and diversity of the cuisine as well as providing a comprehensive guide to the best Indian restaurants around the world. As a result of its success, this year the magazine is holding the first Varli Culinary Awards in New York tomorrow night, hosted by the Indian celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor and the actor Manu Narayan.

Over the past few months chefs, cookbook authors, food writers, restaurateurs and television personalities from around the world have collaborated and collated shortlists to ensure that the top Indian restaurants and most active food ambassadors are recognised and rewarded at the ceremony.

Gaurav Tandon, the UAE-based food critic and the host of Sony Television Asia’s popular Weekend Out show – which is broadcast in the Middle East, US, Australia, India and Pakistan – is being honoured with the Food Critic of the Year award.

Tandon also makes up part of the judging panel responsible for selecting the winner of the Best Fine Dining Indian Restaurant in the UAE. His shortlist comprises Masala at Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa, Amal at the Armani Hotel, Indego by Vineet at Grosvenor House, Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor at the Meliã Dubai and iZ at the Grand Hyatt.

Originally from Mumbai, Tandon has lived in Dubai for the past 10 years, working as a radio host for much of that time. Many will know him as the voice of Spice 104.5’s drive-time slot and nowadays he runs K Kompany, a successful media content production company, with his wife.

Food has long been his passion, though: as a boy he remembers having very little interest in buying new toys, choosing instead to save his money so that he could eat out in restaurants. When he was approached by Sony TV in 2008 to come up with a concept for a local television show, he says the choice was obvious.

“The only thing I could think of was reviewing restaurants. It’s what I know and love. And there were no other Asian food critics over here,” Tandon says. “There is such a diversity of restaurants in the UAE and it seemed like the perfect job.”

Originally called Eating Out, the show – now known as Weekend Out – was an instant success. “We started out thinking that we’d film just 13 episodes and now, five years on, we’ve done more than 200. I’ve reviewed more than 500 restaurants,” he says.

“The show is broadcast at 12.30pm on a Friday when everyone is hungry. It has become a real institution among a lot of Asian families. The restaurants that we feature all report a surge in customers on the day of the show. Now we have places seeking us out and asking us to review them.”

To cover the restaurants in detail, Tandon visits one establishment per show and has a team of researchers on the lookout for new openings. “We also take our lead from viewers,“ he says. “People email in, suggesting that we visit a certain place. It’s important to make the show as interactive as possible, so if we like the restaurant too, we’ll often invite them to dine with me, recommend their favourite dishes and appear on the programme.

“We have built up a real relationship with our viewers and they have faith in my reviews, which is great.”

The latest season of the show, which will be broadcast in the coming weeks, sees Weekend Out heading overseas, with a feature on the Varli Culinary Awards and some recommended eats in New York.

Tandon, who will also host part of the wards show, says the award is a huge honour, especially because he will be receiving it in front of respected chefs flying in from around the world.

“The event is a great opportunity to highlight and celebrate the best in Indian food and cooking,” he says.

For more information about the awards, visit www.varliawards.com