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Sandeep Ail, brand executive chef at Punjab Grill, on his passion for cooking and connecting food with travel experiences for his Chef’s Table menu

What can diners expect from your limited-edition Chef’s Table menu?The Chef’s Table menu at Punjab Grill is true to the theme ‘Travel through Food’. Through a five-course meal, we promise to take you on a culinary journey to India like you’ve never experienced before.

The team and I have selectively chosen rustic dishes from across 28 different states, and paired them beautifully with combinations from their region, and have presented them in a contemporary style showcasing both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. We make sure to retain the core essence and authenticity of the dish, while we stretch our imagination to put thought-to-plate.

Tell us about the creative process that’s put into your menu?
The team and I hashed out quite a few ideas before finally settling on the current menu. Typically, one would select the top dish from a metropolitan city. However, I wanted to showcase popular local dishes which have never found a place on restaurant menus.

Then, it was all about breaking down the dish into separate elements and building them back up to make them visually eye-catching. We don’t worry too much about improving flavours, as the dishes that are chosen are ideals from their hometown and so are, most definitely, scrumptious.

The theme is ‘travel through food’: how do you convey that through your menu offerings?
To serve the ‘Travel through Food’ theme, the challenge was to confine ourselves to a menu with only five courses. The culinary diversity in India is a boon to chefs because there are so many states, communities and ingredients that are ripe for culinary centre stage.

Therefore, we selected dishes from the four corners of the country. Our diners’ journey begins from Punjab, through to Lucknow, on to Orissa and Kolkata, then across to Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, and circling back to Punjab. We aspire to take our diners on a voyage through India with a visually appealing and comprehensive gourmet experience.

How do these destination campaigns benefit the end outlets?
Such campaigns usually draw in guests who are adventurous and open to venture into unique culinary experiences, which makes it exciting for the kitchen and assistance team. The specific themes associated with such initiatives help bring out newer culinary finds.

We’re grateful that this campaign has allowed us to showcase dishes that don’t usually feature in many Indian restaurants across the Middle East. Additionally, we are thankful to the Abu Dhabi Culinary Season to have us on board and provide an encouraging platform to serve one and all with delicious dishes.

Were any trends in terms of ingredients/what sets Punjab Grill apart from the wider dining scene?
We use a lot of underrated ingredients such as colocasia roots (arbi) and raw banana (Kacha Kela) which are often dismissed in Indian fine dining, and cook them in a way that redefines the ingredient and presents a typical dish with a unique twist.  

On the other hand, we also use exotic ingredients, specially flown in from India, such as the Himalayan morels, which are foraged especially for the Punjab Grill brand.

What inspired you to pick these dishes, any secret ingredients? Emotional narrative?
Most of the dishes on the menu were inspired by my travels across India, which made me understand the boundless diversity of my country in terms of people, terrain, vegetation, and cuisine and how this diversity aligns to create India.

Tell us about yourself and your journey.
I was born and brought up in Mumbai, India. I got familiar with the kitchen as a teenager, when I would potter around the kitchen to rustle up a snack for my sister and I after school. With my parents working full-time jobs, I had a lot of time and freedom to experiment in the kitchen and, as I grew older, I knew this was my calling, there was never a moment of doubt.

I moved to Abu Dhabi in 2010 to start my first stint at exclusive Indian fine dining. I will complete 10 years in Abu Dhabi this November and can confidently say that this culinary journey has been incredible for me.

The Chef’s Table dining events are back on the menu for the emirate’s food fans, as the Abu Dhabi Culinary Season offering returns to the UAE capital for a special, month-long themed campaign throughout August. It’s the first of five similar activations launched by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi) to be rolled out over the next 12 months.

The Chef’s Table theme is ‘Travel Through Food’, with the special, travel-themed events taking guests on a gastronomical journey through five sumptuous courses carefully curated by 11 of Abu Dhabi’s best chefs, each showcasing the cuisine of their restaurants and drawing on inspiration from across their lives and careers.

During the month of August, various gastronomic ‘destinations’ will be represented, including India, Peru, Italy, Japan, the Middle East, France and other and European cuisines.

Participating restaurants include Middle Eastern restaurant TEAN at Jumeirah Saadiyat Island Resort, LA favourite BOA Steakhouse, set on the tranquil Eastern Mangroves Promenade, the jewels of Italian and French cuisine at Cipriani and Fouquet’s, and Cantonese-inspired street food at Dai Pai Dong, Rosewood Abu Dhabi.

Plus, Japanese flair at Aja Asian & Teppenyaki at Rixos Premium Saadiyat Island, Peruvian cuisine at COYA Abu Dhabi, Asian flavours at Sontaya, The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, modern Indian cuisine at Punjab Grill, sensational steaks at The Forge, Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi Grand Canal, and a European excursion at Market Kitchen in Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi.

Menus for the Chef’s Table series cover both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options and are priced at AED 350 for five courses.

Abu Dhabi Culinary Season: Meet Punjab Grill’s Sandeep Ail from The Chef’s Table

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