By Julie Arnan
Meydenbauer Center has always prided itself on rising above standard convention center fare to deliver a distinctive culinary experience for its clients. Last fall, Executive Chef Michael Heaps took this commitment to another level when a local Indian group requested an all-Indian buffet. Classically trained in French cuisine, Chef Heaps was largely unfamiliar with Indian flavors and cooking techniques, but he was determined to learn.
Bellevue and its surrounding cities are a diverse community. “We are a part of that community and should be able to offer all of the community something,” says Heaps who counts it a good experience to learn new things in the kitchen.
He first conducted online research and looked at local Indian-based catering and restaurant menus to compile a tasting menu for the clients. After coming in for a tasting, the clients’ feedback was mixed – they liked the food, but it wasn’t from their part of India.
“I didn’t even realize how many different regional cuisines there are in India,” says Heaps noting that his dishes were not quite up to the clients’ “grandmother” standards.
One of the challenges he faced was not knowing what the end product should be – it may taste good, but he didn’t know if it tasted “right.”
So, they connected Heaps with Reshma Mohammad – an Indian chef who cooks for many local Indian events. She happily donated two days of in-person training for Chef Heaps and his staff, teaching him the basics of Indian cuisine including the importance of roasting spices and the proper order of execution for certain dishes.
“She was super excited to help us and I was eager to learn from her,” says Heaps.
Heaps learned how to make butter chicken by marinating cubed chicken breast in yogurt and masala spices before roasting, then assembling the cream, tomato, and spice sauce; biryani rice by steaming the rice with premixed masala spices fortified with green or black cardamom and cinnamon; kati rolls from potato-based naan filled with a variety of toppings and rolled “taco” shapes; lamb saag made with cumin, coriander, onions, chilies, tomato and stock; and addictively delicious korma sauce for chicken skewers. Additionally, he learned to adapt recipes for vegetarian Indian groups, substituting paneer for chicken or lamb.
Since the experience, Chef Heaps says he has really developed a palate for the cuisine and loves the use of spices, particularly cinnamon when used in savory dishes. Now that he has the spices in his kitchen, he plans to incorporate the flavors into other “standard” menu items as inspiration strikes, as well as include Indian dishes during reception dinners featuring a variety of cuisines. He is still contemplating how to translate Indian buffet-style food to individually plated dinners as most of the dishes tend to spread out on the plate.
But, according to a recent group, he has the flavors down – they were convinced that there must be an Indian chef in the kitchen.
Images courtesy of Sonia Primerano Photography. Instagram: @sonia_primerano