A young chef from a small town in India used cooking as a way to build a new beginning for himself in Thailand. There, he managed to create a green oasis in the middle of chaos: Haoma, probably one of the most sustainable restaurants in the world. A neo-Indian award winning fine dining restaurant with a socially and environmentally responsible heart and explosive flavors.
Bangkok is as stimulating as it gets. A city famous for never sleeping, for its nocturnal street food markets recommended by Michelin, spicy food that makes any foreigner sweat, exuberant palaces, reclining buddhas, Muay Thai fights, and crazy parties. There, in the heart of one of the most polluted cities in the world, Deepanker Khosla created Haoma, a passion project where he gives a modern twist to his Indian origins.
After spending almost half his life inside a kitchen, ‘DK’, as friends and colleagues call him, reached a milestone in his career in November of 2022: he received his first Michelin star and a green Michelin star on the same night for his outstanding work towards creating a zero waste, environmentally conscious restaurant. This after being one of the three first ever recipients of the “Champions of Change” award by the World’s 50 Best in 2021, an award that recognises and celebrates unsung heroes of the hospitality sector who are driving meaningful action and creating blueprints for a better world. This is the story of how he got there.
The Result of a Burn
DK was born in Allahabad, a small town in India that’s mostly famous for three things: for being the holiest piece of land in hindu-mythology, for the literature that comes out of there, and unfortunately, for having a high crime rate. That last reason made Deepankers mother push him out of there as quickly as 17 years old, when he took some professional courses that included advertising, business studies and cooking.
On his first day in culinary school he made friends with a guy who was in charge of a bakery, who instantly offered him a job. He was 3000 kilometers away from home and as soon as he started, without even having a uniform, he had to sift 50 kilos of flour into a bin. “It was like a joke, I was completely white and the whole staff was laughing at me” says DK. From that day on he was in that bakery every single day, even skipping class and only just making his way to culinary class in the hotel school. He fell in love with it and spent a whole year working there until he had his first taste of working at a hot kitchen – and got burned.
“The first time I got a massive burn, working at the tandoor oven, as crazy as it sounds, I knew I had to leave the bakery and get into the kitchen. In the beginning it was just something I did on my days off, but then it became an obsession. I’ve been working 7 days a week since I was 17 years old. It’s just who I am. I am a high energy guy and I need to burn it somehow, working is the best way that I’ve found. It was 2007, I watched Gordon Ramsey on TV and just wanted to be like him. I stayed up at night sharpening my knife for the next day and made it my goal to surpass the other guys that had been working in that kitchen for years,” explains Deepanker energetically. He’s never stopped since then, and at this point he’s been working in a kitchen for 16 years, almost half his life.
From India to Bangkok
In a way, DK used his culinary school and his trainee programs as a way in, as an excuse to get into kitchens where he would quickly stand out for his work ethic and energy. It was so that he ended up being in charge of whole areas of the kitchen in the Luxury Collection hotels in India while still being a trainee, a chain where he had his first approach to sustainability and where he learned to appreciate and admire fine dining.
“At that time my boss was Chef Shivneet Pohoja, the coach for Bocuse D’Or India. He was the first Indian to qualify for Bocuse, and in general the vibe and the energy of the kitchen made me fall in love with that type of cooking. The cleanliness and the beauty caught me. There was also a Chinese master chef in the kitchen, Adrian Chua, and just looking at them and their work made me realize that I was on the right path.” explains Deepanker.
That intense work ethic was the one opening doors for him and the next one would be international. In little time he was a 24 year old executive chef presented with the opportunity to open a restaurant in Bangkok called Charcoal and to keep working with the hotel chain. In its first year it was the 11th best restaurant in Thailand, and DK’s new home.
The Food Truck and The Dream Restaurant
After two years in Thailand, DK left the hotel chain executive position and jumped into an adventure that took him all around Asia. He got a food truck, and yes, even then he thought about how to make it more sustainable. “It ran on natural gas, the electricity was operated on a solar charged battery, it had a solar generator, a gray water recycle tank… everything that I knew, I compressed into a truck.”
He traveled from Bangkok to Phuket, to Vietnam, to Cambodia and all across Southeast Asia looking for like minded people, discovering ingredients, flavors and recipes and even creating relationships that still last to current Haoma-days. It was back then, for example, during a 13 day obliged stop due to a mechanical failure, that he met Keow, a farmer that not only still brings fresh produce to Haoma, but who also planted that first seed that grew into a deep love for farming that DK now applies in his restaurant’s garden in the city and in his farm just outside Bangkok.
It was also at that time when he and his friend Deepak went into business together after a year of managing the food truck. They started NutriChef, a healthy food business that DK still runs to these days with great success and that started in the same house where Haoma stands today. It was that success and the urges DK had to go back into fine dining that led to Haoma. It started small, as a 16 seat à la carte restaurant, but their main investment went into the farm inside the restaurant. They built a rainwater harvesting system, a fishery, and laid a solid foundation for what it is right now: a green heart in the middle of the polluted chaos of Bangkok.
The Flavor of Haoma
It had been a long time since young DK went home and experienced his native city, almost 3 years. When he finally went back, he ended up going to these small alleys where he used to eat lamb kebab and curries out of restaurants that are 350 years old. It was then that he realized (or remembered) who he was and what he loved about food. He understood that his mission was to bring the cuisine that he was born into, to the rest of the world.
“Why was I trying to defy who I am rather than be the brown man spinning pasta in a parmesan wheel? Now I can look back and acknowledge that in the beginning of Haoma I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do because of the complexes I brought from India. Before Thailand I had never left India, I never traveled, I was in my own shell and came from a very small town. I was chasing this idea of the person that I needed to become to make it outside of India, and in a way, that trip back home made me realize that I was doing it all wrong.” says the chef.
That eye opening trip ended up becoming a culinary reunion with his roots, a time to revisit and try all the food that felt real and familiar and that made him realize that he needed to bring his cuisine and his country back to Haoma. “We were already in year two of the project and as soon as I came back to Bangkok, I sat down to have lunch with the sous chef and said: “we’re going Indian. We’re going to cook our cuisine.” Then the flavor profile in the restaurant took a 360, they identified themselves as neo-Indian cuisine and started cooking traditional Indian food with modern technique and presentations that they had learned over the years.
A Foodie Emperor’s Chef
Akbar Shah II, who was the last emperor of the Mughal rule in India, the son of the man who built the Taj Mahal, was famous for being a foodie. His last fortress was in DK’s city, Allahabad, and in there, he had a kitchen with more than 60 cooks. To this day there are records of what was being cooked there on a day in 1672.
When the British came in and abolished the rules of the emperors of India, the chefs were forced to leave the palace and they spread out in the city, opening little shops that are now 7th or 8th generation small restaurants. Everybody talks about how if you go to Japan, you’ll be able to find a ramen shop that’s been cooking the same dish for 100 years. In Haoma, they proudly serve a curry that’s been done for 350 years, in the same shop by the same family.
“I asked myself what I could do as a chef to show that to the world rather than doing a curry spherification. The answer was to do justice to my cuisine and bring it to the highest possible level. That when my mother or my father come to eat at Haoma they recognize the flavors. I wanted them to say: “BAMM, this is it, Son.” And that’s why we now focus on creating undiluted and unapologetic neo-Indian cuisine,” Deepanker explains.
After his first trip back home he had the opportunity to go back and work for two weeks at one of these small curry shops. Madina Hotel, run now by the 6th grandchildren of one of those cooks from the last palace of the Akbar, where they only cook one dish: a curry. A very humble place where the focus is on cooking because cuisine draws people to places. A food legacy. A part of the history of global cuisine and a source of knowledge, information and inspiration for what DK does now in Bangkok.
A World Crisis = #NoOneHungry
The world changed in March 2020. It was on March 17th that DK, his business partner and his restaurant manager sat down to decide the next steps, and very quickly the priority wasn’t the business, it was the people. So, with a very organic and natural urge to make the most out of all the food they had left in the restaurant (including hundreds of kilos of rice) they started preparing very simple meals that they wrapped in banana leaves and took to the homeless. The first day they took 150 meals and just in a matter of hours, they had a line of hundreds of people that they couldn’t help. “The problem was way bigger than what we imagined” explains Deepanker as he explains the birth of his No One Hungry initiative.
It was this initiative that got DK the “Champion of Change” award by the World’s 50 Best in 2021. At that time they had cooked 125.000 meals to people in need in the city by raising more than 20.000 dollars in donations. Today the count has way surpasses a half a million meals and now that Haoma is open again and that the pandemic seems to be under control, DK is planning to move this project to create Bangkok’s first permanent soup kitchen where anyone in need can get a free meal, regardless of their nationality or condition.
Being a migrant himself, DK only naturally feels a special commitment to this usually marginalized and often abused group of the population. During the pandemic he was in awe as he realized how easily thousands of migrants were laid off with no help from their employers or from the government, and that made him put even more energy in No One Hungry. “The migrants are the backbone of this city” says DK. Another way he helps them? The entire team at Haoma is composed of migrants, some of them without the actual experience but all with that same energy and determination that made Deepanker Koshla succeed and become the Michelin-starred chef he is today.
As Sustainable as Flavorful
I could write a book out of DK’s backstory and intense career but after all that context: What is Haoma like today? It is a display of Indian culinary history, modernized through the eyes of DK. It is the result of a deep study and exploration of his roots and a journey that takes guests from East to West, from the land to the sea and through every corner of the immense Indian territory, all done with Thai produce, most of which they grow themselves.
Haoma serves two tasting menus, a meat and seafood experience and an outstanding vegetarian one. It really was one of the best and most powerful vegetarian tasting menus I’ve ever had. Examples? Right off the bat, after guests do a tour through the urban farm in the garden, the fish tanks and learn about some of the sustainable features of Haoma, comes time for Prarambha, the snacks (that come with a very unique and cinematic Champagne serving that I don’t want to spoil for when you visit). In Hinduism, Prarambha refers to the beginning, and in Haoma it is simply a proof of intentions, a small taste of what’s to come, and it is explosive. Pani Puri, Vada Pav and Dahi Ke Kebab are the very precise and detailed first three bites.
Haoma’s Silk & Chicken dish is a stand out and a great example of their style. It is a take on a Coorgi Curry using Haoma Farm’s own free range chicken, Thai coconut and Kachampuli vinegar. This type of curry comes from Kodagu, also known as Coorg, a rural district in the southwest Indian state of Karnataka. Another stand out is the Tandoori watermelon with Haoma Farm feta, citrus sorbet and Haoma Caviar, definitely one of the dishes that shows DK’s modern views on Indian cuisine.
To continue, a cloud of smoke covers the table to reveal a Lobster Ghee Roast, a staple from the South of India. They use the Guntur chili to achieve the perfect texture, color and aromas of this classic. All this and more, to end with that legacy curry that DK learned to prepare at Madina Hotel, done his way. A dish that will have all guests asking for an extra serving of the home made Mughal breads.
Haoma, 231, 3 Soi Sukhumvit 31, Khlong Toei Nuea, Bangkok, www.haoma.dk