One taste and you’re smitten! Not just that moment when first sampling a breakthrough dish in your career as a chef. But the day you realise that you really are in love with the art of cooking, exploring ingredients and creating new recipes. So it was for Harry Mangat, Chef and owner of Biji Dining, Melbourne’s unique, fine Indian dining restaurant with a modern twist.
As so often in life’s journey, career paths are not always straightforward. In 2005, Harry arrived in Australia from India to begin studying for a career in Accountancy. At the same time he took up work as a “kitchen hand” in ‘The Element’ restaurant, Melbourne. A pivotal moment for Harry.
“I just fell in love with being in the kitchen, and asked my chef if he would train me. He said yes but with one condition – I had to study cookery. That was in 2006, and from then on, I never looked back. Although I did make my dad really mad!”
But Harry had made up his mind, and started formal training at a cookery school in the same year while continuing to work at the restaurant.
“I really enjoyed the interactions, being part of the team”
We all know that a kitchen is very high pressure but for the next five years, Harry thrived in the environment. “At this early stage, being a cook was more like a job that I really enjoyed, particularly, the interactions, being part of the team, the pace, the processes”.
A new chapter – and a new deepening insight – opened up in 2011 when Harry started work at Lamaro’s, South Melbourne, when it operated as an Asian fusion gastro pub. Harry has clear, fond memories of meeting “really passionate chefs who helped me grow, and I started to look at food differently”.
His love and understanding of ingredients and the art of preparation continued when, in 2013, Harry took a new position at Attica Restaurant. “This place was something else, a real eye opener. The care that went into every dish was outstanding. I learned a lot about foraging, growing veggies and sustainability”.
It was also where Harry met Peter Gunn, multi award winning, New Zealand chef and owner of Ides Restaurant, Melbourne. Harry recalls that, “Pete was doing monthly pop-ups called IDES around Melbourne while working as a Sous at Attica”. Harry says he was immediately “inspired to being surrounded by young talented chefs”, and after finishing up at Attica, went on to help out at Gunn’s pop-ups.
“I overcame my fear of creating new dishes and menus”
A year later, Harry began to work full time at the Hare & Grace under Chef, Raymond Capaldi, well-known in Melbourne for his time at the Hotel Sofitel. Harry says he learnt much from Capaldi. “Up until then, I was scared of creating new dishes and menus. Maybe I was scared of failure. But it was here that I overcame that fear and anxiety”.
Harry saw that Ray was always trying new dishes. “Not everything he tried made the cut. Some he’d hate, some he’d continue to work on. He just kept going. My respect for him grew and I learnt to be more confident in creating and accepting when I failed”.
Then in November 2016, Harry started his first Biji Dining pop-up. “I was so nervous yet incredibly excited. And I’ve been pursuing pop-ups and collaborations ever since”. He also has an ambition to take his Biji Dining pop-ups around the world, and continue to “marry Indian inspired dishes with local ingredients” wherever he is cooking.
“I love foraging and it does play a big part in my dishes”
Today, Harry’s passion and dedication to his Indian inspired cooking means he is ever “curious” about regions of India that are less well known.
“Indigenous ingredients are something I’ve focused on for the past few years, and playing with Indian flavours and spices. I believe in seasonality, using produce when it’s at it’s best. While working in Mornington Peninsula, I created good relationships with local producers so I design my menu around what’s available to me. I love foraging and it does play a big part in my dishes”.
Ensures that his kitchen environment is ‘positive and supportive’
Harry also admits that, “ Long hours and continued pressure of providing high standards can cause a lot of stress, and working for the wrong people”. His advice to chefs is to recognise that, a “constant feeling that you don’t want to go to work, can mean it’s time to change jobs”.
Managing the demands and stress of the kitchen, are always vitally important. Harry ensures that his kitchen environment is ‘positive and supportive’.
“It’s very important for the whole team to get along and that everyone feels like they can ask for help. If I notice someone looking down or thoughtful, it never hurts to ask them if they’re okay”.
Harry firmly believes that chefs should always ‘work smart’. His recipe for ‘managing wellbeing’ is to, “work for people who will look after you. Hospitality is known for its stress and long hours so always work towards a better work life balance.
“We are all in this together and we will survive”
Life away from the pass for Harry is all about “spending a lot of time outdoors, keeping fit and spending time with my wife”. His love of hiking, in particular, sees him and his wife “travel anywhere just to be somewhere far away and quiet”. Every day, Harry takes his dogs for a run or to the beach and will also get involved in “any kind of group sports like basketball and soccer”.
Looking ahead during this time of Covid, Harry believes that things will eventually work out.
“Covid has changed mostly everything about how our industry works. But restaurants have reimagined and relaunched despite these challenges, which is great. We are all in this together and we will survive. Personally I am taking it day by day. As a chef you never get to spend a lot of time with family, so I am doing just that”.