Avinash Shashidhara

Avinash Shashidhara

After leaving India to perfect his cooking in the UK, Avinash Shashidhara worked his way through restaurants including The River Cafe before opening Pahli Hill Bandra Bhai, where he serves ingredient-led Indian dishes inspired by traditional recipes.

Being a chef is as much about gaining experience in restaurants and developing your skills as it is discovering what sort of food you really want to cook. Some will figure this out almost as soon as they set foot in a kitchen; for others it’s a little more of a journey. Avinash (Avi) Shashidhara had always cooked Indian food at home but it wasn’t until he’d spent close to fifteen years working in some of the best European restaurants in the UK that he decided he wanted to cook Indian food professionally.

Growing up in the southern Indian city of Bangalore in the early 1980s, Avi was surrounded by food from a very young age. ‘As a kid I was taken to markets pretty much every evening,’ he explains. ‘It was almost like a daily ritual to get us out of the house.’ Brought up as vegetarian, he was also aware of the importance of seasonality from very early on in his life and would get to see where the ingredients his family cooked with came from. ‘My grandfather used to have his own farms and was really into his fruit and vegetables,’ says Avi. ‘I remember having grapes straight from the vines and there being beautiful green figs and even coffee plants growing in the garden. At the time I thought it was quite normal but that sort of thing doesn’t happen as much anymore.’

Given that food was such a big part of Avi’s upbringing, it’s unsurprising that he ultimately decided it was something he wanted to pursue. After doing two years of A-levels, he accepted a place at Christ University to study hotel management. In fact, it was during a six-month internship at The Oberoi Hotel Group as part of his course that he began to learn the basics of French cookery and branch out from the vegetarian food he cooked at home (‘up until then I’d only ever eaten meat or fish when I’d go to my Christian or Muslim friends’ homes’). Avi finished this internship certain that he wanted to work in kitchens rather than any other department of a hotel.

‘In India, all the big restaurants are in hotels so at that point I just knew I wanted to join a good hotel group where I could develop my skills,’ he explains. ‘Eventually I managed to get a position at The Park which was India’s first boutique hotel and designed by Conran.’ Here Avi cooked dishes which had been designed by Italian chef Antonio Carluccio, who would visit the restaurant twice a year to train the chefs. The two years he spent there hugely expanded the young chef’s repertoire of European dishes. ‘It completely opened up my mind and palate,’ says Avi. ‘The flavour of pork for example was just something I’d never tasted before because it’s not commonly consumed in India.’

Meanwhile, over in the UK, a chef shortage meant some of the best restaurants around were looking to cast their net further afield. Avi was approached by someone who was headhunting chefs and in no time at all had been offered a position at Claude Bosi’s two-Michelin-starred Hibiscus, which at the time was located in the tiny English village of Ludlow – a daunting opportunity but one which he leapt at. ‘The initial stages were pretty crazy,’ laughs Avi. ‘I went from being in India cooking normal food to suddenly being at Hibiscus doing molecular gastronomy. It was also a massive culture shock moving to the UK aged twenty-two; I was away from my family and had no one to socialise with, but I knew it was for my career and that it was an opportunity I couldn’t have refused.’ Joining the pastry section at Hibiscus, he tirelessly worked sixteen-hour days for six months, gaining a deeper understanding of life in a Michelin-starred kitchen – but ultimately decided to leave. ‘I just couldn’t handle the pressure,’ he explains. ‘I literally walked out one day, packed my bags and got the first train to London.’

After spending a month sleeping on people’s sofas, Avi got a job at The Old Bridge Hotel in Huntingdon working alongside master of wine John Hoskins, where he spent two years before making a career-defining move to The River Cafe. ‘I was just doing a stage there initially,’ explains Avi. ‘But at the end of my first day Rose Gray (co-founder of The River Café) sat me down and offered me a job – she’d been to India before and loved the food. To be honest, she is one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met. I waited another year before leaving The Bridge and then I got a call saying The River Cafe had burnt down and I didn’t have a job!’ The team looked after Avi, however, sending him temporarily to work with chefs including Skye Gyngell at Petersham Nurseries, before rejoining them to reopen the Michelin-starred restaurant.

Not many chefs can say they’ve worked at one of London’s most famous restaurants for over a decade but Avi spent almost eleven years at The River Cafe. During this time he worked tirelessly on developing his skills and learning about the industry, which would prove important down the line when running his own kitchen for the first time. ‘It was probably the best culinary experience I could have ever had,’ he says. ‘You’d move sections every day and be taught how to do things from scratch properly. They’d even take us to Tuscany every year to do tastings, which made me realise how similar Indian and Italian cultures are in terms of seasonality and eating from the land.’

In 2018, after ten years spent cooking in the same kitchen Avi decided it was time for a change. ‘When I left The River Cafe, I was so sad,’ he explains. ‘It felt like leaving India for the first time all over again. But it was time to move on and I knew I wanted to do something with Indian food. I’d always cooked it at home for my friends and family but I wanted to change that perception of Indian curry houses being about cheap cuts, greasy food and extreme spice.’ Having done various pop-ups across Europe as well as in Delhi, he decided to start asking his family members in India to share their recipes, which would be at the core of his own menu.

Joining forces with a friend who he worked with while doing his pop-ups, in 2020 Avi launched Pahli Hill Bandra Bhai in London’s Fitzrovia, where as head chef he cooks seasonal, produce-led dishes which blend ultra-traditional family recipes with high quality British ingredients. ‘I want this to be somewhere where people can come and enjoy some real Indian food,’ he explains. ‘We’re trying to bring it back to what it should be. There are of course some popular dishes at Pahli Hill Bandra Bhai like chicken tikka and a fish curry but equally there are some interesting homestyle dishes made using local ingredients.’

Over the course of his ten years at The River Cafe, Avi learnt that regardless of the cuisine you’re cooking, quality of produce and taste are two of the most important things when running a successful restaurant. This absolutely shines through in the menu at Pahli Hill Bandra Bhai.