Chet Sharma on his debut restaurant Bibi

Chet Sharma on his debut restaurant Bibi

by Henry Coldstream 28 May 2021

Having spent over a decade helping to develop menus for the UK’s most prestigious chefs, Chet Sharma has finally announced his first restaurant. The chef talks to Henry Coldstream about what to expect at Bibi, in London, and why now is the time to open a place of his own.

Henry is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Henry is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

‘Up until now I’ve always been the guy behind the guy.’ For the past four years, Chet Sharma – a chef who started his career whilst completing a PhD in physics from the University of Oxford – has been working as the development chef for London restaurant giants JKS. Prior to that he worked alongside prestigious chefs including Simon Rogan and Mark Birchall, helping them launch their multi-Michelin-starred restaurants and develop their menus. Now, however, it’s his turn. ‘It feels amazing because this time I’m not held to anyone else’s vision – it’s entirely my own.’

His debut restaurant Bibi has been in the works for a while now, as Chet explains. ‘In all honesty it's something I've been thinking about for the last fifteen years, but it’s been much closer to happening since I joined JKS four or five years ago. The ambition was always to have my own place.’ As with everything since March 2020, Covid intervened, pushing the opening back by over a year. However, with a swanky Mayfair site now ready to go and restaurants once again open, Bibi is set to launch later this summer.

Despite spending years working in fine dining restaurants where the focus was on modern British and French cuisine, Chet is moving away from this style with his own restaurant and going back to his Indian roots. Entering a marketplace as crowded as the London Indian restaurant scene is a brave decision, but the chef has his reasons. ‘I think London has, over the past five years or so, become the best food city in the world, and has the most developed Indian food scene outside of India,’ he says. ‘Many of the restaurants in the city aren't tied down to one region of India specifically — Gymkhana, for example, roughly translates to Northern styles, Trishna looks to the West Coast, and then Sri Lankan places like Paradise and Kolamba have come along too. Now that we have this great base level understanding of Indian food, I think it’s time to do something a bit more progressive and dynamic in style.’

The food at Bibi is set to be ultra-contemporary but what’s important for Chet is that traditional Indian flavours remain at the soul of the restaurant’s offering (‘I hate this idea of authenticity, but we do want to remain true to the 'authentic' flavour profiles of India’). This is illustrated by the name of the restaurant, an Urdu word literally meaning ‘lady of the house’, which was used as an endearing term for grandmother in the part of India where the chef grew up. Chet credits his two grandmothers as being the women who taught him both how to cook and to respect produce, and he wants to pay homage to them with this restaurant.

‘Our food doesn’t necessarily look Indian on the plate,’ he says. ‘It’s modern and progressive, but if an Indian grandmother walked into the dining room and tasted a dish, she would still understand its roots, whether that be the story behind it, the provenance of the spices, or the flavours themselves. That’s always been a really important thing for me with this restaurant.’ He gives the example of his take on nimbu pani, India's own lemonade; the flavours of the classic drink reminded Chet of ceviches, so he decided to create a raw scallop dish which comes dressed with nimbu pani: ‘Sure there’s an emulsion and a fluid gel on there, but going back to the idea of an Indian grandmother, they would still definitely recognise it as nimbu pani. That’s the key.’

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Bibi’s menu will consist of a number of small plates designed to be shared (‘You’re looking at around nine to twelve dishes per table’), the majority of which will be cooked on a sigri — a traditional northern Indian clay stove. Diners can also expect some unusual takes on classic Indian chaat. ‘In Hindi chaat means ‘to lick’ — the idea being that these dishes are so delicious, you lick the bowl afterwards,’ explains Chet. ‘We’re taking our own approach to what we think of as chaat. There’s going to be some raw seafood dishes, for example, and a few other things which are a bit less conventional but will still satisfy that craving.’ It sounds like the structure of the menu isn’t set in stone however, and could change down the line, with Chet admitting that he’s still toying with the idea of a tasting or set menu if that would ultimately better represent the story of his food.

One thing that the chef certainly shies away from is the idea of there being any ‘signature dishes’ on the menu at Bibi, which will change almost daily. This is due to a real focus being placed on the importance of seasonality — something which has been drummed into him throughout his career. He recalls a time when he worked for Giorgio Locatell; the legendary Italian chef came into the kitchen one day, saw the tomatoes that had been delivered and threw them all away, exclaiming ‘these are crap!’. In the same vein, Chet’s ethos is to start with top quality produce and work backwards from there. ‘Taking something that's not at the peak of its power and trying to manipulate it to make it delicious means it’s never going to be as good as it could be, and that means you shouldn’t be selling it. That’s why we’re writing the menus daily at Bibi. I don't think there is a dish that will be on the menu all year round.’

Sustainability also has a large part to play when it comes to the provenance of ingredients used at the restaurant. Bibi will champion British produce wherever possible, particularly when it comes to seafood: ‘We’re spoilt that the UK probably has the best seafood in the world now,' he says. 'One of the things I really pride myself on is the fact that for every piece of seafood we serve, we should be able to name the boat and the fisherman who caught it.’ Other ingredients have been carefully sourced from India, and the restaurant has even put blockchain traceability in place so that everything right down to individual kidney beans can be traced back to a specific farm.

While Chet has spent years designing menus and actually putting food on plates, this project is the first time he’s been more involved in the actual design of the space, taking it from a blank slate to the vision in his head. ‘At the moment, setting the tone is maybe even a bigger part of the restaurant than the food itself,’ he says. ‘I’m probably cooking less now than I ever have because I’m out choosing the tiles for the bathrooms, the ironmongery and all the fittings.’

The restaurant itself will be a relatively intimate affair with space for thirty covers inside, thirteen of which will be on a kitchen counter. It will also benefit from a partially covered area with room for another twenty covers.

Having waited a long time to find the perfect site for Bibi, JKS and Chet eventually landed on the site on North Audley Street, which he describes as being ‘in the younger and more accessible part of Mayfair'. But will the restaurant be trying to fit in with the surrounding area’s upmarket stereotype? ‘There are definitely some standards that need to be in place given the location,’ he says. ‘But we don’t have any intentions to become the next Alain Ducasse or anything like that. It's not a super formal dining room — we'll be playing R&B and hip hop on the speakers — and it’s the kind of place I would want to eat at on my days off.’

There’s a sense that with the opening of Bibi, Chet is trying to move away from the fine dining style of restaurants he was once associated with. More than ever there is now a demand for restaurants which are still high-end but more accessible, and that’s exactly where Bibi is trying to place itself. ‘What I want to build is somewhere you can come in on a Monday lunchtime and have a couple of bites and then come back again for dinner on the Thursday for a full meal. It needs to be a more fluid space. That’s how people want to dine.’

It’s been a long road getting Bibi off the ground for Chet, particularly given everything that the last year has thrown at the industry. There are still a few more hurdles that need jumping pre-opening, with recruiting a full team at the top of the chef’s list of priorities. However, if the calmness and intelligence with which he speaks about the restaurant (or his ‘little grain of sand in the Sahara’, as he refers to it) is anything to go by, Bibi is set to be one of London’s most exciting new openings this year.

Bibi will open in summer 2021. bibirestaurants.com