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Nikhil Jain: Deer footprints and dessert burgers

HerCanberra Team

When growing up in India, Nikhil Jain’s mum used to dish up vegetarian ‘rajma’, a popular red kidney bean curry that originated in Kashmir. 

“It was basic, not flamboyant,” says Nikhil. “But it was made with love.”

Back then, Nikhil never imagined in his wildest dreams how food would season the rest of his life, but it has. His mum’s home cooking might not have exactly kick started his culinary journey, but her job working for an airline certainly did.

“We travelled a lot and I was able to taste cuisines from many parts of the world,” says Nikhil. “International cuisine wasn’t popular in India at the time and where I lived there were only a few restaurants. It was amazing to try so many new foods.”

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Nikhil

Nikhil enrolled in a three-year, hotel management degree, studying all the main ingredients that go into hospitality, from housekeeping to accounting to food and beverage. He found his calling—in the kitchen, where he’s been ever since.

After graduating, Nikhil joined Le Meridien in Mumbai as a trainee chef, translating his textbook knowledge into hands-on experience. He quickly learned how to prepare quality stocks and sauces and how to cut, chop and debone at lightning speed.

Nikhil has since worked in some of the best hotels in the world, learning from top European chefs who are very particular and passionate about cooking with precision. He worked at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai (when it won Best Italian Restaurant), at the Grand Hyatt Delhi (when it won Best European Cuisine) and at the Hilton Aviemore, Scotland, where he ran the hotel restaurant on his own.

Next up was Canberra, after Nikhil was told about opportunities here by another chef. He’s now been cooking up a storm in the capital for a decade, still thrilled with the wonderful produce he has access to and the adventure that is modern Australian cuisine.

Today, Nikhil works for the National Convention Centre Canberra. He is Australia’s Chef of the Year, an award he won at the Australian Hotel Association National Awards for Excellence.

Nikhil’s mission is to transform conference food, so it’s anything but predictable and mediocre. He and his 10-member team prepare and plate like they would for a five-star hotel, for small gatherings and for conferences with more than 1,400 guests.

At the National Convention Centre Canberra, which just won its own award for best business event venue at the Canberra Regional Tourism Awards, Nikhil’s kitchen runs as a well-oiled machine. On a busy day, he has up to six lines of staff each plating for 250 guests simultaneously.

The food is anything but boring. How about a ‘Deer Footprints’ menu or a dessert that looks like a burger?

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‘Food is a feast for the eyes,’ says Nikhil. ‘With Deer Footprints we presented venison with “soil” made from bread crumbs and deer sauce. We carefully marked deer footprints in the soil and provided a description of the menu and recipes on a souvenir card for guests.’

Nikhil’s desserts look spectacular and often contain surprise elements. Like the time he and his team created a hamburger dessert. The bun was a sesame macaroon, the patty milk chocolate and the tomato sauce a raspberry jus.

Nikhil only uses certified sustainable fish. They process organic waste, recycle fryer oil, and provide rescued food to OzHarvest. The kitchen has also been recognised five years running by Actsmart for its active recycling program.

The National Convention Centre Canberra sources seasonal and local produce from small and medium-sized businesses and award-winning wineries. “Showcasing what Canberra has to offer is key,” says Stephen Wood, General Manager. “It’s about bringing more businesses to the capital which, in turn, contributes to the local economy.”

So after a super busy day, what does Nikhil eat when relaxing at home? Mostly flavoursome Indian vegetarian dishes, which is what he and his wife love. Basic, not flamboyant.

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