“Chefs are like painters… the tools their paint brushes, the kitchen their canvas! And then you paint…” That’s how celebrity chef Reena Pushkarna, lovingly known as the ‘Curry Queen of Israel’ describes her art and love for cooking.
From restaurants to providing ready-to-eat recipes under the brand name ‘Reena’, to having celebrity cooking show, this stunning, dynamic, ever-smiling chef today is a household name in Israel. After successfully conquering and ruling the Israel food scene for Indian cuisine, she along with her son Kunal Pushkarna entered the Singapore market in late 2011 with a unique restaurant concept called Pita Pan – an all vegetarian Mediterranean affair!
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with her for a relaxed talk at Pita Pan, Marina Bay Sands where she discussed her love for cooking, (passion and excitement evident on her face like a little child), her inspirational journey towards becoming the Curry Queen and her future plans in Asia.
Having successfully introduced and inculcated taste for Indian cuisine in the land of Israelis who are known for their specific food preferences, she admits the journey, of course, wasn’t easy. “More than 20 years ago, my husband (Vinod Pushkarna) and I started an all vegetarian restaurant at Tel Aviv. I looked after cooking, catering to preferences of the guests, designing my kitchen, training my chefs, restaurant décor and so on. But logistics and business I happily left it to him,” she says with a chuckle. “After about a year of struggle with our vegetarian offerings, we decided to introduce non-vegetarian food to the meat loving locals, in form of tandoori recipes… and the hard work seems to have paid off.” She finishes humbly.
And it was hard work indeed, for this stunning chef, hugely adorned for her tasty dishes, has in fact picked up cooking from chefs across the world. But hold on, this wasn’t in any renowned culinary school, but aboard ships! “My husband was a Captain in Indian Merchant Navy. On board the ships, we had a number of chefs from different countries… and I actually picked up culinary skills at the hands of trained chefs from across the world! I could not have asked for better learning atmosphere.” Having said that, she picked up and truly honed her passion toward Indian cuisine closer home… “My mother-in-law is an excellent cook and I truly gained a lot from her!”
So famous is her chain of restaurants in Israel that it is reported that the famous peace talks starring former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were reported to have first started at her restaurant Tandoori at Tel Aviv, Israel.
Gourmet food and personal touch are the hallmarks of all her restaurants and that’s exactly what she brings to Singapore with Pita Pan. “For me food is a way to connect with people. I would never bring about anything into my restaurants that I do not personally enjoy having. I have worked with my chefs here, personally trained them, designed the menu and I love to keep innovating. For me teaching and learning in the kitchen never stops. In fact, before the launch of Pita Pan, I along with my chefs trained with the chef at famous Mediterranean restaurant back in Israel. It was a great experience learning the fine art of making Mediterranean basics like Hummus under a veteran who has done it for 35 long years! So everything we serve here has an authentic touch.”
Just as I was about to ask her about why the Curry Queen, who runs the most famous Tandoor restaurant in Israel decide to go vegetarian when entering Singapore, we were pleasantly interrupted by the arrival of Executive Chef of Marina Bay Sands, Christopher Christie. It is a humongous task to get this chatty, active chef alone for a tete-a-tete for long time-spans. For in-between celebrity chef visits and her visits to the kitchen, she even manages to keep an eye out for her guests. She quickly donned her chef’s avatar and even went behind the counter to serve customers, when she saw the ever-increasing queue during the lunch hour rush.
“I am thankful we are well-received here…” she smiles after returning to the table. Why vegetarian I prompt. “I personally think vegetarian food can offer a lot, especially in Mediterranean cuisine. And we are constantly working at bringing in a unique dining experience. I love to experiment. I always look out for what might suit a particular ingredient. Or can I make something special that might appeal to say, children or people with particular preferences. For example, we recently launched Pita Pizza, which is catching up with children quite a bit! Apart from that, we recently started offering Hummus without garlic, for those who ask for it! I try to bring in unique offering wherever I can. For example, all the condiments we have on offer here, our chutney’s are my own special creations and that’s how we add special touches to traditional food from the middle-east!” (Detailed review of Pita Pan follows this interview in next few days).
Today Pita Pan Outlets are available at 2 locations in Singapore. The first of which opened opposite Arts and Science Museum at Marina Bay Sands. “I wanted something that offered both open air and indoor seating. It offers a casual yet homey atmosphere. For me Pita Pan offers an opportunity to bring about something different after having worked for over two decades around Indian food.”
With inroads in Singapore & recently in Macau (Pita Pan has an outlet in the Venetian), is Pita Pan looking to open outlets elsewhere in Asia. “We definitely want to take this concept to more places… and we are exploring options. Hopefully we will be seen in a few more countries in days to come.”
Apart from food and restaurants, Reena Pushkarna has very hectic social life. She is an active member of various organizations including the Israel Chamber of Commerce, IWC (International Women’s Club), and Executive board member of Indo-Israel Friendship Association. She was also a part Israel Prime Minister Sharon’s Business Delegation to India in 2003. With an active business to run, now across geographies, how does she find time for her social commitments? “If my contributions can create a difference or even a slightest impact, I want to be a part of it!” she says simply, “And for that I will always make time.”
With both her children now settled in Singapore (daughter Sarina and son Kunal), does it seem more like home? “My visits have increased quite a bit. And I love spending time with my grandchildren… so yes given time I can happily claim I have three homes, Israel, Singapore and of course India!”
Talking about Singapore, I couldn’t resist asking her about her favourite local cuisines. “I turned vegetarian a few years ago… so I am always on a look out for vegetarian delights. I have tried the vegetarian Laksa which I enjoyed quite a bit. Apart from that I quite enjoy Thai food offerings here!”
We wish and hope to see this dynamic chef churn out more gourmet & delectable concepts in her culinary journey!
– Interview by Sonal Chinchwadkar