In the Kitchen With: Hemant Bhagwani, Pōpa, Toronto

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Hemant Bhagwani

Growing up in India, cooking wasn’t even on the radar for Hemant Bhagwani.

“I was just a regular Delhi boy who wanted to become a cricket player,” says Bhagwani. “I had a girlfriend who wanted to be a chef and I had no idea what I wanted to do. So, we both interviewed for a spot in chef’s school. She failed and I passed and when I said I wanted to go, she dumped me. So, just to show her, I went.”

This drive to do what others tell him he can’t do has pushed him to new heights. “Whenever someone tells me I can’t do something, it makes me want to do it even more. It brings something out in me,” says the 45-year-old chef.

During his years at Alpina School of Hotel Management Parpan Switzerland, Bhagwani went on backpacking trips throughout Europe, working in restaurants to pay his way.

“I’d only bring enough money for a one-way ticket and then work odd jobs in restaurants.”

After graduating in 1993, Bhagwani lived in Australia and Dubai before arriving in Canada in 2000 to pursue his dream of opening a restaurant.

“Indian food wasn’t represented well here [in Canada]. Not that it wasn’t good food, but it was always more buffet style,” says Bhagwani.

He wanted to open a fine-dining Indian experience but the concept wasn’t an easy sell.

“When I opened my first restaurant, nobody wanted to come because nobody knew Indian food could be done at a high level,” Bhagwani says. “Those first few years, I failed and failed but I kept going because I knew this was my opportunity.”

In June of 2007, Bhagwani opened Amaya — later rebranded Indian Street Food Co. — a fast-food restaurant in Toronto. His other achievements include Goa Indian Farm Kitchen, Good Karma, The Fat Beet and Leela Indian Food Bar. In January 2020, he opened Pōpa, where he is owner and executive chef.

“I’m ambitious, I’m not scared of failure anymore,” says Bhagwani. “That’s what keeps me going. I want to expand out my comfort zone and I love being creative with my food — I get bored otherwise.”

This meteoric rise can be attributed to Bhagwani’s self-proclaimed old-school style. His culinary philosophy is a simple one — one he says many people stray away from.

“I try to stay true to the dish. I feel like I can’t represent any cuisine if I haven’t learned it. I’m not an Instagram chef; I’m an old-school guy. I want to get my hands dirty.”

For the next step in his career, Bhagwani sees himself becoming a mentor for the next generation of chefs. But don’t tell him he’s in the twilight of his career just yet.

“People are calling me a veteran and I get a little offended at that; I’m not that old,” he quips. “I want to build people up around me; their success is my success and my success is theirs. It goes both ways.”

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