How Chef Rishim Sachdeva of Tendril Is Leading The Shift Towards Plant-First Menus
Big things are about to happen for Rishim Sachdeva of Tendril. Big things already have. His (mostly) vegan concept executed one of the fastest pivots in the business during lockdown, morphing from pop-up to subscription meal delivery service in the space of a week; his run at the Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho ran for a storming 39 weeks; and he’s now exceeded his crowdfunding target for Tendril by over 50 percent.
As he stands poised to evolve the restaurant and broaden the appeal of plant-based dining to greater heights, Sachdeva speaks to us from his current residency in Mayfair about his ambitions for Tendril.
The stars have aligned for Tendril
It feels like Tendril was meant to be. Having cooked since childhood, Delhi-born Sachdeva came to the UK as a wide-eyed 17-year-old. After studying hospitality at Oxford Brookes, he went on to work at the three Michelin star Fat Duck, where he learned precision; at The Dairy with Robin Gill who taught him “how to get the best out of each and every single ingredient”; and with Nuno Mendes at Chiltern Firehouse where consistency was king. “The first plate was exactly the same as the last plate.”
“I started early. My brain was so curious. I wanted to see how this works and that works. I kind of understood that I wasn’t running out of time, that I had a good 10 or 15 years to explore and find the style I’m most comfortable with.”
He found it in 2019 when, still a committed carnivore, he casually did Veganuary to challenge himself. It changed everything. He started Tendril as a pop-up later that year, securing a residency at the Sun and 13 Cantons, unofficial incubator to some of the most compelling openings of recent years (Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express and Mandy Yin’s Sambal Shiok among them).
The celebs have taken to it, too. Emily in Paris’s Lily Collins, Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams, Indian power couple actress Anushka Sharma and cricketer Virat Kohli and half the Indian cricket team have all been in. Sachdeva poses for selfies, softly spoken, quietly confident, and totally at ease. Here is someone who has found his calling.
Tendril’s produce-driven cuisine looks beyond borders
Tendril is not “a one man show”. The entire kitchen team is involved with dish development so their ideas and experience feed into the menu too. “The menu’s not restricted by one unified palate, one version of good food.” Sachdeva learned from Robin Gill that ingredients are never “stuck in a box” according to some kind of fictive fine-dining rulebook. “It’s literally your palate that defines what goes on the menu.”
Sachdeva was whipping up full meals by the age of 12 but has never trained in an Indian kitchen (though he was executive chef at Mumbai hot spot Olive Bar & Kitchen for four years). His training, beginning at Marco Pierre White’s Oak Room, was “hardcore French” and remains very produce driven. It’s his training, not his nationality, that defines his style. “I understand that people assume an Indian chef would cook Indian food but I don’t think I’m in a position to charge people for my Indian cooking to be super honest about it,” he laughs. “I can’t compete with other Indian chefs who’ve trained in Indian cuisine, let’s put it that way.”
Naturally, there are influences from his upbringing and his travels. Moilee sauce with tamarind vinegar and coconut from the south of India is one he particularly likes; that’s on right now with cauliflower and the most delicious black rice. It’s joined by blue corn tostadas with muhammara, ratatouille with quinoa tabouleh, and sun-dried tomato arancini. The vegan canon is broad.
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Sachdeva’s crispy celeriac terrine is a modern vegan classic
Overheard at Tendril, one very happy, near tearful, customer: “This reminds me of how we used to eat before we were vegans!” That’s exactly the point. The food at Tendril is fresh, seasonal, and light, but at times unapologetically technical. The signature crispy celeriac terrine is an instant classic; chefs could riff off of it forever. “It’s a take on what typical French cuisine would look like, just eliminating the meat and focusing on the vegetables,” says Sachdeva.
The terrine possesses all the rich comfort of the ‘boulangère’ style, with the punch of celeriac in its raw form in the rémoulade on top. Nigella seeds are an inspired addition. Speaking of French cuisine, does Sachdeva not miss cheese? Mais oui. The ‘mostly’ part of ‘mostly vegan’ allows him the occasional lapse for the likes of baked brie with truffled mascarpone and honey that graces the menu. A dish that’s been on “longer than expected – people keeping coming back for it” is chipotle mushroom with BBQ kale, crispy potato, and gremolata. The texture of the mushrooms, confit and grilled, is so meaty, they’ve been mistaken for meat more than once. As for the mushroom chipotle sauce, it’s three days in the making.
The development of new vegan dishes can be intensive and protracted, hence the ‘aseasonality’ of some vegan menus. Sachdeva’s dishes are strikingly seasonal. Achieving that isn’t always easy. “Chicken’s around all year so the challenge is getting it from the best farm. For us, we’ll have a dish we really like but the ingredients are only around for let’s say three weeks, so we have to come up with a completely new dish. That excites me a lot.” He took the decision early on not to serve fake meat, even though a lot of guests ask for it. “I strongly feel it’s not solving the problem.”
Sachdeva took the decision early on not to serve fake meat, even though a lot of guests ask for it. ‘I strongly feel it’s not solving the problem.’
The vegan scene has evolved even in the three years since Tendril started
Sachdeva, an avid restaurant-goer, was frustrated by the vegan restaurant scene he found in 2019 when junk food and comfort food reigned supreme. The vegan market has evolved – “oh my God, a lot, a lot!” – even in the three years since, but he sees a gap in the market for vegan and flexitarian diners want to dine meat-free but don’t want to lower their standards. Tendril’s Discovery menu is £36, comparable with non-vegan restaurants. “How do I justify that when they’re offering a great piece of meat and I’m only offering a cauliflower? That needs to come through creative ideas and having the right offering around it.”
He’s clearly getting it right. Tendril’s crowdfunding campaign has exceeded its £150,000 goal by nearly £80,000, and its first permanent site is set to be announced any day. A second site is slated for 2024. Sachdeva believes Tendril could sprout five offshoots in seven years – we wouldn’t put anything past his capable hands.
Focusing on vegetable cookery has changed Sachdeva.
“I’d been cooking for the longest time. You try and be creative but it does become repetitive.” Choosing to cook ‘plant-first’ – his preferred term – was a creative awakening. “Cooking meat is very technical but you kind of know what to put on the plate; you just work backwards with it. You cook the meat perfectly and that’s 80 percent of the work done, then you build around it. Whereas cooking vegetables, every single thing plays an equal part; the leek is as important as the mushroom. Everything should sing together. You really need to put the thought behind making a vegetable shine for people (a) to pay for it and (b) to order it again.”
After his Veganuary eureka, the challenge for Sachdeva was to find a place of work that would match his ethics but not be a step back career-wise. The solution was to go it alone. “I wanted to build a restaurant where we would be able to attract a team in the same boat as me who’d worked in really good places.”
Not only has the experience changed him as a chef, but it has also changed him as a person. “I’ve become very much more conscious professionally and personally in what I do. It’s not just making money and living a happy life; it’s more about what sort of legacy I’m leaving behind. I want to be part of the shift.”
Tendril’s Mayfair residency has been extended until end of January 2023. Make a reservation here, and keep abreast of updates here.
Hilary Armstrong is a London-based journalist and editor. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.