He got to work as head chef at the General Tarleton, Ferrensby, on 8 June, and has big dreams for the gastropub. In the space of a month, he's already gone about raising standards and enforcing discipline, all while championing the flavours of Yorkshire.
When Khanna applied for the role, it seemed “meant to be”. He was drawn to the pub for its brilliant front of house team the exciting opportunity to start from scratch: “It’s nice to be able to change whatever I fancied – there were no limitations because it was a fresh start.”
He also liked the idea of building something from the ground up. He says: “Whatever we achieved was because of us rather than from what somebody else has done. Being able to build something myself drew me in.”
Silviu Hasna, General Manager at the General Tarleton, is “thrilled” to welcome Khanna to the venue. He says: “His desire to serve exciting food of the highest quality matches the General Tarleton ethos perfectly."
And what is this ethos? Hasna says the gastropub recognises customers expect the very best food and wine but not necessarily in a stiff and starchy environment. "The General Tarleton combines all the best elements of your local pub with an exquisite food offering," he explains.
Khanna adds: “We want to be proud of where we are." Originally from West Yorkshire, the chef values using suppliers from the local area – suppliers he has a long-term relationship with and has even used in his younger days working in kitchens.
Every dish on the tasting menu includes an element of North Yorkshire: the tomatoes in the scallop dish’s garnish are grown in Yorkshire, as is the cauliflower.
Flavour trumps quantity for the chef. The cod dish, currently on the a la carte menu, is testament to this. It’s a nod to Khanna’s Indian roots – with the grandparents on his dad’s side hailing from Delhi.
Lentil puree and langoustine bisque are curried, then topped with cucumber ketchup and a langoustine tail. Fresh langoustine shells are roasted in a pan with salted butter until you can start smelling the langoustine itself. Then, dashi is added to create more depth to the sauce. Then goes in the coconut milk and curry powder.
“It’s about using ingredients the right way and not having too many elements,” Khanna explains. Every dish has five or six elements on it at max.
“The food speaks for itself,” he adds. “There’s little manipulation in what we’re doing, and we try push the ingredients forward rather than having to mess around with it too much.” The braised lamb main course was adapted just last week. The meat is cooked in spices for 12 hours, and now, it’s stuffed in a cabbage leaf, creating a multi-textured plate.
Before joining the General Tarleton, Khanna worked at the two-starred Michelin restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham, and previously at one Michelin star site the Pipe and Glass in Beverley. The kitchens of these establishments include arrays of state-of-the-art equipment. Moving to a gastropub was an adjustment the chef sees as going “back to basics”. But, he adds, “a kitchen’s a kitchen to me”.
Transitioning upwards into the head chef role has also brought about a change of perspective. Rather than look at a head chef for inspiration as he would in his younger days, it’s now himself he’s looking at, and thinking, 'what can I do better? What can we do better?' He’s constantly striving to make the menu the best it can be.
Khanna wants to stamp the General Tarleton on the food fanatic’s map. The lamb main is currently the most popular dish. It's comprised of braised lamb shoulder, lamb leg, lamb fat mayonnaise, lamb fat crumb, wild garlic, and mint puree – which cuts through the dish’s richness. Chantenay carrots are cooked in their own juices to enhance their sweetness and add a layer of flavour.
He’s a big fan of barbecuing, with the gastropub’s sharing dish Côte de Boeuf cooked over coals along with a fillet steak for extra flavour.
In terms of ingredients, he loves mushrooms, especially being able to forage your own. His current menu features morels stuffed with truffle chicken mousse that are steamed for eight minutes then glazed in the pan to order. There’s the earthiness of the mushroom, then you cut into it and have the smooth mousse inside, he marvels.
He’s also particularly proud of a pre-dessert dish, Thai curry ice cream. It is what its name suggests – all the flavours of a Thai curry infused into an ice cream in a “nice cross between savoury and sweet”. It’s infused with lemongrass, coriander and chilli, and coupled with fennel meringue with blood orange and basil. “You aren’t going to get it anywhere else,” says the chef. “We’ve got it to be absolutely spot on.”
He also loves cooking with fish, from scallop and turbot, to halibut, sea bass and tuna. “There’s so many different things you can do with fish that you can’t do with meat,” he says: poach it, steam it grill it, fry it, for instance, and some fish, like monkfish, can even be barbecued or deep fried.
But becoming a stand-out gastropub is about more than just food. Khanna had been tasked with the tricky challenge of upping his team’s work ethic and setting high standards. “When people are not used to that, it’s difficult to try and change that,” he says.
He’d rather customers waited a few minutes and kitchen staff created the best dish possible rather than cleared the checks. “Serve like you’re serving it to mum and dad,” he adds. “You want to impress them. Every single thing has got to be the best you can do.”
Working at Michelin heights means high standards are ingrained in the chef. “I’m not saying we’re going to reach that level, but you’ve got to work to that level to achieve,” he states. “[It doesn’t] happen if you let things go a little bit.”
But he makes clear this isn’t a problem, but a challenge. “My aim is to get this to be one of the best places to eat in Yorkshire,” he pledges. And the team had, mostly, reacted well, with everyone wanting to work in a place with a good reputation.
Khanna sings the gastropub’s praises: “It’s one of the best restaurants you’ll walk in to,” he says. “It’s cosy, it’s not stiff, it’s perfect”. he also admits, however, that the business has got a long way to go. But that takes time, and he thinks it’s in its way there.
Slow but steady
While the pub excels at customer service, which the chef commends as some of the best he’s ever seen, he wouldn’t say it's excelling at food, necessarily.
The food is very good, he adds, but there’s always further you can push it. “You’re not excelling until you get put in the Michelin Guide,” he says. While he’d never chase accolades, he sees them as a nice way to judge where you’re at.
Hasna adds: “Last year we were awarded an AA Rosette for Culinary Excellence and with Varun’s cooking skill we are looking forward to reaching new highs very soon.”
“Serve like you’re serving it to mum and dad. You want to impress them. Every single thing has got to be the best you can do.”
The media is obsessed with portraying high-end hospitality as chaotic, draining, and soul-crushing (see: Boiling Point, The Bear). But has this been Khanna’s experience? “It can be like that,” he admits. But he reasons that guests are spending an awful lot of money to dine at these places, and sometimes you needed a “kick up the a** to get your brain going”.
However, he also thinks the industry has changed for the better, with more time off and decent meals for chefs – at Sat Bains he worked a four-day week.
Khanna’s career has been star-studded, and he has some words of wisdom for young chefs hoping to follow in his footsteps. “Be like a sponge,” he says. “Absorb every bit of information you get. You can learn from everybody, no matter who they are.”
He continues: “You want to work in place that has fresh food, and you want to focus on quality food rather than the money. The money will come later down the line. It’s about the graft.”
Work hard, put yourself out there, and speak to the chef, he advises. “Also, don’t jump around too much – try and do at least a year everywhere you go, if not longer. There’s no rush. Just enjoy it.”