Yogi Rana is a man on a mission. He shows me some of the shots from his upcoming cookbook, and blithely rhymes off the chefs he has worked with before outlining some of the upcoming changes to Bliss, flagship restaurant of the Hilton Toronto Airport Hotel and Suites. With his ambition, ease, and fluidity, I wonder how he could only be 37 years old, as his experience and mannerisms exceed his age. As he continues to talk, I begin to get the sense I am looking at a future Michelin starred chef.
For Yogi, growing up in Delhi gave him a substantive start to his culinary cuisine. He remembers being interested in his mother’s cooking, and how she always made hot, tasty food. “I still remember when she was making a dough for Roti.” he reminisces “I would touch the dough and want to know what it was and what it felt like. Even to this day, when I feel the dough I go back to that memory.” Yogi was selected for a hotel management program out of school, even though his first dream was to be a pilot. “I took up math and science” he explains “but Indian families are very protective of their sons. My father said ‘why do you have to be up in the air! You should just be on the ground!’”. He laughs and continues “my cousin was studying at India’s best college for hospitality, Welcomgroup Manipal, so she said ‘why don’t you come and try it out.’ When I went into my first kitchen class our teacher was chopping, and when I saw his knife skills I thought he was amazing. I asked him to teach me to do it the same way, and from that point on I knew I wanted to work in hotels as a chef.”
After training for 2 years in different kitchens, Yogi was posted to the award-winning Bukhara restaurant in New Delhi, where he served celebrities such as the Clintons. He was then tapped to open the Indian Restaurant Masala. Always spirited, he went up against Michelin-starred restaurants in culinary competitions during his tenure in Dubai, but the lesson of not taking the Gold at that time stuck; “I said ‘I want to learn more’. I don’t want to stick to one cuisine. I need to learn more and more.” This thirst brought him to cross-train at Burj Al Arab, the world’s most luxurious seven star hotel, where he worked hard, absorbing the teachings of world-class chefs like a sponge. “My boss said ‘Yogi, you need to learn how to walk’” he laughs. Yogi’s Hilton journey began when he was hired as Executive Chef at the Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort & Spa outside of Dubai with 16 food and beverage outlets. “It was very busy” Yogi explains, “1500 people for breakfast, 2000 for lunch. I learned Brazilian cuisine, I learned Thai, I learned Japanese, I learned Italian. I feel very proud when I go back there and see what I built.” In a constant journey of self-improvement, Yogi left Dubai at 32 years old for Bangkok to work as a corporate chef handling 250 hotels and over 900 restaurants in Asia, Middle East and Africa. There, he worked with celebrity chefs, including Vikas Khanna, Annabel Karmel, Theo Randall, Ross Lusted, Dean Brettschneider, Ian Kittichai, and Sam Leong. They worked together to develop 30 recipes in the test kitchen before releasing them to the hotels. “After spending 2 years in Thailand I found out that I had a baby on the way” he beams, “and that was the time that we decided to move to Canada.”
For Yogi, the kitchen of Bliss is a food playground. He adjusts the menu twice a year to accommodate a Fall/Winter and Spring / Summer focus, giving him the opportunity to tailor the dishes to a very specific Torontonian palate. “Toronto is such a melting pot of cultures” he explains. “All of the airlines of the world are flying here. I heard loud and clear that we needed to be more International, providing dishes that represent each culture so anyone staying here could find their own comfort food.” Indeed, the menu is diverse, with Canadian, American, Indian, Thai, Korean and Chinese choices available. However, there are a substantial amount of Pasta on the menu. “I love Italian cuisine” he gushes “it’s my favorite. I feel that there’s so much love in the food and fresh ingredients. It’s one cuisine that people won’t prep in advance, and everything is so fresh. I love to cook a pasta anytime. It’s a comfort dish, but it’s a hard dish to do well.”
When I ask what is next for Yogi, he practically glows with excitement. “We now have new Tandoor ovens” he explains “which has changed the way we can service our banquets”. Indian weddings are now a going concern at Hilton Toronto Airport Hotel and Suites, with the ability to create world-class Indian cuisine, hot and fresh, without using outside caterers. “One father of the bride was so excited by the menu and pleased that he came and hugged me afterwards” he says proudly. “He told me that I had stood behind my promises, and gave them the same experience as they would get if they did his daughter’s wedding back in India.” Clearly, the passion for all cuisines is present at Bliss, but Yogi’s words keep coming back to home and his formative experiences with Indian cuisine. “There’s nothing like when a fresh Roti comes out of the stove” he reminisces. “I still love the feel of the steam when I open them.”