The Rochester Hotel in Fitzroy is no longer the casual bistro it once was. This iconic hotel has undergone a refurbishing and it is where Chef Mischa Tropp is revving up the Indian repertory with lively new flavours. Located on the corner of Johnston and George Street, the Rochey is still the dive in bar but by evening draws diners around tables in an elongated setting that is at once comfortable and with a hint of an old world charm.
Tropp is a busy man. Since having taken over the Rochey last year, he is putting his heart and soul into creating food that reflects his roots. His mother is from the southern Indian state of Kerala, also called God’s own country, and whose food he is trying to replicate. “Overall, I love Indian food. People don’t know that there are so many other elements to Indian food and cooking,” reflects Tropp.
Tropp’s menu does not skimp on luxury or details. He likes quality ingredients and relies on seasonal products too. It includes a series of small plates of snacks such as the Egg Bonda and onion masala fried in a sourdough batter, the Crispy School Prawns with chilli and recheado mayo, or the Baby Corn comprising confit corn, corn custard with puffed amaranth (grain packed with healthy nutrients). These are some of the best varieties to sample the chef’s techniques and attention to detail.
Tropp travels to India frequently and that is how he has remained inspired and retrieved many of his recipes from the experience. For instance, the Egg Bonda captures his memory of a homestay in Wayanad, Kerala, and his experience of cooking breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for one of the ‘best tea stalls’.
“I learnt from the aunties at the homestay but was given the recipes from what is my favourite tea stall in Kerala. It is homey and cannot be modified. This is their recipe. The batter is fermented, I reckon it’s accidentally fermented as they wouldn’t refrigerate and constantly used the mixed through the old battersame, but it’s the best,” he laughs.
Even the bar menu has Indian-influenced snacks. Take the fried chicken which is marinated in Keralan spices, and the Goan pork roll which is another favourite appearing among the other few cliche pub food. Fried chicken and Goan pork roll are stuff cooked in India but not traditionally cooked in a restaurant, explains Tropp, who has been in the business of food from a young age. His Polish-origin father started the Vegie Curry Man, a creation of café style food at popular markets such as Vic Market and St Andrews. Later, Tropp would go on to do pop up restaurants and other events creating a name for himself.
Apart from the snacks, the Rochey has impressive dine-in food. The rest of Tropp’s menu (it is not exhaustive like most Indian restaurants), feature dishes that has the essential Kerala flavour and also Goa, the smallest Indian state on the west coast whose food is greatly influenced by the Portuguese.
The Pork Amsol is a rarity in Indian restaurants around Melbourne but Tropp has managed to nail this simple Goan dish made of pork belly, kokum, green mango, cumin and a hint of vinegar. Contrary to the traditionally hot, spicy vindaloo that is synonymous to Goan food, the Pork Amsol is lesser known. But showcasing what is not familiar and delicious is important to Tropp.
Food changes constantly, some stays on because they are popular, says Tropp. For instance, Fish Nadan, a spicy Kerelan fish curry, is one dish with a popular response. He uses the expensive King fish and the whole dish just stands out. While spiciness is an essential element, it is also about showcasing good quality ingredients.
It has been nearly a year since Tropp took over the kitchen at the Rochey. It has given him the opportunity to reflect on his Indian heritage. “We serve everything traditional with a bit of a modern food too for those who do not recognise Indian taste or those with milder palates,” says Tropp, adding, “Someone who does not understand the food will call it modern. The context plays a lot in understanding the cuisine.”
Interestingly, Tropp, who grew up in the suburbs here, didn’t quite understand his heritage very well earlier. But over the years, he visited India many times and with each visit, he got to learn a bit more. “With every bit more information, I got a bit better. What excites me is learning how to cook a cuisine which is not very well known and working on something beyond the clichés of Butter Chicken or Rogan Josh, Dosa or Idli. There is so much more than these staples.”
Clearly, the effort has proved successful. Tropp’s journey in the world of hospitality is far from over. He wants to constantly learn and push Indian food to introduce new dishes.
His recent travels to West Bengal and Jharkhand are going to be documented in the form of a cookbook with 35 recipes from the villages he visited. One thing he does realise is Indian food is not cheap to make, it is labour intensive and good quality ingredients are required. “It’s the same as any cuisine. Sometimes people don’t necessarily give it the respect it deserves.”
Meanwhile, the Kerala kitchen at the Rochey continues to thrive backed by great hospitality – one of the most old-fashioned of values in the trade that Tropp and his team exude with ease.
By Indira Laisram
202 Johnston St, Fitzroy VIC 3065