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From home kitchen to Michelin star: Justindia’s Justin Paul shares his culinary journey

After 16 years at the Venetian Macao’s Michelin-starred Golden Peacock, the Indian chef decided it was time to start his own restaurant

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UPDATED: 05 Jul 2024, 4:38 pm

Kerala-born Justin Paul has worked his way from culinary school to prepping mouthwatering Indian delights for celebrities like Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan and football legend David Beckham. He also earned a Michelin star for the Venetian Macao’s Golden Peacock, making it the only Indian restaurant to have that distinction in Asia – and one of only a handful to have it in the world.

After the Golden Peacock closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, the 47-year-old Paul opened his own restaurant in 2023. Called M&M Hut, and located at 59 Rua de Bruxelas in NAPE, the modest establishment aimed to help Macao locals understand and appreciate various Indian dishes at “reasonable prices with good quality and quantity.” Before long, however, Paul could see that the market was ready for something more sophisticated. After an upscale revamp, Justin Paul’s restaurant became Justindia, a 20-seat restaurant featuring many of his signature dishes from the Golden Peacock. 

For Paul, it was a journey that began in the kitchen of his politician father (and gifted amateur chef) Paulose Thakkolkaran. The youngest of four siblings, Paul tells Macao News he “started by helping my father peel onions and garlic,” then “Slowly we moved up to making different dishes and sauces.” 

[See more: Four new Indian restaurants in Macao to keep on your radar]

His first big test in the kitchen was in 1991, during a relative’s birthday. His father planned to get professional catering for the expected 40 to 50 guests, until his mother intervened and said “We can do it ourselves.” Paul and his siblings worked with their parents all day, preparing multiple dishes – including his father’s famous mango fish curry. “It was his special,” Paul says.

Paul joined Goa's Leela hotel in 1997 and worked there for six years before moving to Hong Kong
Paul joined Goa’s Leela hotel in 1997 and worked there for six years before moving to Hong Kong – Photo courtesy of Justin Paul

At 18, he joined the Asan Memorial Senior Secondary School in Chennai, where he studied hotel management. As part of the three-year diploma course, he trained at the Leela Mumbai Hotel for six months and continued for a few more months after graduating in 1997. He transferred to the hotel’s branch in Goa a year later and worked there for six years. Then came an opportunity to move to Hong Kong in 2003.

How Chef Justin Paul came to cook for David Beckham

David Beckham was a fan of Paul's Indian dishes when the chef worked at the Venetian's Golden Peacock
David Beckham was a fan of Paul’s Indian dishes when the chef worked at the Venetian’s Golden Peacock – Photo courtesy of Justin Paul

With the help of a friend, Paul took a position at Jashan, a popular Indian restaurant on Hollywood Road in downtown Hong Kong. He worked at the restaurant for a year, followed by stints at the Hyatt Regency and Indian fine dining restaurant Veda until 2007. 

Paul then joined Venetian Macao – which was opening at the time – and took charge of the Indian kitchen and the menu of every Indian event hosted at the property. The first big one was the International Indian Film Academy Awards in 2009. 

“It was one of the most memorable and challenging experiences in my career,” Paul says. “There was a week before the event where I barely slept.” Paul was in charge of creating the breakfast, lunch and dinner menu for the event and was thrilled to see the participation of many big Indian corporations like Titan and Tata. The highlight? Getting the opportunity to serve Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan. 

“I made all of his favourite dishes that his team told me: bhindi ki bhujia (an okra dish), dal tadka and paneer butter masala. When I met him during the awards, he said it was one of the best meals he’s had,” recalls Paul with a smile. 

[See more: Discover 5 of Macao’s best vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants]

Being a football fan, Paul was starstruck when given the opportunity to cook for David Beckham – football legend and Indian food lover – and has done so on multiple occasions. “Mr Beckham never asked for a specific dish. He always said, ‘Justin, you can cook me anything,’” Paul says. He also tells Macao News that he noted down every dish cooked for the sporting icon, to avoid repetition. 

Paul eventually came to manage 15 Indian chefs. In addition to handling Indian events across Sands China, Paul was appointed head chef of the now-closed Indian restaurant Golden Peacock at the Venetian Macao in 2013. It was there that his artistry really shone, winning him the coveted accolade from Michelin.

Paul pictured with 21-Michelin-star chef Alain Ducasse when Paul received a Michelin star for Golden Peacock in 2013
Paul pictured with 21-Michelin-star chef Alain Ducasse when Paul received a Michelin star for Golden Peacock in 2013 – Photo courtesy of Justin Paul

Paul said he was in tears when he received the news. Michelin reviewers are anonymous, but Paul remembers a group of low-key yet knowledgeable customers visiting the establishment three times and always asking for the chef. He showed them the kitchen, his staff and various spices, unaware of the group’s identity. 

“I never thought I could get it,” he says. “My only focus was to make Golden Peacock one of the best Indian restaurants in Macao, Hong Kong and China,” Paul says. And he did.

A new venture

Paul hamming it up for the camera with a display of some of the Indian spices used at Justindia
Paul hamming it up for the camera with a display of some of the Indian spices used at Justindia – Photo by MACAUEAT Kitchen & Studio

Paul says that he would not have left the Venetian “if not for the Covid-19 pandemic, but  “because of uncertainty, I decided it was a good time to explore new options for the future.”

In 2023, Paul launched his own company, JP Hospitality, that imported spices and other ingredients from India as well as recruiting staff for Indian restaurants. Then he opened M&M Hut and had some success with it (the Nilgiri chicken korma sold “at least 50 to 70 portions per day,” says Paul). But ultimately, he decided to try and replicate the kind of Indian fine-dining dishes with which he wowed diners at the Golden Peacock. Justindia was born, complete with a Mughal-style façade, plush interior and a bartender who formerly worked at the five-star Four Seasons Mumbai.

Paintings representing different parts of India painted by Paul’s school friend Suku Bhaskar
Paintings representing different parts of India painted by Paul’s school friend Suku Bhaskar – Photo by MACAUEAT Kitchen & Studio

The restaurant showcases five paintings made by Paul’s school friend, Suku Bhasker, who came to Macao to create the artworks. The paintings showcase different regions in India: Goa, Lucknow, Kolkata, Kerala and Rajasthan. They also represent the region’s dishes served at the restaurant. 

[See more: Indian grocery stores in Macao: 5 must-visit shops to spice up your life]

Justindia is known for its spectacular degustation menus of 7 and 11 dishes respectively, but also offers an a la carte menu and a range of Indian-style tapas. Tip: In pride of place on the menu is kandari murgh tikka – chicken covered in a baby beetroot sauce and pomegranate, and one of the star dishes at Golden Peacock. 

Kandari murgh tikka, a popular dish at Golden Peacock, is now available at Justindia
Kandari murgh tikka, a popular dish at Golden Peacock, is now available at Justindia – Photo by MACAUEAT Kitchen & Studio

Paul’s father’s mango fish curry isn’t on the menu (at least not yet) but additions are in the works, including puttu. It’s a Keralan rice roll normally served with chickpeas. Paul plans to give it a creative twist by adding wagyu beef. 

The philosophy is simple: quality ingredients and superlative cooking. “My goal is the same as it was when I first started at Golden Peacock,” Paul tells Macao News. “To make Justindia into one of the best Indian Restaurants in Macao, Hong Kong and mainland China.”

UPDATED: 05 Jul 2024, 4:38 pm

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