Song of Solomon
IAM NOT sure that anyone has noticed, but three of the Taj’s greatest chefs have retired recently. Hemant Oberoi, who looked after the luxury properties and whose many contributions to the group included Wasabi, Varq and the Masala restaurants, moved out nearly two years ago to perform functions outside the kitchen. Eventually, he left the Taj altogether and from what I gather, his restaurant in Singapore is the toast of the town.
Chef ‘Nat’ Natarajan left more quietly – in keeping with his own modest, understated personality. I have known Nat since he was a sous chef in the kitchen of the old Bombay Rendezvous in 1982. He was, as you might expect, a wonder-
The last of the great Taj chefs retires, leaving a legacy of a man whose heart lay in his restaurants
bay find it hard to believe that Ananda Solomon is finally hanging up his toque. He is younger than Oberoi or Natarajan and, for my money, he is unquestionably the greatest chef of his generation, mastering a multiplicity of cuisines with the greatest of ease.
And yet, Solomon did not start out intending to work for the Taj. He became a chef at the old Oberoi Sheraton (today’s Trident), slaving away in the kitchens of the nowextinct Supper Club, turning out Lobster Thermidor and Chicken Kiev for wealthy diners.
He was poached by the Taj and sent off to Goa to work with the great chef, Urbano Rego. It was probably around this time that he made the shift from being what the trade calls a ‘Conti chef ’ to becoming someone who was much more multifaceted.
His big break came about almost by accident. As an experiment, the Taj had tried running a Thai pop-up in the bar at the President Hotel. At first the restaurant met with unprecedented success but then, as the buzz died down, diners stopped turning up.
But Ajit Kerkar, who ran the Taj in those days, was convinced that there was a market for Thai food. So, he persisted with the idea and planned a bigger, grander restaurant at roughly the same location. The Taj had no Thai chefs and Kerkar was reluctant to base the company’s foray into Thai cuisine on expat chefs. So, Solomon, who was young and seemed willing to learn, was dispatched to Bangkok.
At first, he did the normal cheffy things. He attended the Oriental Cooking School and trained in the kitchen of the Shangri-La. But he soon worked out that this was tourist food, meant for foreigners and only distantly related to the food that the locals ate. He asked Kerkar if he could stay on and apprentice at less fancy places.
To his surprise, Kerkar agreed and Solomon stayed on in Bangkok for several months, picking up enough of the